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Across religions, parables have been used for ages to communicate truths that cannot be transmitted effectively through literal statements. They are stories that show rather than tell, thus bringing us closer to the realm of direct experiential knowledge. Parables invite us to insert ourselves into these stories so that we might then be able to integrate their messages into our own lives. We may not come to any special kind of revelation simply through the act of reading or listening to parables, but it is the act of reading or listening which sows seeds of introspection deep within us. Oftentimes, these seeds may come to fruition when we are least expecting it. Whatever your faith might be, it is always worthwhile to delve into parables from many different traditions because you never know which stories, illustrations, and explanations will plant that seed of introspection in your mind.

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Quotations

The New Testament
Christian scripture
Christianity

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

The New Testament
Christian scripture
Christianity

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown."

The Qur'an
Islamic scripture
Islam

“Or take the one who passed by a ruined town. He said, ‘How will God give this life when it has died?’ So God made him die for a hundred years, and then raised him up, saying, ‘How long did you stay like that?’ He answered, ‘A day, or part of a day.’ God said, ‘No, you stayed like that for a hundred years. Look at your food and drink: they have not gone bad. Look at your donkey– We will make you a sign for the people– look at the bones: see how We bring them together and clothe them with flesh!’ When all became clear to him, he said, ‘Now I know that God has power over everything.’"

Sefer Ha-Aggadah
Collection of Jewish writings
Judaism

“Consider the king who has lost a gold coin or a precious pearl in his house. May he not find it by the light of a wick worth no more than an issar? Likewise, do not let the parable appear of little worth to you. By its light, a man may fathom words of Torah.”

Sefer Ha-Aggadah
Collection of Jewish writings
Judaism

"The king turned this orchard over to a keeper and went away. After a while the king came back and looked into the orchard to see how it had done, and found it overgrown with thorns and thistles. He summoned woodcutters to raze it, but as he looked again at the thorns, he noticed among them a rose-colored lily. He took hold of it and breathed in its fragrance, and his spirit was calmed. Then the king said: Because of this lily, let the entire orchard be spared[…] The Holy One then said: Because of a lily, an orchard was spared. Because of Torah and of Israel, let the world be spared.”

Sri Ramakrishna
Hindu saint
Hinduism

“A frog lived in a well. It had lived there for a long time. It was born and brought up there. And it was a small little frog. One day another frog that had lived in the sea came and fell into that well. The frog of the well asked the new-comer: ‘Whence are you?’ The frog of the sea replied, ‘I am from the sea.’ The frog of the well questioned, ‘The sea! How big is that?’ The frog of the sea said, ‘It is very big.’ The frog of the well stretched its legs and questioned,‘ Ah! Is your sea so big?’ The frog of the sea said, ‘It is much bigger.’ The frog of the well then took a leap from one side of the well to the other and asked ‘Is it as big as this, my well?’ ‘My friend,’ said the frog of the sea, ‘how can you compare the sea with your well?’ The frog of the well asserted, ‘No, there can never be anything bigger than my well. Indeed, nothing can be bigger than this! This fellow is a liar, he must be turned out.’ Such is the case with every narrow-minded man. Sitting in his own little well, he thinks that the whole world is no bigger than his well.”

The Lotus Sutra
Buddhist scripture
Buddhism

"Then the Buddha said to Śāriputra: Did I not previously tell you that all the Buddha Bhagavats explain the Dharma with various explanations and illustrations using skillful means, all for the sake of highest, complete enlightenment!? All of these teachings are for leading and inspiring the bodhisattvas. Moreover, Śāriputra, I will now clarify what I mean with illustrations. Those with wisdom will be able to understand through these illustrations."

Huston Smith
Scholar of religion
Buddhism

“The mind has other ways of working than its normal, rational way, Zen is convinced; and it is these latent ways that zazen is designed to call into action. This requires explaining. From the Zen perspective, reason is too short a ladder to reach to truth’s full height. It must be supplemented, and it is that supplementation that koans are designed to assist[…]By paradox and non sequitur it provokes, excites, exasperates, and eventually exhausts the rational mind until it sees that thinking is never more than thinking about. Then, having gotten the rational mind where it wants it—reduced to an impasse—it counts on a flash of insight to bridge the gap between secondhand and firsthand life.”

Chuang Tzu
Daoist sage
Daoism

“What your servant loves best is the Tao, which is better than any art. When I started to cut up oxen, what I saw was just a complete ox. After three years, I had learnt not to see the ox as a whole. Now I practice with my mind, not with my eyes. I ignore my senses and follow my spirit. I see the natural lines and my knife slides through the great hollows, follows the great cavities, using that which is already there to my advantage[…]If you put what has no thickness into spaces such as these, there is plenty of room, certainly enough for the knife to work through. However, when I come to a difficult part and can see that it will be difficult, I take care and pay due regard. I look carefully and move with caution."

Mencius
Confucian philosopher
Confucianism

“Let us not be like the man of Sung. There was a man of Sung, who was grieved that his growing corn was not longer, and so he pulled it up. Having done this, he returned home, looking very stupid, and said to his people, ‘I am tired to-day. I have been helping the corn to grow long.’ His son ran to look at it, and found the corn all withered."

Pascal Boyer
Cognitive anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist
Science, Psychology, & Philosophy

“We know that human minds are narrative or literary minds. That is, minds strive to represent events in their environment, however trivial, in terms of causal stories, sequences where each event is the result of some other event and paves the way for what is to follow. People everywhere make up stories, avidly listen to them, are good judges of whether they make sense. But the narrative drive goes deeper. It is embedded in our mental representation of whatever happens around us."

Friedrich Nietzsche
German philosopher
Art & Literature

“An educator never says what he himself thinks, but always only what he thinks of a thing in relation to the requirements of those he educates.”

Maimonides
Medieval Jewish scholar
Judaism

"Know that the figures employed by prophets are of two kinds: first, where every word which occurs in the simile represents a certain idea: and secondly, where the simile, as a whole, represents a general idea, but has a great many points which have no reference whatever to that idea: they are simply required to give to the simile its proper form and order, or better to conceal the idea: the simile is therefore continued as far as necessary, according to its literal sense. Consider this well."

Buddhist parable
Buddhism

“Once in a monastery two monks walked about doing their morning duties. As they passed a small bowl, filled with rain, they saw a scorpion was drowning in the water. One monk reached in to save the creature. As soon as his fingers touched the panicking Scorpion, it stung him and the monk dropped the Scorpion back into the water. The monk sighed, and reached back in. This time he got his grip a little firmer, but still dropped the Scorpion when he was stung. He kept reaching in, as his friend looked on in confusion. After dozens of attempts, the other monk spoke up saying “Brother, why do you keep trying to save that scorpion? It stings you every time you come near it.  The monk paused before reaching in again and smiled. As another sting bit into his hand, he took a fallen leaf from the ground and pulled the scorpion out to safety. He finally said: “Because it is his nature to sting, and my nature to save. Don’t forget brother, soon either I’ll stop feeling the pain of the sting and he will be saved, or he will stop being afraid and be saved.’ Compassion cannot be stopped so easily.’”

The New Testament
Christian scripture
Christianity

“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.”  (Mark 4:11)