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Zen Proverb: Two Monks & a Woman


This evening as I was sitting down to write, I was reminded of an old Zen Proverb that seems to be a pretty good analogy for the way I’ve been living my life as of late. I’m not big on dwelling on the past, at least not parts of the past that don’t fill my heart with joy, but sometimes there are things that just aren’t so easy to let go of; to forgive others or ourselves for. We can tend to carry these things with us and let them weigh us down, holding us back from where we really want to get to. The proverb goes like this:

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side. The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman. Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and continued his journey. The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them. Two more hours passed; then three. Finally, the younger monk could contain himself no longer, and blurted out, “As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman! How then, could you carry that woman on your shoulders?” The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?”

You may be wondering why this comes to mind tonight when I’ve already said I try not to dwell on the past and let go of things that aren’t supporting my growth into who I want to become. Well, the key part of that sentence is that “I TRY” not to dwell on the past and let go of things… That doesn’t mean it always works out so well. Even when I think I’ve let go of something, sometimes it’s nothing more than an illusion I convince myself of.

I’ve made a great deal of effort to forgive people in my past, give them the benefit of the doubt moving forward. It’s certainly not always easy or simple but I’ve done a pretty good job I think. Then there are the not so obvious things, or perhaps they are obvious to everyone else, but not to me. Recently I’ve been given an opportunity to take a closer look at myself and re-evaluate a few things. While doing this, I wondered what all I was carrying around that might be holding me back, physically or emotionally.

Taking an honest look at myself I began to find all sorts of things that I have clung to, thinking they offer me some sense of safety and security; that they keep me safe and protected. Upon evaluating these things further, I was able to decide which things I was ok with carrying around, and which were a false security net. When I say things, I don’t just mean tangible items, though there were quite a few of those too.

For example, I carried a totally unnecessary number of knives on my person pretty much all the time. I started thinking about why I did that and I couldn’t really come up with a satisfactory answer. I realized it was just a habit that I’d fallen into, slowly accumulating more and more and just adding the newest one instead of trading one for another. The emotional aspect here was just as important as the physical one. By being essentially a walking armory, it was a way to basically keep people away and discourage anyone from wanting to get close to me at all. It took someone seeing through that to make me realize that’s not what I wanted at all and they were only getting in my way.

To bring the story back to the proverb, I was the junior monk; the one so wrapped up in something they were carrying with them that they didn’t see the trees along the path, or hear the streams quietly burbling over the rocks; all the while thinking that I was the Senior monk instead because I’d set my anger and frustrations of the past aside. I had only traded one weight for another less obvious one.

If you sit down and take an objective look at your own life, are there things you’ve been carrying around that hold you back and weigh you down? Maybe just sit with the thoughts for a little while and see if anything comes to mind. You may find the answer is yes but that those things are not something you’re ready to let go of yet and that’s fine. I still carry around some things that in some ways hold me back but I’ve come to terms with those and decided they are things I am ok with holding on to.

But you may also find there are some things you can let go of. It may seem scary to let them go or that you’re opening yourself up to getting hurt or something similar but based on what I have recently experienced, it may just be the most freeing sensation in the world. It may be uncomfortable at first, “like the first time you go without underwear” as it was described to me, awkward and strange feeling initially but it could just be the one thing that makes you truly start to feel free; that opens the door to bigger and brighter things.

Edited Proverb text courtesy of: http://www.kindspring.org/story/view.php?sid=63753

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