The Fish and the Turtle (Is Nibbana Nothingness?)

Once upon a time there was a fish. And just because it was a fish, it had lived all its life in the water and knew nothing whatever about anything else but water. And one day as it swam about in the lake where all its days had been spent, it happened to meet a turtle of its acquaintance who had just come back from a little excursion on the land.

“Good day, Mr. Turtle!” said the fish. “I have not seen you for a long time. Where have you been?”

“Oh”, said the turtle, “I have just been for a trip on dry land.”

“On dry land!” exclaimed the fish. “What do you mean by on dry land? There is no dry land. I had never seen such a thing. Dry land is nothing.”

“Well,” said the turtle good-naturedly. “If you want to think so, of course you may; there is no one who can hinder you. But that’s where I’ve been, all the same.”

“Oh, come,” said the fish. “Try to talk sense. Just tell me now what is this land of yours like? Is it all wet?”

“No, it is not wet,” said the turtle.

“Is it nice and fresh and cool?” asked the fish.

“No, it is not nice and fresh and cool,” the trutle replied.

“Is it clear so that light can come through it?”

“No, it is not clear. Light cannot come through it.”

“Is it soft and yielding, so that I can move my fins about in it and push my nose through it?”

“No, it is not soft and yielding. You could not swim in it.”

“Does it move or flow in streams?”

“No, it neither moves nor flows in streams.”

“Does it ever rise up into waves then, with white foams in them?” asked the fish, impatient at this string of Noes.

“No!” replied the turtle, truthfully. “It never rises up into waves that I have seen.”

“There now,” exclaimed the fish triumphantly. “Didn’t I tell you that this land of yours was just nothing? I have just asked, and you have answered me that it is neither wet nor cool, not clear nor soft and that it does not flow in streams nor rise up into waves. And if it isn’t a single one of these things what else is it but nothing? Don’t tell me.”

“Well, well”, said the turtle, “If you are determined to think that dry land is nothing, I suppose you must just go on thinking so. But any one who knows what is water and what is land would say you were just a silly fish, for you think that anything you have never known is nothing just because you have never known it.”

And with that the turtle turned away and, leaving the fish behind in its little pond of water, set out on another excursion over the dry land that was nothing.

~ From “The Buddha and His Teachings” by Maha thera Narada


“A man was forcing his way through a thick forest beset with thorns and stones. Suddenly to his great consternation, an elephant appeared and gave chase. He took to his heels through fear, and seeing a well, he ran to hide in it. But to his horror he saw a viper at the bottom of the well. However, lacking other means of escape, he jumped into that well, and clung to a thorny creeper that was growing in it. Looking up, he saw two mice–a white one and a black one–gnawing at the creeper. Over his face there was a beehive from which occasional drops of honey trickled.

This man, foolishly unmindful of this precarious position, was greedily tasting the honey. A kind person volunteered to show him a path of escape. But the greedy man begged to be excused till he had enjoyed himself.

The thorny path is Samsara, the ocean of life. Man’s life is not a bed of roses. It is beset with difficulties and obstacles to overcome, with opposition and unjust criticism, with attacks and insults to be borne. Such is the thorny path of life.

The elephant here resembles death; the viper, old age; the creeper, birth; the two mice, night and day. The drop of honey correspond to the fleeting sensual pleasures. The man represents the so-called being. The kind person represents the Buddha.

The temporary material happiness is merely the gratification of some desire. When the desired thing is gained, another desire arises. Insatiate are all desires.

‘Sorrow is essential to life, and cannot be evaded.
Nirvana, being non-conditioned, is [quiescent].'”

~ Told by Narada Maha Thera
~ From “Thus Have I Heard”, edited by Minh Thanh and P.D. Leigh.

Angulimala: A Story of the Power of Compassion

There was once the son of a Brahmin (the highest “priestly” caste in India) in the court of King Pasenadi of Kosala, whose name was Ahimsaka. He was sent to Taxila for his studies. Ahimsaka was intelligent and obedient to this teacher; therefore he was liked by both the teacher and his wife. This made the other pupils jealous of him. So they went to the teacher and falsely accused Ahimsaka of having an immoral relationship with the teacher’s wife.
At first, he did not believe them, but after hearing it a number of times, he thought it was true and vowed to have revenge on Ahimsaka. He thought that to kill him would reflect badly on him. His rage prompted him to suggest the unthinkable to the young and innocent Ahimsaka. He told his pupil to kill a thousand human beings and to bring the right thumb of each as payment for teaching him. Of course the youngster would not even think of such a thing, so he was banished from the teacher’s house and returned to his parents.

When his father learned why Ahimsaka had been expelled, he became furious with his son, and would hear no reason. On that very day, with the rain pouring down, he ordered Ahimsaka to leave the house. Ahimsaka went to his mother and asked her advice, but she could not go against the will of her husband. Next Ahimsaka went to the house of his betrothed (in accord with the ancient custom in India calling for betrothal of children long before their actual marriage), but when the family learned why Ahimsaka had been turned out of school, they drove him off.
The shame, anger, fear, and despair of Ahimsaka drove him out of his mind. His suffering mind could only recollect the teacher’s order: to collect 1,000 human thumbs. And so he started killing, and as he killed, the thumbs he collected were hung on a tree, but as they were destroyed by crows and vultures, he later wore a garland of the fingers to keep track of the number.

Because of this he came to be known as Angulimala (finger garland) and became the terror of the countryside. The king himself heard about the exploits of Angulimala, and he decided to capture him. When Mantani, Ahimsaka’s mother, heard about the king’s intention, she went to the forest in a desperate bid to save her son. By this time, the chain around the neck of Angulimala had 999 fingers in it, just one finger short of 1,000.

The Buddha; learned of the mother’s attempt to dissuade her son from, and reflected that if he did not intervene, Angulimala, who was on the lookout for the last person to make up the 1,000, would see his mother and might kill her. In that case, he would have to suffer an even longer period for his evil kamma. Out of compassion, the Buddha left for the forest.

Angulimala, after many sleepless days and nights, was very tired and near exhaustion. At the same time, he was very anxious to kill the last person to make up his full quota of 1,000 and so complete his task. He made up his mind to kill the first person he met. As he looked down from his mountain perch, he saw a woman on the road below. He wanted to fulfil his vow to complete the 1,000 thumbs, but as he approached, he saw it was his mother.
At the same time, the Buddha was approaching, and Angulimala had just enough presence of mind to decide to kill the wandering monk instead of his mother. He set out after the Blessed One with his knife raised. But the Buddha kept moving ahead of him. Angulimala just could not catch up with him. Finally, he cried out, “O Bhikkhu, stop, stop!” And the Enlightened One replied, “I have stopped. It is you who have not stopped.” Angulimala did not catch the significance of these words, so he asked, “O bhikkhu! Why do you say that you have stopped while I have not?”

The Buddha replied, “I say that I have stopped because I have given up killing all beings. I have given up ill-treating all beings, and have established myself in universal love, patience, and knowledge through reflection. But you have not given up killing or ill treating others and you are not yet established in universal love and patience. Hence, you are the one who has not stopped.”
On hearing these words Angulimala was recalled to reality, and thought, these are the words of a wise man. This monk is so very wise and so very brave that he must be the leader of the monks. Indeed, he must be the Enlightened One himself! He must have come here specially to make me see the light. So thinking, he threw away his weapons and asked the Blessed One to admit to the Order of the bhikkhus, which the Buddha did.

When the king and his men came to capture Angulimala, they found him at the monastery of the Buddha. Finding that Angulimala had given up his evil ways and become a bhikkhu, the king and his men agreed to leave him alone. During his stay at the monastery, Angulimala ardently practiced meditation.

Angulimala had no peace of mind because even in his solitary meditation he used to recall memories of his past and the pathetic cries of his unfortunate victims. As a result of his evil kamma, while seeking alms in the streets he would become a target of stray stones and sticks and he would return to the Jetavana monastery with broken head and blood flowing, cut and bruised, to be reminded by the Buddha: “My son Angulimala. You have done away with evil. Have patience. This is the effect of the evil deeds you have committed in the existence. Your evil kamma would have made you suffer through innumerable existences had I not met you.”

One morning while going on an almsround in Savatthi, Angulimala heard someone crying out in pain. When he came to know that a pregnant lady was having labor pains and facing difficulty to deliver the child, he reflected, all worldly beings are subject to suffering. Moved by compassion, he reported the suffering of this poor woman to the Buddha who advised him to recite the following words of truth, which later came to be known as Angulimala Paritta. Going to the presence of the suffering woman, he sat on a seat separated from her by a screen, and uttered these words:

Sister, since the day I became an arahat
I have not consciously destroyed
The life of any living beings.
By this truth, may you be well
And may your unborn child be well.
Instantly the woman delivered her child with ease. Both the mother and chid were well and healthy. Even today many resort to this paritta.
Angulimala liked living in solitude and in seclusion. Later he passed away peacefully. As an arahant, he attained parinibbana.

Other bhikkhus asked the Buddha where Angulimala was reborn, and when the Blessed One replied, my son Angulimala has attained parinibbana, they could hardly believe it. So they asked whether it was possible that such a man who had in fact killed so many people could have attained parinibbana. To this question, the Buddha replied, “Bhikkhus, Angulimala had done much evil because he did not have good friends. But later, he hound good friends and with their help and good advice he became steadfast and mindful in practicing the dhamma and meditation. Thus, his evil deeds have been overwhelmed by good kamma and his mind has been completely rid of all defilements.”

The Buddha said of Angulimala

“Whose evil deed is obscured by good,
he illumines this world like the
moon freed from a cloud.”
The power of love and compassion are stronger than any evil, and are absolute conditions for awakening.

~ Told by Ven. Walpola Piyananda Thera in Love in Buddhism

Karma – The Four Wives

In one of the Agama Sutras, the Buddha’s early sermons, there is a very interesting story:

Once there was a man who had four wives. According to the social system and circumstances of ancient India, it was possible for a man to have several wives. Also, during the Heian period in Japan, about a thousand years ago, it was not unusual for a woman to have several husbands. The Indian had become ill and was about to die. At the end of his life, he felt very lonely and so asked the first wife to accompany him to the other world.

‘My dear wife,’ he said, ‘I loved you day and night, I took care of you throughout my whole life. Now I am about to die, will you please go with me wherever I go after my death?’

He expected her to answer yes. But she answered, ‘My dear husband, I know you always loved me. And you are going to die. Now it is time to separate from you. Goodbye, my dear.’

He called his second wife to his sickbed and begged her to follow him in death. He said, ‘My dear second wife, you know how I loved you. Sometimes I was afraid you might leave me, but I held on to you strongly. My dear, please come with me.’

The second wife expressed herself rather coldly. ‘Dear husband, your first wife refused to accompany you after your death. How can I follow you? You loved me only for your own selfish sake.’

Lying in his deathbed, he called his third wife, and asked her to follow him. The third wife replied, with tears in her eyes, ‘My dear, I pity you and I feel sad for myself. Therefore I shall accompany you to the graveyard. This is my last duty to you.’ The third wife thus also refused to follow him to death.

Three wives had refused to follow him after his death. Now he recalled that there was another wife, his fourth wife, for whom he didn’t care very much. He had treated her like a slave and had always showed much displeasure with her. He now thought that if he asked her to follow him to death, she certainly would say no.

But his loneliness and fear were so severe that he made the effort to ask her to accompany him to the other world. The fourth wife gladly accepted her husband’s request.

‘My dear husband,’ she said, ‘I will go with you. Whatever happens, I am determined to be with you forever. I cannot be separated from you.”

This is the story of ‘A Man and His Four Wives.’

Gautama Buddha concluded the story as follows:
‘Every man and woman has four wives or husbands. What do these wives signify?’

The first ‘wife’ is our body. We love our body day and night. In the morning, we wash our face, put on clothing and shoes. We give food to our body. We take care of our body like the first wife in this story. But unfortunately, at the end of our life, the body, the first ‘wife’ cannot follow us to the next world. As it is stated in a commentary, ‘When the last breath leaves our body, the healthy color of the face is transformed, and we lose the appearance of radiant life. Our loved ones may gather around and lament, but to no avail. When such an event occurs, the body is sent into an open field and cremated, leaving only the white ashes.’ This is the destination of our body.

What is the meaning of the second wife? The second ‘wife’ stands for our fortune, our material things, money, property, fame, position, and job that we worked hard to attain. We are attached to these material possessions. We are afraid to lose these material things and wish to possess much more. There is no limit. At the end of our life these things cannot follow us to death. Whatever fortune we have piled up, we must leave it. We came into this world with empty hands. During our life in this world, we have the illusion that we obtained a fortune. At death, our hands are empty. We can’t hold our fortune after our death, just as the second wife told her husband: ‘You hold me with your ego-centered selfishness. Now it is time to say goodbye.’

What is meant by the third wife? Everyone has a third ‘wife’. This is the relationship of our parents, sister and brother, all relatives, friends, and society. They will go as far as the graveyard, with tears in their eyes. They are sympathetic and saddened…

Thus, we cannot depend on our physical body, our fortune, and our society. We are born alone and we die alone. No one will accompany us after our death.

Sakyamuni Buddha mentioned the fourth wife, who would accompany her husband after his death. What does that mean? The fourth ‘wife’ is our mind [or Alaya consciousness]. When we deeply observe and recognize that our minds are filled with anger, greed, and dissatisfaction, we are having a good look at our lives. The anger, greed, and dissatisfaction are karma, the law of causation. We cannot be separated from our own karma. As the fourth wife told her dying husband, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’


The Buddha, in one of his former lives, was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha he had suffered a lot in many lives. He made a lot of mistakes, like all of us. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes, and that is why in one of his previous lives he was in Hell. There is a collection of stories about the lives of the Buddha, and there are many hundreds of stories like that. These stories are collected under the title Jataka Tales. Among these hundreds of stories, I remember one very vividly. I was seven years old, very young, and I read that story about the Buddha, and I was very shocked. But I did not fully understand that story.

The Buddha was in Hell because he had done something wrong, extremely wrong, that caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. That is why he found himself in Hell. In that life of his, he hit the bottom of suffering, because that Hell was the worst of all Hells. With him there was another man, and together they had to work very hard, under the direction of a soldier who was in charge of Hell. It was dark, it was cold, and at the same time it was very hot. The guard did not seem to have a heart. It did not seem that he knew anything about suffering. He did not know anything about the feelings of other people, so he just beat up the two men in Hell. He was in charge of the two men, and his task was to make them suffer as much as possible.

I think that guard also suffered a lot. It looked like he didn’t have any compassion within him. It looked like he didn’t have any love in his heart. It looked like he did not have a heart. He behaved like a robber. When looking at him, when listening to him, it did not seem that one could contact a human being, because he was so brutal. He was not sensitive to people’s suffering and pain. That is why he was beating the two men in Hell, and making them suffer a lot. And the Buddha was one of these two men in one of his previous lives.

The guard had an instrument with three iron points, and every time he wanted the two men to go ahead, he used this to push them on the back, and of course blood came out of their backs. He did not allow them to relax; he was always pushing and pushing and pushing. He himself also looked like he was being pushed by something behind him. Have you ever felt that kind of pushing behind your back? Even if there was no one behind you, you have felt that you were being pushed and pushed to do things you don’t like to do, and to say the things you don’t like to say, and in doing that you created a lot of suffering for yourself and the people around you. Maybe there is something behind us that is pushing and pushing. Sometimes we say horrible things, and do horrible things, that we did not want to say or do, yet we were pushed by something from behind. So we said it, and we did it, even if we didn’t want to do it. That was what happened to the guard in Hell: he tried to push, because he was being pushed. He caused a lot of damage to the two men. The two men were very cold, very hungry, and he was always pushing and beating them and causing them a lot of problems.

One afternoon, the man who was the Buddha in a former life saw the guard treating his companion so brutally that something in him rose up. He wanted to protest. He knew that if he intervened, if he said anything, if he tried to prevent the guard beating the other person, that he would be beaten himself. But that something was pushing up in him, so that he wanted to intervene, and he wanted to say: “Don’t beat him so much. Why don’t you allow him to relax? Why do you have to stab him and to beat him and to push him so much?” Deep within the Buddha was a pressure coming up, and he wanted to intervene, even knowing perfectly well that if he did, he would be beaten by the guard. That impulse was very strong in him, and he could not stand it anymore. He turned around, and he faced the guard without any heart, and said, “Why don’t you leave him alone for a moment? Why do you keep beating him and pushing him like that? Don’t you have a heart?”

That was what he said, this man who was to be the Buddha. When the guard saw him protesting like that, and heard him, he was very angry, and he used his fork, and he planted it right in the chest of the Buddha. As a result, the Buddha died right away, and he was reborn the very same minute into the body of a human being. He escaped Hell, and became a human being living on earth, just because compassion was born in him, strong enough for him to have the courage to intervene to help his fellow man in Hell.

When I read this story, I was astonished, and I came to the conclusion that even in Hell there was compassion. That was a very relieving truth: even in Hell there is compassion. Can you imagine? And wherever compassion is, it’s not too bad.

Do you know something? The other fellow saw the Buddha die. He was angry, and for the first time he was touched by compassion: the other person must have had some love, some compassion to have the courage to intervene for his sake.

That gave rise to some compassion in him also.That is why he looked at the guard, and he said, “My friend was right, you don’t have a heart. You can only create suffering for yourself and for other people. I don’t think that you are a happy person. You have killed him.” And after he said that, the guard was also very angry at him, and he used his fork, and planted the fork in the stomach of the second man, who also died right away, and was reborn as a human being on earth.

Both of them escaped Hell, and had a chance to begin anew on earth, as full human beings.

What happened to the guard, the one who had no heart? He felt very lonely, because in that Hell there were only three people and now the other two were dead. He began to see that these two were not very kind, or very nice, but to have people living with us is a wonderful thing. Now the two other people were dead, and he was alone, utterly alone there.

He could not bear that kind of loneliness, and Hell became very difficult for him. Out of that suffering he learned something: he learned that you cannot live alone. Man is not our enemy. You cannot hate man, you cannot kill man, you cannot reduce man to nothingness, because if you kill man, with whom will you live? He made a vow that if he had to take care of other people in Hell, he would learn how to deal with them in a nicer way, and a transformation took place in his heart. In fact, he did have a heart. To believe that he did not have a heart is wrong — everyone has a heart. We need something or someone to touch that heart, to transform it into a human heart. So this time the feeling of loneliness, the desire to be with other humans, was born in him. That is why he decided that if he had to guard other people in Hell, he would know how to deal with them with more compassion. At that time, the door of Hell opened, and a bodhisattva appeared, with all the radiance of a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva said, ” Goodness has been born in you, so you don’t have to endure Hell very long. You will die quickly and be reborn as a human very soon.”

~ Told by Master Thich Nhat Hanh


Asanga was one of the most famous Indian Buddhist saints, and lived in the fourth century. He went to the mountains to do a solitary retreat, concentrating all his meditation practice on the Buddha Maitreya, in the fervent hope that he would be blessed with a vision of this Buddha and receive teachings from him.

For six years Asanga meditated in extreme hardship, but did not even have one auspicious dream. He was disheartened and thought he would never succeed with his aspiration to meet the Buddha Maitreya, and so he abandoned his retreat and left his hermitage. He had not gone far down the road when he saw a man rubbing an enormous iron bar with a strip of silk. Asanga went up to him and asked him what he was doing. “I haven’t got a needle,” the man replied, “so I’m going to make one out of this iron bar. “Asanga stared at him, astounded; even if the man were able to manage it in a hun-dred years, he thought, what would be the point? He said to himself: “Look at the trouble people give themselves over things that are totally absurd. You are doing something really valuable, spiritual practice, and you’re not nearly so dedi-cated.” He turned around and went back to his retreat.

Another three years went by, still without the slightest sign from the Buddha Maitreya. “Now I know for certain,” he thought “I’m never going to succeed.” So he left again, and soon came to a bend in the road where there was a huge rock, so tall it seemed to touch the sky. At the foot of the rock was a man busily rubbing it with a feather soaked in water. “What are you doing?” Asanga asked. “This rock is so big it’s stopping the sun from shining on my house, so I’m trying to get rid of it.” Asanga was amazed at the man’s indefatigable energy, and ashamed at his own lack of dedication. He returned to his retreat.

Three more years passed, and still he had not even had a single good dream. He decided, once and for all, that it was hopeless, and he left his retreat for good. The day wore on, and in the afternoon he came across a dog lying by the side of the road. It had only its front legs, and the whole of the lower part of its body was rotting and covered with maggots. Despite its pitiful condition, the dog was snapping at passers-by and pathetically trying to bite them by dragging itself along the ground with its two good legs.

Asanga was overwhelmed with a vivid and unbearable feeling of compassion. He cut a piece of flesh off his own body and gave it to the dog to eat. Then he bent down to take off the maggots that were consuming the dog’s body. But he suddenly thought he might hurt them if he tried to pull them out with his fingers, and realized that the only way to remove them would be on his tongue. Asanga knelt on the ground, and looking at the horrible festering, writhing mass, closed his eyes. He leant closer and put out his tongue. The next thing he knew, his tongue was touching the ground. He opened his eyes and looked up. The dog was gone; there in its place was the Buddha Maitreya, ringed by a shimmering aura of light.

“At last,” said Asanga, “why did you never appear to me before?”

Maitreya spoke softly: “it is not true that I have never appeared to you before. I was with you all the time, but your negative karma and obscurations prevented you from seeing me. Your twelve years of practice dissolved them slightly so that you were at last able to see the dog. Then, thanks to your genuine and heartfelt compassion, all those obscurations were completely swept away and you can see me before you with your very own eyes. If you don’t believe that this is what happened, put me on your shoulder and try and see if anyone else can see me.” Asanga put Maitreya on his right shoulder and went to the marketplace, where he began to ask everyone: “What have I got on my shoulder?” “Nothing,” most people said, and hurried on. Only one old woman, whose karma had been slightly purified, answered: “You’ve got the rotting corpse of an old dog on your shoulder, that’s all. “Asanga at last understood the boundless power of compassion that had purified and transformed his karma, and so made him a vessel fit to receive the vision and instruction of Maitreya. Then the Bud-dha Maitreya, whose name means “loving kindness,” took Asanga to a heavenly realm, and there gave him many sublime teachings that are among the most important in the whole of Buddhism.

~ Told by Sogyal Rinpoche in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Copyright @ 1992 by Sogyal Rinpoche