A Fool’s Folly: Tales from the One Hundred Parable Sutra

The One Hundred Parable Sutra, known in Chinese as the Bayu-jing, is a compilation of teaching stories used by the Buddha to demonstrate the principles of dharma to laymen and people unfamiliar with his ideas. The short, humorous tales follow the ill-fortunes of the foolish, those who are deluded by their ignorance and continue in their folly to the amusement or disbelief of the people around them. Peter Levitt, who compiled this particular volume along with Kazuaki Tanahashi, writes in his foreword that studying these tales taught him ‘to see how brilliantly these fools represent the subtle, unconscious impulses that appear on the mind-stage of the human psyche.’ We can laugh at their imbecility, he says, but ‘our reaction is always tempered by the awareness that shades of our own foolishness parade before our eyes.’ 


Many years ago some merchants decided to journey across the sea. To find their way to the distant harbor they needed a guide, so they set out to look for one. After much searching, they secured the services of a well-respected guide and began their adventure. They followed the guide and eventually came upon a small shrine in the middle of a wide plain. It was common knowledge that to travel past the shrine they were required to make a human sacrifice to the gods. The merchants considered this dilemma carefully and agreed that since it would be impossible for them to kill one of their own, they would sacrifice the guide, perform the sacred ceremony, and be on their way.

When they had completed the ritual, they continued on the journey, but because there was no longer anyone to guide them, they didn’t know which road to take. It wasn’t long before they lost their way entirely and perished without ever reaching the harbor they had sought. Many people are like this. They want to enter the dharma ocean and obtain its rare treasures. To do so, they should practice good deeds and make these deeds their guide. Instead, they sacrifice the good deeds and thus never become free of the long, wide road of birth and death. Hopelessly, they wander in the three unwholesome realms, 12 like the traveling merchants who wanted to cross the great ocean but killed their guide and so were unable to reach the harbor. In the end, they perished from their ignorant act.


Once, a very long time ago, a man who was traveling across the ocean in a boat lost his silver begging bowl when it fell into the water. He thought, “I’ll make a mark on the water and come back to retrieve it later on.” And that is exactly what he did. He marked the water where he dropped his bowl and then continued traveling for two more months until he reached Ceylon.

One day, during his sojourn in Ceylon, he came upon a river. Immediately, he waded into the water and began looking for his bowl. People on the riverbanks were puzzled and approached him to ask what he was doing.

“Some time ago,” he said, “I lost a begging bowl and now I’m trying to find it.” Thinking they might help him, they asked, “Where did you lose your bowl?” “In the ocean when I was coming across,” the man replied. “How long did you say it had been since you lost it?” the people asked.

When he told them that it had been two whole months since his bowl had fallen into the ocean, they were quite surprised. “Two months!” they said. “What makes you think you’ll find it here?”

“When I lost my bowl,” the man replied, “I made a mark on the water. Since there’s no difference between the water here and the water where I dropped it, I’m certain I’ll find it now.”

The people couldn’t believe their ears. “Yes,” they said, “it is true that water is water. But you lost the bowl a long time ago and in another place entirely. How can you possibly expect to find it here and now?” They all enjoyed a good laugh as they went back to what they were doing.

This fool is like a person who does not practice the true Way but uselessly seeks liberation through a similar teaching. How could he ever accomplish his goal?


A long time ago, a fool was invited to a neighbor’s house to share a meal. Once the food was served, the fool was displeased because he found the food tasteless. His neighbor noticed this and immediately sought to remedy the situation by offering the fool some salt. After the fool sprinkled a bit of salt onto his food and took a bite, he said to himself, “The salt has really made the food quite tasty. If such a small amount of salt has had such an effect, just imagine what a lot of salt will do!” To his neighbor’s astonishment, he pushed his meal to the side and began to eat the salt all by itself. Of course, it wasn’t long before the foolish man had burned his mouth, and instead of being delighted he groaned in pain.

A person who misconstrues the Way of Understanding is just like this fool. He hears that by eating and drinking less, the Way may be gained, and so he fasts for seven or even fifteen days. He ends up starving himself in vain and realizes nothing of the Way. Consider this carefully and you’ll find it is so.

Translated and retold by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt

From: A Flock of Fools

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