Honey or Nectar

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The sweetness of the honey is what is most significant.  This, along with its rarity and the difficulty -- even danger -- involved in getting it, made it an apt symbol for Bliss.  We must realize that, in very ancient times, sugar from the refining of plants, roots and tree sap, was not generally available. 

In folklore and mythology, however, the word "honey" does not always refer to to the product of the bee.  Sometimes, it is used to refer to any kind of sweet fruit, or its juice that we call "nectar."  Often it must mean the nectar, such as the syrup of over-ripe dates or figs that drips from over-ripe fruit still hanging on the tree.  Certainly, bees flying by do not drop honey, as some traditional tales, would have us think.

Traditional Medicine

Honey was known, as it still is today, to have some healing properties, but it was also used as a binder and a kind of glue or base for ointment.  For example, Lama Tashi Dondhup expounding on Chekawa Pabongka's "Seven Verses for Training the Mind," (a Tibetan commentary in verse on Atisha's system [Tib. lojong]) told how the honey of a deadly type of bee, when mixed with a compound of iron filings and powdered cowri shell, could be applied to the crown of one's head. 

The Parable of the Honey

The most famous example occurs in the great Indian epic, The Mahabharat (Book 11, sections 5-6) where Vidura the Sage, whose father is Dharma, relates the parable known as "the drop of honey" to blind king, Dhritarashtra:

A certain brahmana, living in the great world, found himself on one occasion in a large inaccessible forest teeming with beasts of prey. It abounded on every side with lions and other animals looking like elephants, all of which were engaged in roaring aloud. Such was the aspect of that forest that Yama himself would take fright at it.

Beholding the forest, the heart of the brahmana became exceedingly agitated. His hair stood on end, and other signs of fear manifested themselves, O scorcher of foes!

Entering it, he began to run hither and thither, casting his eyes on every point of the compass for finding out somebody whose shelter he might seek. Wishing to avoid those terrible creatures, he ran in fright. He could not succeed, however, in distancing them or freeing himself from their presence.

He then saw that that terrible forest was surrounded with a net, and that a frightful woman stood there, stretching her arms. That large forest was also encompassed by many five-headed snakes of dreadful forms, tall as cliffs and touching the very heavens.

Within it was a pit whose mouth was covered with many hard and unyielding creepers and herbs. The brahmana, in course of his wanderings, fell into that invisible pit. He became entangled in those clusters of creepers that were interwoven with one another, like the large fruit of a jack tree hanging by its stalk. He continued to hang there, feet upwards and head downwards.

While he was in that posture, diverse other calamities overtook him. He beheld a large and mighty snake within the pit. He also saw a gigantic elephant near its mouth. That elephant, dark in complexion, had six faces and twelve feet. And the animal gradually approached that pit covered with creepers and trees.

About the twigs of the tree (that stood at the mouth of the pit), roved many bees of frightful forms, employed from before in drinking the honey gathered in their comb about which they swarmed in large numbers.  Repeatedly they desired, O bull of Bharata’s race, to taste that honey which, though sweet to all creatures could, however, attract children only.

The honey (collected in the comb) fell in many jets below. The person who was hanging in the pit continually drank those jets. Employed, in such a distressful situation, in drinking that honey, his thirst, however, could not be appeased. Unsatiated with repeated draughts, the person desired for more. Even then, O king, he did not become indifferent to life. Even there, the man continued to hope for existence.

A number of black and white rats were eating away the roots of that tree. There was fear from the beasts of prey, from that fierce woman on the outskirts of that forest, from that snake at the bottom of the well, from that elephant near its top, from the fall of the tree through the action of the rats, and lastly from those bees flying about for tasting the honey. In that plight he continued to dwell, deprived of his senses, in that wilderness, never losing at any time the hope of prolonging his life.’"

Then Vidura expounds:

‘They that are conversant, O monarch, with the religion of moksha cite this as a simile. Understanding this properly, a person may attain to bliss in the regions hereafter.

That which is described as the wilderness is the great world. The inaccessible forest within it is the limited sphere of one’s own life. Those that have been mentioned as beasts of prey are the diseases (to which we are subject). That woman of gigantic proportions residing in the forest is identified by the wise with Decrepitude which destroys complexion and beauty. That which has been spoken of as the pit is the body or physical frame of embodied creatures. The huge snake dwelling in the bottom of that pit is time, the destroyer of all embodied creatures. It is, indeed, the universal destroyer. The cluster of creepers growing in that pit and attached to whose spreading stems the man hangeth down is the desire for life which is cherished by every creature. The six-faced elephant, O king, which proceeds towards the tree standing at the mouth of the pit is spoken of as the year. Its six faces are the seasons and its twelve feet are the twelve months. The rats and the snakes that are cutting off the tree are said to be days and nights that are continually lessening the periods of life of all creatures. Those that have been described as bees are our desires. The numerous jets that are dropping honey are the pleasures derived from the gratification of our desires and to which men are seen to be strongly addicted. The wise know life’s course to be even such. Through that knowledge they succeed in tearing off its bonds.’" ~ 19th-century KM Ganguli translation.

This parable is probably very ancient -- older than the Indian epic that was gradually composed over 5 or 6 centuries ( 300 BCE - 300 CE.)  For example, it also appears in The Lalitavistara, whence it made its way to the Chinese "Parable Sutra."

The Parable Sutra (T217.4.801) simplified, from Charles D. Patton's translation:

 This is how I heard it:  

Once, the Lord was staying in Jetàvana Grove, near the city of Shrivasta. 

At that time, The Famous Celebrity was part of a great gathering, and he was speaking to the King named Brilliance:

 "Great king, for your majesty, I will now briefly discuss a story-lesson (parable) about the beings of samsara, who are bothered by feelings, attachments, mistakes, and troubles. Your majesty should now listen closely, and think carefully  about it.

"Going back many, many ages ago, there was a person who went into the jungle. He was chased by an evil elephant.  Full of fear, he ran, but he had nowhere to go for safety.

Then he saw a deep and empty well. Dangling into it was a tree root; so he quickly shinnied down it, and hid inside the well.

There were 2 rats, one dark and one light, that together kept gnawing on the root above the man.

And in the well, one at each of the directions, were 4 vipers trying to bite the man.

 And below him, there was a great poisonous serpent.

 So the man was terrified and also, worried about the tree root's breaking.

Now the tree had a beehive in it, and 5 drops of honey fell into his mouth. 

But when the tree shook, the bees swarmed down to sting the person.

 And [while the man was down there] brush fires came to burn the tree, over and over again."

The king asked, "How should a person deal with such a terrible situation?”

 The Buddha answered:

 “The jungle is like our ignorance, which is very great and unclear. When I say, ‘that person' I mean the mind of a person, reborn over and over again.

The elephant stands for impermanence. The well is like our situation in any life. 

The dangerous climb down the tree roots is like our life’s journey.

The dark and light rats stand for night and day.  Their gnawing at the root is like our constantly having annoying thoughts that keep leading to other thoughts, right up until we die.

Those 4 vipers stand for our existence in 4 elements [earth, air, fire, water.]  

The honey drops are like our 5 desires [for food and drink, sleep, sexual comfort, wealth and fame] and the bees stand for false thinking.

The fire is old age, and illness that comes more than once.  The great serpent represents death.

 "That is why, great king, you should know that birth, old age, illness, and death are quite terrible. You should always remember them, and not become a slave to your desires."

Paul Reps in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. 1957/1998 tells this parable but substitutes a strawberry, so the impression we get (which is not in the original) is that we ought to live in the moment, as in Robert Herrick's 1648 poem, "Gather ye roses while ye may": 

A man travelling across a field encountered a tiger.  He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge.  The tiger sniffed at him from above.

Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine.

The man saw a luscious strawberry near him.  Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other.  How sweet it tasted!”

Variations appear in European literature, such as the one by 19th-century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy in his Confession: The traveller, having been chased by a dragon, falls into the well, grabs onto a branch, but two mice -- one white and one black -- chase each other round the tree, gnawing at the root.

Ukrainian poet and satirist Ivan Franko (My Emerald) gives more detail in his 1898 poem, "A Parable About Life."

Denial and Damnation

The parable may have entered Europe from the collection called Gesta Romanorum, ca. 1548 (or earlier.)  It contains material attributed to St. John Chrysorrhoas (675–749) of Damascus, whose works include Liber Sancti Barlaam et Josephat, which (round and round we go like the 2 mice) consists of Buddhist material disguised as the words of "saints" Barlaam and Josephat, who we now know are entirely fictional. 

Notice how the intention of the Indian parable is perverted here:

Tale CLXVIII. Of Eternal Condemnation

Barlaam says that a sinner is like a man who, being afraid of a unicorn, stepped backward into a deep pit. But when he had fallen he laid hold of the branch of a tree, and drew himself up. Looking below, he espied at the foot of the tree by which he had ascended a very black well, and a horrible dragon encompassing it. The dragon appeared to expect his fall with extended jaws.

Now the tree was constantly being gnawed by two mice, of which one was white and the other black, and the man felt it shake. There were also four white vipers at its foot, which filled the whole pit with [. . .] pestilential wrath.

Lifting up his eyes, the man beheld honey dripping from a bough of the tree; and, wholly forgetful of danger, he gave himself up to its fatal sweetness. A friend, stretching out to him a ladder, would have raised him entirely out; but, overcome by the allurement, he clung to the tree, which fell, and cast him into the jaws of the dragon. The monster immediately descending to the lowest pit, there devoured him. He thus died a miserable death.

~ Credit to Aug. 23, 2006 entry "Strawberry" in Blog of the Octopuses {Mar 2012, no longer available)



parable: An example of behaviour, or an illustration of a principle, in the form of a brief narrative.

Lalitavistara: Sanskrit, meaning "Details of the Play of the Buddha."  The word, lalita here refers to "play" in the sense of the delightful manifestation of divine activity.  This extensive text includes all the traditional elements of the life of Buddha Shakyamuni as well as the two buddhas preceding him.  It is a traditional and extensive Mahayana sutra, revealing all the Buddha's activity as motivated by compassion for all beings.

2003 rendition by Sandra Bays: The Voice of the Buddha: The Beauty of Compassion.

Dharma: In Indian mythology, this is another name for Yama, who brought death into the world and hence, he is Lord Death.  We could rightly say that dharma is "how to live in the face of death," which, in fact, is what the honey parable is about.

moksha: Sanskrit term for release or liberation from the round of existence.

Chrysorrhoas:  gold-pourer.

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