Jul 16, 2023
Martin Goodson

A Handful of Leaves

Stories from the Tradition

The Buddha explains why he only teaches a few of the many things he has seen.



The Buddha’s disciples were full of questions and never seemed to tire from asking him about all sorts of things.

“How old is the world?”

“Is time infinite?”

“When will the world end? 

He was very careful to maintain a noble silence on these questions. On the one hand his disciples showed great enthusiasm but on the other they spent a lot of time thinking about things that were of no practical use to them in their training. 

One day, the Buddha was seated in a forest. He was, as usual, surrounded by his disciples all sitting quietly and attentive to what he was going to say. After a few moments, the Buddha smiled, stretched out his hand and took up a handful of leaves that had fallen from a Sinsapa tree under which they were sitting. The Buddha asked the assembly: 

“Compared to the leaves overhead on this great tree and on all the other trees in this forest, are the leaves in my hand many or few?” 

There was a moment when the members of the assembly looked sideways at each other wondering if this was a trick question? Finally, one brave soul near the front stammered out: 


The Buddha smiled and affirmed this answer. He continued: “What I have seen and know is like the leaves on all the trees in this forest”. Of course, this refers to the Buddha’s supernormal knowledge as he knows the past and future karma of all beings since time immemorial. He continued: 

“And yet, what I teach is like this handful of leaves that you see before you. Why is this? Because what I teach is useful to walk the way to peace of heart, to the extinction of suffering, to Nirvana. What I have seen is much, but what is useful to teach is small.” 

The assembly looked at each other and the penny dropped. They nodded in agreement and for a few days they made efforts to refrain from asking spurious questions and concentrated on questions relevant to their practices.

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