Friday, March 30, 2018

Eating Salt

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 bland. His neighbor noticed this and immediately sought to remedy the situation by offering the fool some salt. After the fool sprinkled some salt on 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, the fool pushed his meal to the side and began to eat the salt by itself. Of course, it wasn't long at all before the foolish man had burned his mouth, and instead of being delighted he groaned in pain.
---from "A Flock of Fools," a translation by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt of "The One Hundred Parable Sutra"

The "morale" of this story given in the book by Tanahashi and Levitt is simply "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 carefully and you'll find it is so."

That may be so, but I think there are so many other lessons we can take from this parable. First, we've all heard that sometimes 'less is more' and that it's possible to have 'too much of a good thing.' In fact, we have heard this so many times it's become a cliche and yet we find ourselves often falling into the trap of believing that if a little is good, much more will be better! Hell, it's pretty much the basis of capitalist greed.

Speaking with a friend about this parable yesterday, she remarked on how it can also be seen as what can happen when we cling to some object and fail to see dependent origination: the food alone was bland. When salt was added to the food, the food became tasty. The tastiness arose dependently upon the small amount of salt added to the food, but the fool fixates on the salt and fails to see this. And this failure of understanding is also related to our failure to discern actual causes and conditions that lead to specific experiences, and thus causes us to focus on the wrong things.

*The capitalization of terms such as Way and Understanding is in the original. I shy away from such capitalization as it tends to idealize and reify such terms. 


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