A young single father had a son that he loved more than anything in the world. One day while the father was away, some plunderers burned down most of his village and kidnapped the little boy.
When the father came back, he mistook one of the burnt corpses as his son. Completely devastated, he had the body cremated, and put the ashes in a bag that he always carried around.
Days later, his son escaped from the plunderers, ran back home, and knocked on the door of the house that his father rebuilt. His father asked who it was. When the boy answered, “It’s me, your son—please let me in,” the father, who was still holding the bag of ashes, assumed it was some other boy playing a cruel joke. “Go away,” he shouted back.
The boy continued to knock and plead to the father, but the father continued to tell him to leave. Finally, the boy left and never came back again.
In India there was once a king who believed in a non-Buddhist religion which taught many kinds of bitter practices … some spread ashes on their bodies, and some slept on beds of nails. They cultivated all kinds of ascetic practices. Meanwhile, the Bhikshus who cultivated the Buddhadharma had it ‘easy,’ because they didn’t cultivate that way. Now, the king of that country said to the Buddha’s disciples, ‘It’s my belief that the ascetic practices which these non-Buddhists cultivate still don’t enable them to end their afflictions. How much the less must you Bhikshus, who are so casual, be able to sever the affliction of your thoughts of sexual desire.’
One of the Dharma Masters answered the king this way: ‘Suppose you take a man from jail who had been sentenced to execution, and you say to him ‘Take this bowl of oil and carry it in your two hands as you walk down the highway. If you don’t spill a single drop, I’ll release you when you return.’ Then, suppose you send some beautiful women musicians out on the highway to sing and play their instruments where the sentenced man is walking with his bowl of oil. If he should spill any oil, of course, you’ll execute him. But if he should come back without spilling a single drop, what do you suppose he will answer if you ask him what he’s seen on the road?”
The king of country did just that: he took a man destined to be executed and said to him, ‘Today you should be executed but I’m going to give you an opportunity to save your life. How? I’ll give you a bowl of oil to carry in your two hands as you take a walk on the highway. If you can do it without spilling a single drop, I’ll spare your life. Go try it.’ The sentenced man did as he was told. He went out on the highway, and when he returned he had not spilled one drop. Then the king asked him, ‘What did you see out on the highway?’ The sentenced man said, ‘I didn’t see a single thing. All I did was watch the oil to keep it from spilling. I didn’t see anything else or hear anything at all.’
So, the king asked the Dharma Master, ‘Well, what is the principle here?’ The Dharma Master answered, ‘The sentenced man was like the novice who has left the home life. Both see the question of Birth and Death as too important to waste time on thoughts of sexual desire.’
– Master Hsuan Hua, Huiyang Chan School.