The Well Under the Tree

One day, the Buddha shared a story with his disciples, with the hope that they could often contemplate on its meaning.

A long time ago, there lived a hunter. While one day walking in the great open grasslands, this hunter suddenly became the object of an elephant's frantic charge. The panic stricken hunter, running for his life, suddenly spotted an abandoned and dried up well. Next to the well there was a big tree, and hanging from the tree were its aerial roots. Seeing this, the hunter rushed over, grabbed one of them and proceeded to lower himself into the well, hoping to escape from the crazed elephant's pursuit.

At this moment, suspended in mid air within the well, the hunter suddenly realized that his life was actually now in even greater peril. Above him, he saw two mice, one black and one white, gnawing at the root from which he was hanging. The root could snap at any moment. Next, he spotted four poisonous snakes encircling the well, just waiting for the right moment to pounce on him. As if that weren't enough, at the bottom of the well lay a poisonous dragon just waiting for the hunter to fall, so that he could devour him.

For the sake of his life, the hunter held on to the root with all his might. Unawares to the hunter, due to the swaying of the root, a beehive perched above the well released five drops of sweet honey, which landed on the corner of the hunter's mouth. He licked it. The honey was pure and sweet. The hunter craved for more. Not only did he completely forget about his current predicament, but he even went to the point of energetically swinging himself back and forth, with the hope that more honey would fall. This, however, only managed to startle the bees, sending them out of their hive to attack the hunter. In addition to these dangers, the vast, expansive grasslands suddenly caught on fire, sending a great wall of flames racing towards this tree from which he hung.

The Buddha then spoke to everyone in attendance, “In this story, these great plains are a metaphor for this period of ignorance that man has been residing in since ancient kalpas. The hunter represents all sentient beings, while the elephant stands for impermanence. The well is a metaphor for life and death, and the root represents the frailty of life.

Furthermore, the black and white mice symbolize day and night, and the chewing on the rope represents the arising and ceasing of all thoughts. The four poisonous snakes stand for the four elements of the body: earth, water, fire, and wind. The five drops of honey symbolize the five desires: wealth, lust, fame, food, and sleep.

The bees are a metaphor for wrong views, the fire on the grasslands symbolizes old age and sickness, and the poisonous dragon represents death.” The Buddha then cautioned all present on the importance of thoroughly understanding the dreadfulness of old age, sickness, death and impermanence, and that one should not be indolent or indulgent, continuing to allow oneself to be enslaved by the five desires. The Buddha then spoke a stanza for those present, the meaning of which is as follows:

When the wise ones see the great force and the dreadful nature of impermanence: old age, sickness, and death, they will become wearied of the five desires. The minds of sentient beings are sunk in the great sea of ignorance and cling to the five desires; therefore they are always helpless in the face of death and rebirth. If one can stop craving and clinging to external sounds, forms, and other phenomena, one can then break free from the shackles of death and rebirth and be liberated.

After hearing the Buddha’s words, all those in attendance experienced incomparable joy, and happily accepted and put the teachings into practice.

The author of this story is unknown and greatly appreciated!

What Is the Spiritual Moral /Meaning of “The Well Under the Tree” Story?

In the realm of spiritual insight, the Buddha unfolds a profound story that mirrors the intricate dance of life's impermanence and the human journey. The hunter, frantically escaping the charge of an elephant, symbolizes sentient beings caught in the relentless pursuit of impermanence. Life's terrain, akin to the vast grasslands, becomes the canvas upon which the story of existence unfolds. The metaphor extends, portraying the well as the journey between life and death and the root as the delicate thread that sustains life's fragility.

The black and white mice, gnawing at the root, are symbolic of the perpetual cycle of day and night, echoing the ceaseless rhythm of existence. Through this allegory, the Buddha invites contemplation on the transient nature of thoughts, vividly illustrated by the mice's tireless chewing. The impermanence of these thoughts, analogous to the root's vulnerability, highlights the constant flux of human experience and the imperative need for mindfulness.

The four poisonous snakes encircling the well embody the four elements—earth, water, fire, and wind—that constitute the human body. These elements, like the entwining snakes, remind us of our physical nature and the inevitable journey toward aging, sickness, and death. The Buddha's teachings prompt a reflection on the interconnectedness of life and the interplay of elements that shape our mortal existence.

The five drops of honey, representing the allure of desires—wealth, lust, fame, food, and sleep—add a layer of complexity to the narrative. The hunter, entranced by the sweet taste of honey, symbolizes the human tendency to indulge in desires, often forgetting the precariousness of existence. This vivid portrayal underscores the importance of understanding and transcending the allure of worldly desires to attain spiritual liberation.

The bees, startled by the hunter's attempts to extract more honey, serve as a metaphor for wrong views that disturb the harmony of spiritual understanding. The Buddha emphasizes the need to overcome distorted perceptions, allowing the mind to achieve clarity and wisdom. The bees' agitated response mirrors the turbulence that arises when clinging to erroneous beliefs and viewpoints.

The grasslands ablaze signify the inevitability of old age and sickness, illustrating the transformative and consuming nature of time. This poignant image prompts reflection on the transient nature of physical vitality and the impermanence that accompanies the passage of time. The raging fire acts as a potent reminder to confront the realities of aging and illness with wisdom and equanimity.

The poisonous dragon lurking at the well's bottom represents the ultimate truth of death. This formidable symbol confronts us with the inescapable reality of mortality, urging us to grasp the profound teachings of impermanence and transcend the fear of death. The Buddha's wisdom offers a path to liberation, enabling individuals to break free from the cycle of death and rebirth through the cessation of craving and clinging.

In conclusion, the Buddha's insightful narrative serves as a spiritual guide, unraveling the layers of meaning embedded in the hunter's perilous journey. Through this story, one is beckoned to explore the intricacies of impermanence, the pitfalls of desire, and the transformative power of spiritual understanding. The profound teachings of the Buddha invite seekers to navigate the landscape of existence with mindfulness, wisdom, and the realization that liberation lies in transcending the illusions of the material world.

Personal Reflection Questions

Spiritual stories are an opportunity to reflect on your own life. Here are 10 questions you can use to go deeper with the teachings in this story:

  1. Reflecting on Impermanence: How does the story's portrayal of the hunter's perilous situation and the imminent dangers surrounding him resonate with the impermanence of our own lives?
  2. The Swinging Hunter: In what ways do we, like the hunter swinging for more honey, find ourselves energetically pursuing desires even in the face of life's challenges and uncertainties?
  3. The Aerial Roots and Life's Frailty: Consider the symbolism of the aerial roots and the hunter's desperate grasp. How does it mirror the delicate nature of life, and in what aspects of our own lives do we find ourselves holding on with all our might?
  4. Black and White Mice of Day and Night: How does the constant gnawing of the black and white mice on the root reflect the perpetual cycle of day and night in our lives? How do we navigate the ceaseless rhythm of existence?
  5. Poisonous Snakes and the Elements: Explore the metaphor of the four poisonous snakes representing the elements of the body. In what ways are we entwined with the elements, and how does this connection impact our understanding of life and death?
  6. Desires and the Sweet Honey: Reflect on the symbolism of the honey and the hunter's craving for more. How do the five desires—wealth, lust, fame, food, and sleep—manifest in our own lives, and how do they distract us from life's profound realities?
  7. Bees and Wrong Views: Contemplate the role of the bees as a metaphor for wrong views. How do distorted perceptions and misguided beliefs disturb the clarity of our understanding, and how can we overcome these disturbances?
  8. The Grasslands Ablaze: Consider the imagery of the vast grasslands catching fire, symbolizing old age and sickness. In what ways does the narrative prompt us to confront the inevitability of aging and illness with wisdom and equanimity?
  9. The Poisonous Dragon of Death: Explore the profound symbolism of the poisonous dragon waiting at the well's bottom, representing death. How does this symbol challenge us to confront our mortality and strive for liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth?
  10. Breaking Free from the Shackles: Reflect on the Buddha's stanza and the call to break free from the shackles of death and rebirth by stopping craving and clinging. How can we apply this wisdom to our own lives and strive for liberation from the cycle of suffering?

As you contemplate these questions, may you find insights that lead you on a path of mindfulness, wisdom, and liberation, much like those who joyfully accepted and practiced the teachings in the story.