There are all sorts of great stories, great tales of wisdom and enlightenment, to be found in Zen Buddhism. They often have that sort of eternal depth and universal meaning to our lives, regardless of your personal beliefs. The one below came back to me, last night, while I was walking my dog and pondering why some people remain so angry over little things, why they can’t move on. It goes like this…
Two Zen monks, a young and and old one, were walking along the road on the way to visit a monastery in the hills. They came to a river that was swollen with water from the recent rains, and the ford was deep under the muddy, rushing water.
On their side of the river was a young woman, dressed in a rich new kimono and sash, unable to cross, looking fearfully at the water.
The elder monk went over, spoke quietly to the woman, then picked her up, and carried her across the river while his companion struggled through the water behind him. The monk put the woman down on the further bank, bowed, and the two monks continued their journey. The woman went off down another path and they never saw her again.
After many hours of walking in silence, the two arrived at the monastery. They greeted the master, had dinner, sat in meditation, then retired to their cell to sleep. While they were preparing to go to bed, the younger of the two could no longer restrain himself.
He suddenly burst out angrily, “I can be silent no more! What were you thinking? You know we’re not supposed to have any contact with women. Yet you carried that woman across the river without a second thought. Don’t you know that’s against the rules? How could you do something like that?”
He railed on for a couple more minutes.
The elder monk simply stood still and listened. When the younger was finished, and had exhausted himself, the elder said, “I put that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
Wonderful tale, isn’t it?
This story comes from a wonderful collection called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. I was given a paperback edition of this book in 1968 and I still have it, the same, somewhat battered copy, in my book collection. I have a couple of other editions, too, picked up over the years.
I have read the entire book many times over during the time I’ve had it, and probably will read it many more times. It’s the single, most-read book I own and one of the few I would always want to own.
You can read the tales online at many sites, including here, but I do recommend you get a printed copy for yourself. It’s a rich treasure trove of inspirational, educational and often entertaining material.
Okay, I embellished the telling a bit. The original tale is much shorter and has a few variants (you can read it here and here and here). Wisdom tales abound in all cultures and I have a few similar books from other lands and times. I think I will reprint a few more stories here in the future.