Home » Features » The Fable Of The Father, Son & Donkey

Blame only to censure,
to discourage more evil.
Blame only the blameworthy,
lest blame becomes slander.

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As the famous Aesop’s fable goes… An old father and his young son were leading a donkey to a fair when they encountered onlookers, who criticised them for walking as the donkey could be rode upon. Hearing this, the father asked his son to mount it, while he walked along. Soon, they encountered more onlookers, who criticised the son for not respecting his father. Hearing this, the father asked his son to dismount for him to ride. Next, they encountered more onlookers, who criticised the father for being lazy and not caring for his son, who could hardly keep up. Hearing this, the father mounted the donkey behind his son. Later, they encountered more onlookers, who criticised them for overburdening the donkey. Hearing this, they tied the legs of the donkey to a pole, which they carried on their shoulders. While crossing a bridge, more onlookers laughed at the sight. Disturbed by the noise and being tied, the donkey broke free of the ropes and tumbled into the river. With this, the vexed and shamed father and son returned home, realising that trying to please everyone pleases no one, not even themselves, ending in displeasure and loss instead.

This too is reflected in the case of Atula, a lay disciple of the Buddha. One day, he led a retinue of five hundred lay disciples to a monastery to hear the Dharma from the Elder Revata. However, as he was a recluse delighting in solitude, he had nothing to say. Thus, Atula went to the Elder Sariputra to request for the Dharma, with which the Abhidharma (Buddhist psychology) was expounded at length after hearing what happened. As it seemed very profound, Atula thought he was ‘useless’ and took his retinue to the Elder Ananda, who explained the Dharma very briefly and simply after hearing what happened. Still, the retinue was dissatisfied and went to the Buddha for the Dharma. The Buddha remarked that from ancient times till today, people blame those who say nothing, much or little, that there is none who deserves unqualified blame and unqualified praise, though even kings, the earth, sun and moon, and fully enlightened Buddhas while teaching to monastics and laity get blamed and praised by some. However, blame or praise from the foolish should not be taken into account, while if it is the wise who is blamed or praised by another, the latter is indeed blameworthy or praiseworthy.

The Buddha added that there never was, never will be, and is none now, who is exclusively blamed or totally praised. However, if the wise praise another after much observation of the latter’s virtue and wisdom, that person ought not be blamed, as even the gods would praise this person. Indeed, this is the kind of person we should practise the Dharma to become. Meanwhile, once certain of our cause being noble, we should be steadfast in our choices taken, to be unmoved by critics’ blame or praise. Of course, it makes sense to listen to what advice others have to offer, but this should only be for wisely discerning if it genuinely helps our cause if followed. Atula’s story also reminds us that while we hope to find ‘perfect’ teachers out there, it is more urgent for us to become better students, who are less particularly insistent in meeting our unfair and fickle expectations of teachers. As long as our demands are unreasonable, even the best teachers’ efforts to share the Dharma with us will be in vain. Teachers, however, ought to practise to more skilfully deliver the Dharma too, so as to better meet the reasonable needs of various students. May all teachers and students become worthier to one another!

Praise only to rejoice,
to encourage more good.
Praise only the praiseworthy,
lest praise becomes flattery.

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