Are You Still Carrying Her?
A Zen Parable Points to Unconditional Peace
There is a beautiful Zen parable that provides us great fodder to explore the nature of happiness and how we might rest more fully in it. It goes like this:
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
Attachment and Happiness
A central teaching in Buddhism is that our attachment to things causing suffering. Even happiness, because it is transitory, results in sadness. So a deeper peace is available to us when we can let go of our attachments. We do not have to get rid of happiness, we just have to get rid of our need for it, and our pursuit of it. Then when we find ourselves happy we can inhabit that feeling all the more fully, because we are not worried about how we will keep from losing happiness, or figuring out the past steps that got us this happiness in order to achieve this state again in the future. We can be fully present.*
This concept of non-attachment can be applied to all feelings, good or bad. It holds for all possessions, all ideas and rules and truths—even this concept, the ideas of Buddhism, and the rules we use to help us grow and experience the truth of this concept. Hence the story of Tanzan and Ekido. Ekido was attached to a rule, “Monks do not touch females,” and his attachment caused him suffering. Tanzan was not attached to the rule, so he acted out of love in the present moment, and in following present moments his non-attachment allowed him to continue to act out of love, instead of beating himself up with guilt or remorse.
What Are You Still Carrying?
What are you still carrying, and how is it keeping you from happiness? Ekido was not even the one who broke the rule, “committed the sin” of carrying the woman across the mud, yet he was fuming the entire day. Perhaps you are fuming the entire day about someone else metaphorically breaking one of your rules—whether it is a government shutdown, or Obamacare, the rise of the Tea Party, or something more close to your heart such as traffic or dishonesty.
Why are you still carrying them?
The Difference Between A Muddy River and the World We Live In
The parable works well because none of us think it is truly wrong for one human to help another cross a muddy path; in fact many feel a deep sympathy for the kindness of Tanzan. Yet in real life people do things that we think are wrong. The lesson is much harder to apply when the proverbial “carrying the woman across a muddy river” is actually women’s rights to decide what happens with their bodies, the death of babies, gun freedoms, starvation, etc.
When these issues surface I think it is still important to “set them down.” When it comes to happiness, the reason why is obvious, and no different from the parable: your attachment is causing you suffering.
Letting Go and Making Changes Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Perhaps though, making change is more important to you than happiness. Perhaps making sure the proverbial Tanzan does not break the rule is worth the suffering to you. That is fine; I believe “setting down” your attachment will still help you in the long run. You will be able to express your beliefs, your evidence, and present your case for change in a way that other people will be able to hear, instead of triggering their resistance. You will be able to ask the right questions, questions that allow people to come to their own conclusions, instead of needing people to think exactly like you do. You will be able to listen to their reactions without defensiveness, defusing their explosive anger, and giving you the chance to integrate their feedback so your ideas improve and change as well. If you think your idea is perfect and needs no feedback, you definitely will benefit from letting go of this idea, because one human cannot possibly see the entire picture with our five limited senses and subjective perspective.
What Does Letting Go Really Mean?
Letting go does not mean you become indifferent. This is a common misperception about mindfulness, meditation, etc. It means you let go of the need for a particular outcome to determine your own value, and your perception of the safety and justice of the world. What is amazing is that when you are able to shift to a recognition that you are valuable, and the world is supportive and just, you become ever more effective at catalyzing the changes you want to see in the world. The paradox is that you cannot let go to make a change happen, because then you would still be attached to the outcome. Attached in the sense that you will derive value from it, and it will have something to say about the state of the world outside of you.
There are many, many other lessons this simple story can evoke. What insight does it spark in you? What does it have to add to your journey in health and well being?
*Note that this whole concept of non-attachment is not dissimilar to the idea of turning everything over to Jesus/Holy Spirit/God, and trusting in His Grace and His Plan. I think they are both beautiful symbols and both are important concepts that can help us experience the deep unconditioned peace and love underlying all experience; the Buddhist idea is more of a 1st person approach based on perception, whereas the Christian idea is more of a 2nd person approach based on relationship.