This simile from The Buddha comes from “The Division at Davadaha” translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and revised and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (Boston: Wisdom, 1995).
[A bhikkhu (pl. bhikkhus) is a wholeheartedly committed male practitioner of The Great Way of Buddha. Here’s it’s a monk in The Buddha’s sangha, community of practitioners. (The female equivalents are bhikkuni and bhikkunis.)]
Although this simile is not well known, The Buddha is here making an important and counter-intuitive point about how to live better.
When we follow the very popular and initially easier path of pursuing pleasure, fame, gain, praise, and other egocentric desires, we find life more difficult; however, when we follow the initially harder path of detaching from those desires, we find life easier.
For example, think of doing strength training to become stronger and doing interval training to become fitter. Proper physical exercise is hard, yet exerting ourselves doing it is worthwhile in the sense that it’s fruitful because life is easier when we are strong and fit.
Similarly, following the spiritual way of ego reduction is initially harder, but it’s fruitful because it makes life easier. Wisdom, living well, is the reward for doing the hard work of ego detachment.
Let’s use this simile to explain the central concept of The Buddha’s Way:
Nirvana is the extinction of the fires of lust, hatred, and delusion.
Dukkha, the pervasive unsatisfactoriness of our everyday lives, is replaced by its opposite sukha. The troubles and difficulties of ordinary life are replaced by the ease and peace of nirvana.
The three poisons of lust [infatuation, passion], hatred [hostility, aversion], and delusion are replaced by clarity, insight, and present-moment awareness.
Nirvana is not an object. It has no composite parts. It’s independent of any external causal factors, which is why The Buddha calls it “the unconditioned.” It’s the destruction of the three poisons.
Cruelty has been replaced by its opposite compassion. Discontent has been replaced by its opposite altruistic joy. Aversion has been replaced by its opposite equanimity.
This transition doesn’t just happen. Think of The Buddha as a spiritual physician who understands the human disease and offers us a diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription. The prescription must be followed for the disease to be cured, but it is possible to cure the disease.
A buddha, such as The Buddha, has the wisdom to be a spiritual physician because he or she has awakened, has successfully done the work of ego detachment. (Both in Sanskrit and Pali the word ‘buddha’ simply means ‘awakened.’ The Sanskrit verbal root is ‘budh’ of which ‘buddha’ is a past passive participle. The noun ‘bodhi’ means ‘awakening.’)
So there’s a further important implication of this simile, namely, that there is an end to spiritual practices or training. When the arrow is finished, the arrowsmith stops working on it. When the work of executing The Buddha’s prescription is finished, there’s nothing more to be done.