It is a fundamental tenet of Far Eastern philosophy that the mind is the forerunner of all things. The idea echoes in the words of the Buddha, above. Shakespeare, too, in all his Elizabethan wisdom, was well-versed in this universal truth. “It is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” From the tradition of Zen Buddhism comes a parable, much older if not as well-known as Hamlet, which illustrates this point with profound clarity.
“Mind is the Forerunner of All Things”
This is the story of another young prince, traversing the countryside in search of glory, romance and adventure. Having crossed rivers, climbed mountains, and made his way through deserts and forests, the young man finds himself nearly exhausted, as he treks over the sun-baked prairies of a high plateau. In need of shade and relief, he comes to a lone elm tree under which he takes his much needed respite.
After a short nap, he wakes up feeling rested, recharged and most contented. Then he thinks to himself, “After all this hiking, I could sure use something cold to drink.” And looking over his shoulder, he sees on the rock beside him, a great pitcher of ice-cold jasmine tea.
“Oh, how wonderful,” he says, and draws a long draft from the pitcher. For a good half hour or so, he enjoys himself in the cool shade, sipping from his tea and listening to the rustle of elm trees.
“This is truly idyllic,” he reflects, “but I could really use a bite to eat.” And just as he looks down, he notices a picnic blanket all laid out with a full spread of spring rolls, noodles, sauces, tempura and rice. “Fantastic!” he marvels, and quickly dives in. “This is just what I needed. Now I’m completely satisfied.”
After a good hour of feasting away on all manner of delicacies and quenching his thirst with refreshing jasmine tea, it occurs to him that he’d be much happier if he had some company here to share in these pleasures. And just as he thinks this, a lovely young maiden strolls across the prairie and joins him under the shade of the great elm tree. He offers her a cup of tea and bowl of sustenance. Soon they are laughing and smiling, and before long they are making passionate love in the rolling grass.
By now the young man is feeling perfectly contented. His belly is full, and he wears a wide smile on his face. He and his partner rise and see that the sun is getting low. Wondering what they’ll do as it gets dark, he thinks how nice it would be to have a small cabin with some furniture and a bed and blankets. No sooner does this thought enter his mind than a small cabin appears before them. So the two walk inside and make themselves at home.
Sitting by the window watching the sun set, the young man turns to his tender companion. “There’s something very strange about all of this. Ever since I arrived under this elm, each of my thoughts has been effortlessly fulfilled. I’m beginning to worry that this tree may be cursed.”
And just as he utters these words, the majestic elm transforms into a giant goblin and swallows them both.
More Moments of Zen
For more enchanted Zen Parables to tickle your mind and soothe your soul, be sure to check out Heaven and Hell, The Magician and the Prince, and Everything Flows. You might also be interested in our article on Bamboo Symbolism and Mythology.