There is a delightful Zen story that invites us to explore unconditional peace and how to 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. He was fuming. 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 attachment to things causes suffering. Even happiness, because it is transitory, results in sadness. So a deeper peace is available to us when letting go of attachments. We do not have to get rid of happiness, just our need for it and our pursuit of it.
Then, finding ourselves happy, we can inhabit the feeling all the more fully because we are not worried about how to 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 used 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 do we carry, and how does it keep us 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 we are fuming the entire day about someone else metaphorically breaking one of our 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 do we still carry them?
The Difference Between A Muddy River and the World We Live In
The parable works well because nobody thinks 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 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: my attachment is causing me suffering.
Letting Go and Making Changes Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Perhaps though, making change is more important than happiness. Perhaps making sure the proverbial Tanzan does not break the rule is worth the suffering. That is fine; I believe “setting down” attachment will still help in the long run. It will enable the expression of beliefs, the evidence, and to present the case for change in a way that other people will be able to hear, instead of triggering resistance.
Setting down attachment allows us to ask the right questions; questions that allow people to come to their own conclusions, instead of needing people to think exactly like we do. It allows for listening to reactions without defensiveness; defusing explosive anger and creating opportunities to integrate their feedback so our own ideas improve and change as well. To think an idea is perfect and needs no feedback, is a sign one will definitely benefit from letting go of this idea. A 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 becoming indifferent. This is a common misperception about mindfulness, meditation, etc. It means letting go of needing a particular outcome to determine the value, and perception of safety and justice of the world. What is amazing is that when we shift to recognizing that we are valuable, and the world is supportive and just, we become ever more effective at catalyzing the changes we want to see in the world.
The paradox is that we cannot let go to make a change happen, because then we’d still be attached to the outcome. Attached in the sense that we will derive value from it, and it will have something to say about the state of the world outside of us.
There are 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, wellbeing and spiritual realization?
* 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.
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