Suppose you have been given a death sentence and are awaiting the execution. Luckily, you also have a lifeline: there is an open pot full of mustard seeds in your prison room. If you take it to the palace without spilling even one seed, you will be pardoned. Your executioner will follow you and if one mustard seed falls to the ground, he will behead you. You see hope in this plan, and set forth from the prison carrying the pot.
But as soon as you step out of the gate, all sorts of distractions await you: sumptuous food, exquisite wine, tantalizing sex, treasure troves, and what-not. There are adorable men and women promising you great time together. And there are despicable people provoking you in all possible ways; doing things to challenge and threaten your tiny little self; instigating you; compelling you to react in anger; or maybe frighten you to run. There are roadblocks every here and there. There are enough reasons to keep you from reaching your goal. What will you do?
Most probably, you will overcome those obstructions and carry the pot to the palace as told. Those seductions and repulsions won't stop you. Possibly you may not even notice them, as your survival is far more important than anything else! This is how you function when you are in a life-and-death situation and you have run out of options.
Most probably, we too are in a similar life-and-death situation. And we have only very few options left, if we really care to look at it.
Thankfully, enlightened people come to our help from time to time. Sometimes a Buddha, a Krishna, or a Mahavir appears and shows us the way. Our prisons are deceptive, and once you are in, you won't see it. But these masters not only show us our prisons, they also give us a plan to come out of it. Out of great compassion, they remind us that our execution may come at any moment, and encourage us to free ourselves before it's too late. Unless you are a hopeless loser, you'll understand the gravity of the matter and set out on the salvation path immediately. If you go exactly as told, and avoid doing absolutely egregious things to entangle yourself along the way, you will make it.
But which prison are we talking about? And what execution are we going to face?
Obviously, we are not talking about a physical prison, but the prison of our mind—the mental bondages we create for ourselves. And we face small executions each day, every now and then. It comes in the form of some anguish, anger, lust, jealousy or a similar emotion that unsettles us. We don't know when such emotion takes over next and kills our peace. The final execution comes at the moment of death when you take your troubled and anguished mind—a work of your lifetime—to your afterlife.
Knowing the rules of the game, enlightened masters tell us to stop being bonded when we still have time. They explain it in their own ways, in their own words. They give us different roadmaps. But their gist is the same: avoid destructive behavior, engage in constructive behavior, and keep the purity of your mind. In our story above, we set an intention to be free from the prison (keep the purity of mind), set forth towards the goal (constructive behavior), and overcome distractions (destructive behavior) along the way. A verse from Dhammapada, a central Buddhist text, sums it up: