Lately I’ve been teaching M about Zen Buddhism. She asked me about it after discussing religion with some friends, so I told her about what I know and what I’ve learned. We read some children’s books about it, Zen Ties and Zen Shorts specifically. These books include some child-friendly versions of Buddhist koans (stories.) M’s favorite of those goes as follows*:
Two monks were walking in the rain. As they approached the muddy road, they saw a woman in fine robes standing at the edge, unable to cross the road without getting messy. The elder monk picked her up and carried her over the road to the other side. the haughty woman walked away without so much as a thank you.
As they continued to walk, the younger monk grew angrier until he couldn’t take it anymore. “What a rude woman!” He cried. “She didn’t even say thank you!”
“I put her down hours ago,” replied the elder monk. “Why are you still carrying her?”
M pondered this story for a long time, but didn’t say much about it. Then, a few days ago, she came home fuming, threw her backpack down on the floor with a crash, and launched into a tirade about a fight she’d had on the morning bus with a friend. She was angry the entire day and had trouble focusing on her work, and didn’t want to eat lunch. M stormed around for a while, then stopped and slumped her shoulders. “I carried her all day, didn’t I?” she said suddenly. “I carried her all day and the only one that got tired was me. I guess I should put her down now.”
I just nodded, but I was impressed by her understanding. She picked up her backpack, did her homework and had a snack. When she came back, I asked, “Do you feel better?”
She replied, “I do. I love that story. I guess you don’t always realize when you’re carrying something. It’s like…dragging it around, really. You have to just stop and decide to drop it all.”
Wise child, M. It took me a long time to realize that, and it’s still hard. I’m good at not carrying careless drivers, rude cashiers and irritable neighbors. In general, day to day, I can set them down and go on my way.
It’s late night, I find, when I’m carrying them. I’m sure you’ve had those nights, when you’re tied in knots about some mean thing you said when you were twelve to a person whose name eludes you. When you fret about old mistakes, old cruel comments and missed chances. Those are the nights I’m not only carrying them, but feeling like they’re bound to my bones, weighing me down.
I asked a monk in Japan about this once, about how to release things that never seemed to detach. He laughed and said that’s the goal of life, not the path. But, he added, those mistakes are vital. They teach you. You may still think about it, he said, but do you still do those things? Or did you only do it once?
Many of those things were only once. That’s what I’m trying to teach M. What did you learn? Did you feel better or worse after you said what you did? Is it something you fix, something you learn, or something you drop? What’s worth carrying? Maybe some of those life lessons, painful as they are, are worth carrying. They keep us from repeating those painful lessons, and inflicting them on others.
The other thing that monk taught me was to look for five things per day. He said to look for things like a single flower growing from a crack in the sidewalk. Five things that are beautiful little moments. Then, when the load gets too heavy, sit and picture that beautiful moment for one minute. Focus there. Carry that, and not the angry woman on the muddy road.
What are you carrying today?
(*Here’s the original:
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?”)