The Poisoned Arrow: A Buddhist Story about Living in the Present

· December 29, 2017

One of Buddha’s most celebrated quotes goes like this: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” In this day and age, it seems appropriate to emphasize this prfound aspect of Buddhism with the story of the poisoned arrow…

The Poisoned Arrow, a Buddhist Story

There is a series of texts collected in the Pali Canon that are attributed to Buddha and are known as the Majjhima Nikaya. It contains many stories including this one about the poisoned arrow.

Apparently, Buddha told it to one of his most impatient students. The young man was anxious to get answers to his questions about life after death.

Young boys with their Buddhist teacher

So Buddha told him how there was once a man that’d been wounded by a poisoned arrow. And when his family wanted to find a doctor to help him, the man said no.

The mortally wounded man said that before any doctor tried to help him, he wanted to know who had attacked him. What was his caste and where was he from?

He also wanted to know this other man’s height, strength, skin tone, the kind of bow he used, and whether its string was made of hemp, silk, or bamboo.

So, as he wondered if the arrow’s feathers came from a vulture, peacock, or falcon, and whether the bow was common, curved, or made of oleander, he ended up dying before getting an answer to any of his questions. 


What is the Story of the Poisoned Arrow Trying to Tell Us?

This attitude from a man on his deathbed sounds pretty absurd, right? But, bringing this scenario to other situations in life, aren’t there times when we act like the wounded warrior, too? 

It might be unconsciously, but sometimes we focus too much on questions that are actually unimportant out of fear of confronting the truly important ones. 

We leave the heart of the matter unknown, while we worry about issues that are relatively unimportant at that time.

So then, with this story Buddha tried to show his student how we need intelligence to separate the important from what we can do without. Because, at an any given moment, it could make the difference between overcoming a difficulty or being overcome by it.

Focus Your Attention On What’s Truly Worthwhile

It’s not that getting sidetracked doesn’t have its benefits. The problem is when the sidetracking happens constantly, without any real purpose.

That is, when a problem needs to be solved, sometimes it’s best to go straight to the roots. Leave the branches for other animal species. Otherwise, we might just make the problem even worse.

Go Step by Step

In some places they say: “olive eaten, seed tossed.” This simple saying is suggesting that once you’ve solved one problem, focus on the next one. Compare that with the famous saying about “not biting off more than you can chew.”

Let the World Flow

There are also a lot of times when we let too many issues influence us and fill our minds. But maybe it’s better to let the world flow. It might keep our brain from filling up with anxiety, anger, sadness, or frustration.

a woman crying thinking about the poisoned arrow

Get Rid of the Unnecessary

Let’s go back to folk wisdom. A lot of the time it’s very wise and worth listening to. “He that has little and wants less is richer than he who has much and wants more.”

Sometimes we think that to be happy we need to obtain what we don’t have. But, when you get used to living with only the bare necessities and you deepen your knowledge, you’ll see you weren’t missing much.

The love of a loved one is much more worthwhile than any unnecessary, excessive, or expensive possession. 

Leonardo da Vinci once said that “simplicity is the ultimate satisfaction.” Buddha’s parable of the poisoned arrow is centered around the same idea. Two brilliant minds. There’s not much more to add to it, is there?