At the time, priests of a religion were charging money for a ritual prayer that promised to release a dead relative’s soul from hell so he could go to heaven. At one point in the prayer they struck an urn full of stones with a ritual hammer. If the urn broke, and the stones were released, it was a sign that the soul was also released, according to their teaching. Of course, the brittle clay could not withstand the blow of the heavy metal hammer.
A young man, distraught over his uncle’s death, went to the Buddha, believing that the Buddha’s teaching was a newer, greater form of religion, and asked him for a ritual which would release his uncle’s soul. The Buddha told him to obtain two of the ritual urns from the priests, and fill one with butter and and one with stones.
The young man, believing he was about to get a more powerful ritual, was very happy and did as the Buddha said. When he returned, the Buddha told him to place the urns carefully in the river, so that the rim of the urn was just below the surface. Then he instructed him to recite the usual prayer of the priests, and strike both urns under the water with the hammer, at the usual point in the prayer, then come back and describe what happened.
The young man, very excited to be the first person to be given this wonderful new ritual, more effective than the old, did exactly as he was told. On his return, the Buddha asked him to describe what he saw. The young man replied “I saw nothing unusual. When I smashed the urns, the stones sank to the bottom of the river and the butter was washed away on the surface of the river.”
The Buddha said “Then you must ask your priests to pray that the butter will sink and the stones will float to the surface. If they can do that… then they may be able to raise your Uncle out of hell.” The young man, shocked by the obvious ridiculousness of this request said “But no matter how much the priests pray, the stones will never float and the butter will not sink.”
The Buddha replied, “Exactly so, it is the same with your uncle. Whatever good, loving actions he has done during his life will make him rise towards heaven, and whatever bad, selfish actions he has done will make him sink towards hell. And there is not a thing that all the prayers and rituals of the priests can do to alter even a tiny part of the results of his actions!”