The Story of the Doctor

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The Story of the Doctor

I’m going to tell a story. It’s a story that has been floating around in my head for years, perhaps decades. I don’t know where it came from. It’s likely I once heard a teacher tell it. Or maybe I read it somewhere. I’m sure I have also embellished it a bit over the years. If anyone recognizes the story, please let me know.

It goes like this. Long ago, in a far-off land, there was a doctor. He was a very skillful doctor. He was able to precisely diagnose the medical problems of everyone who consulted him and to give them prescriptions for medications that were extremely effective in curing them. His fame spread far and wide.

But not everyone who went to see him was cured.

Some people gratefully received their prescriptions, went home and copied them out in their best handwriting on to the most expensive paper. They then pasted them on a wall next to a picture of the doctor. Each morning and evening they would burn incense and bow three times in front of the prescriptions and the picture of the doctor. And whenever they were feeling particularly unwell, they would recite their prescription, sometimes up to one hundred times. But strangely they were never cured. In fact, their sicknesses slowly got worse.

Some other people took their prescriptions home and studied them carefully. Then every week they would gather with others who had also received prescriptions from the doctor. They would compare their prescriptions, analyze them and discuss whether some passages should perhaps be interpreted metaphorically rather than literally. And about once a month they would invite someone they knew had been completely cured by the doctor to come and talk to them. They found these talks very inspiring, but strangely they were never themselves cured. In fact, their sicknesses slowly got worse.

Yet others went home and carefully read their prescriptions. They realized that some of the ingredients they would need would be hard to get. For example, they would have to get up very early and climb to the top of a high hill to gather special herbs while the morning dew was still on them. They would also have to go deep into the forest to find a special kind of mushroom. But they didn’t like getting up early and they were afraid of heights. They had also heard that there were poisonous snakes, tigers and other dangerous animals in the forest. Luckily, however, in their back gardens they had some herbs and mushrooms that seemed to be almost exactly the same as those the prescription called for, so they used them instead. They boiled up all the ingredients together as instructed and drank the liquid. But strangely they were never cured. In fact, their sicknesses slowly got worse.

There were also those who exactly followed their prescriptions. They got up early in the morning and climbed a high hill to gather special herbs while the dew was still on them. They bravely went deep into the forest to gather mushrooms. They then boiled everything as instructed and drank some of the liquid. But it tasted horribly bitter and made them feel quite nauseous. For a couple of days they tried to drink a cup of the liquid every morning, but it still tasted bad and didn’t make them feel well at all. So they decided that that there had to be something wrong with the medication. After all, it was meant to make them feel better, wasn’t it? They also were never cured, and their sicknesses slowly got worse.

Finally, there were those who gathered all the ingredients exactly as instructed by their prescriptions, boiled them up and every day for several weeks drank a cup of the resulting liquid. At first, it tasted very bitter, but strangely, after the first week, the liquid began to taste quite sweet. They were soon cured of their sicknesses. They then threw their prescriptions into a drawer. They didn’t need them again, because their sicknesses never came back.

I think I know what category of the doctor’s patients I belong to – sadly, not the last category.

  1. Nice story. This reminds me of Chapter 5 of the Lotus Sutra, ‘Medicinal Herbs,’ which likens living being’s potential for the Dharma to different kinds of flora receiving rain. The larger trees take in much more water than the grasses do just like some living beings accept the Dharma without question while others doubt it. To be a larger tree.

    • Thanks, Gary. I’ll read that chapter. As you know, I have problems with some parts of the Lotus Sutra, but I really like some of the metaphors and parables in it.

What are your thoughts?