One day, when Buddha and Ananda were passing through the market, they saw a rope on the ground. Buddha requested Ananda to pick it up. Ananda said, "This rope stinks, it must have been used to tie fish". Further on, they found a piece of paper on the ground, and the Buddha asked Ananda to pick it up as well. This time, Ananda said, “This piece of paper smells lovely, it has probably been used to wrap incense."
Buddha used this example to teach his disciples – paper is made by mixing cow dung with grass; however, what was originally filthy became fragrant after being in contact with incense. The rope has the aroma of a plant by nature, but when it is used to tie fish, it emits a fishy odour. Therefore, there is no fixed phase for all materials in life – place something near filthy stuff, and it will be polluted; put it close to sweet-smelling things, and it will turn fragrant. This is just like how humans are by nature –pure and simple. But if one is polluted by a bad environment, one will be adversely affected. Therefore, those studying Buddhism must uphold one’s vow while following the way and stay virtuous to embark on the path towards enlightenment truly.
The Buddha imparted a lesson to his disciples with the story of the fragrant paper and a rope used for binding fish: stay close to sages and one will become wiser and cultivate a virtuous character in the long run. One who mixes with people with flawed character will be contaminated with vices and bad habits over time. Only when the soul emits "moral incense" can we rejoice and accept what we are taught.
Buddha’s virtue is like the enduring aroma that goes around the world, it can permeate everything and make people accept Buddha’s teachings joyfully. Just like how it is defined in ‘The Sutra of Infinite Meanings’: The fragrance of spiritual cultivation and virtue permeates everything. The Buddha trains heavenly beings and men like a tamer of elephants and horses.
But sentient beings are stubborn, unable to persevere and difficult to adjust and control. Buddha considers the different backgrounds and situations of sentient beings and patiently teaches them step by step, guiding them to remove their evil thoughts and be kind and virtuous. Buddha is hence described as a “tamer”. The hearts of ordinary people are unstable and have to be subdued by the wisdom and strength of the "tamer".
Only by removing meaningless troubles arising from our greed, hatred, ignorance and emotional attachment and managing our deep-rooted habits can we possess enough strength to guide others. As our forefathers have said, "Tao transforms people like how the wind moves the grass". When the wind blows, emerald-green rice leaves bend and sway in the direction of the wind, forming beautiful waves of green. The wind of morality can educate the public and teach correct etiquette, enabling people to display beauty in unity.
A verse in the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters reads, “If one listens widely to the Dharma and loves the Dharma without practising it, it would be difficult for one to truly understand the Dharma. Uphold one’s vows while following the teachings to be awakened to the ultimate truth.”
Be respectful of Buddha Dharma, uphold one’s vows while practising according to the teachings – Seize the right time to speak the right words because time is rare. It is extraordinary to hear the names and meanings of the Buddha because the Buddha’s epithet is rare. The Dharma is extraordinary because it is the truth towards enlightenment that the Buddha safeguards and recites. Finally, the benefit of practising the Dharma is extraordinary because it benefits all beings and guides beings towards the Dharma path to attain Buddhahood.
The Buddha teaches sentient beings with virtue, and Buddhist disciples observe Buddhism faithfully. Only by guarding one's ambition and vigorously forging ahead can one return to the same pure innate nature as that of the Buddha.
Translated by Lee Mui Hoon