Buddha: Turning arrows into flowers (turning emotional suffering into mindful compassion)

“Every movement in the universe is an effect provoked by a cause. There was no salvation without compassion for every other being.”

Little Buddha, Drama Film

One of my favorite Buddhism teachings is about turning arrows into flowers. Its relevance to our lives is within the story’s symbolic and enlightening message to help us cope with emotional hurt or distress by becoming self-aware of our own ego (the negative self and emotions), its behavior and its perception.

According to the story, when the Buddha (the awakened one) was on the cusp of his Enlightenment (self-realization), it was also then when Mara (the devil), symbolizing the Buddha’s own ego, attacked the Buddha with thousands of fiery arrows among other hostile forces, which symbolize emotional distress or abuse caused by internal/external circumstances or behavior of other people.

Turning arrows into flowers

The Buddha, in return, reacted neither with sadness, anger, hatred, nor defensiveness. Instead, he continued to meditate in silence, in complete peace and awareness of what his own ego was trying to do to him, which is how he was able to turn those arrows in his mind into soft, beautiful, and harmless flower petals that only drifted and rained down gently around him.

The story enlightens us about something we must constantly practice, especially when we experience any form of harmful emotions such as anxiety, fear, anger, hate, intolerance, pride, envy, guilt, sadness, disappointment, humiliation, feeling unappreciated, ignored, disrespected and getting hurt inside which is usually a reaction to external stress either from unpleasant situations or people.

“The moment you begin to worry, the moment you acknowledge the worry, you solidify it into existence, which is why we chose to ignore and ignore we did. All you have is perception. There is no objective truth. You create the truth you want to inhabit.”

BEEF, Netflix Series

Cultivating seeds of compassion

In the book called Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh expressed it this way: 

“As you begin to transform your own inner pain, you also transform other people’s anger and hatred into flowers. You soon see that arrows shot at you come out of other people’s pain. You do not feel injured by their arrows or actions; instead, you have only compassion. Your compassion transforms the speech and actions of the other person. Together these practices provide real self-protection, which is necessary before we can protect others.

Every time you smile away your irritation and anger, you achieve a victory for yourself and for humanity. Your smile is like the smile of the Buddha when he defeated Mara. Mara is within us in the form of suspicion, jealousy, and misperception, but with a good understanding of yourself and others, you will avoid getting caught by Mara and making mistakes. Instead of watering the seeds of violence, you will cultivate the seeds of compassion and bring relief to yourself and others.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh, Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World

Mara (Ego)

We will not be able to not react to negativity without mastering our ego first. When we have tamed our ego, humility helps us welcome any negative circumstances and even insults from others about us, about our loved ones, our beliefs, and everything else we deeply revere and hold dear. Only then will we no longer feel hurt or go into rage.

With practice, we will slowly but surely tame our ego and begin to understand that there’s no longer a need to react to negativity. No longer a need to blame. No longer a need to be defensive. No longer a need to argue or complain. We will feel compassion for the person who insulted us instead. We will also have enough compassion for ourselves in not dwelling and suffering from negative emotions.

We can even begin to welcome all emotional challenges and circumstances with openness, interest, and kind awareness. And though it may still hurt or anger us whenever new emotional challenges suddenly present themselves and catch us off guard, we can still compassionately embrace it as another opportunity to practice turning arrows into flowers.

Here’s a snippet from the movie Little Buddha that demonstrates the part when the Buddha (played by the kind and humble Keanu Reeves) symbolically turns those emotional arrows into flowers and defeats Mara, his ego, in the battle towards the Buddha’s Enlightenment: 

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