There’s an account in Zen Flesh Zen Bones where two Japanese monks, Tanzan and Ekido, walked through the countryside one morning on their way to a distant destination.
While on their journey, they came upon a beautiful woman who was trying to cross a muddy road in a pristine white silk kimono. Ekido prepared to cross, but Tanzan immediately went over to the woman, picked her up and carried her across.
After crossing, the two monks continued on toward their evening resting spot. Hours later Ekido blurted out, “We monks do not go near women, especially young and lovely ones. Why did you do that?” Tanzan looked at his friend and replied, “I put the girl down along the side of the road. Are you still carrying her?” Ekido nodded but didn’t reply.
This story freshly echoes Zen Buddhism where the old words come together to illustrate to those of us today:
“Put her—whatever you might be carrying around with you—down. If you are still lost in the past constructing an imaginary world outside of what is here, then let it go. Life is here now.”
Whether it’s Ekido’s burden, a recent confrontation, or an old festering wound, carrying such baggage limits our interaction with the openness of the present. The story above is concerned with the little things—burning away the issues that harden in our minds on a day-to-day basis. But the story’s meaning, especially in the context of modern day psychology, runs much deeper than our daily interactions into the realms of the unexamined—what we have consciously or unconsciously shunned.
The beautiful woman might represent an ancient grief for us—an abandonment or a violently alcoholic family member’s transgression. Leaving such things to move around and fester in the depths of our minds is a very unhealthy way to go about things because what remains unapproachable and continuously avoided is given great power to run the life that is here.
The abode we build (our ego or our identity) and the cherished beliefs we collect to support the foundation of these comforting sanctuaries blocks out the grandeur of the interconnected wilderness of reality.
How can we be connected and present when there are shunned realms inside our own minds?
How can there be freedom and intimacy when walls block out the infinite—what is here, now? These are simple questions to ponder—to bring into our daily life and shed light on what we allow to have power over our relationship with the moment, but they are necessary ones if we wish to step into the experience of Tanzan’s freedom.
Sit with the dense questions in your life. Love the uncomfortable. Pay attention, attention, attention to the profundity of the universe that is always here—even when we have given power to the past. Watch your own abode and meet the builder. Freedom is here even when our walls stand in the way.
I often bring the wisdom from these two masters into my day. I notice how there seems to be a deeper being in me, too, that enjoys not knowing, judging, and constructing, and relishes what comes out of nowhere moment after moment. This inner vastness occasionally asks, “Are you still carrying that old heavy thing? Tanzan put it down a long time ago. What will you do now?”
The blurring of boundaries between me, an event, Tanzan’s wisdom, and the rain outside is an intriguing way to go about mindfulness practice because it breaks down what I might be constructing in a way that I cannot conceive. I could be meeting Tanzan right now and thanking him for a quick whack or a silent nod before moving toward what comes to meet me out of the inconceivable background.
Life is always here. Our capacity to step into the vastness and to be intimate with the unknown is the greatest gift. It begins and ends with our attention, attention, attention—both in regards to the now and with what was once shunned.
Note: Shunryu Suzuki said, “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”
Note II: Someone asked Master Ikkyu, “What is Zen?” He replied, “Attention, attention, attention!”
Ed: Lynn H.
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