Carrying On

It’s been quite a while since I posted a favorite Zen story: here’s one (or two…or a few) about the importance of letting go.

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 was astonished, but he didn’t say anything until their journey was over. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “Monks aren’t supposed to touch any member of the opposite sex,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left that girl way back there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

(compiled from and

As with most such stories, there are any number of variations. Sometimes it’s a stream rather than a stretch of muddy road. Sometimes the woman is rude and dismissive to the first monk, and the second one later questions with irritation why she wasn’t grateful for the help she received.

I suppose there are a number of lessons that could be drawn from this parable. One is the cliché about not crying over spilled milk…or tea, as it were. Just now, as I was preparing move my writing to the back patio, I set down the mug of tea I’d just made next to my living room table. Returning not two minutes later, I bumped it with my foot. Not only did I knock the mug over and spill the tea; the mug itself cracked.

This was a special mug, if not terribly expensive. I’d gotten it at a Sudbury conference in Seattle in 2007, and over the past five years it’s reminded me many times of that week and my many long-distance compatriots. I can’t imagine it’s replaceable, though I may try super-glue surgery. At any rate, as I set about picking up the pieces and toweling off the floor, I yelled for a bit—until, that is, I recognized the irony of “still carrying” that broken mug.

To apply my Zen practice to this incident, I would say, first, that I could stand to be more mindful, more frequently, when I’m walking and when I’ve set objects down in vulnerable places. Speaking of mindfulness and of letting go, I think it was because I started letting go relatively quickly of my broken mug that the idea of writing about this, and then fixing the mug, so quickly occurred to me.

And of course, breaking my mug while writing about letting go speaks to the importance of not separating learning from practice, not thinking one’s way out of the moment. By letting the emotions pass, by not clinging to the anger and frustration and sense of loss, I was able to derive some benefit from what could have been a purely negative situation.

On a less personal level, I see in the first monk’s example a reminder that observing rules (e.g., the monastic stricture against physical contact with women) is far less important than helping people in need. This dynamic also plays out in a more extreme story in which a monk first takes on the care of an infant a local woman claims is his (along with the damage to his reputation), then returns the baby when she later changes her story.

As always, it seems the chief lesson is to do whatever’s called for in the moment, not worrying about the implications and ramifications, and then letting go when the time comes.

So carry on, everyone…and then don’t.


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