stories of Zen: the muddy road

The past few years, and 2020 in particular, have been extremely hard on my personal practice of Zen. I am very much an amateur, doing some reading and some solo practice, and needless to say, recent events have proven to be very distracting.

One of my personal sourcebooks is Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a Collection of Zen and pre-Zen Writings, brought together by Paul Reps. One of my favorite stories is 14. Muddy Road. Two monks, Tanzan and Ekido in this version, are travelling after a heavy rain. They come across a swollen stream and a washed out bridge, and a young woman unable to cross. Tanzan, the older of the two, carries the woman across the stream and sets her down, and he and Ekido continue on their way. After some time, Ekido upbraids his older companion; they are monks, and they shouldn’t go near women. Tanzan then says, I’ve already set her down; why are you still carrying her.

I think about this story a lot. My head constantly buzzes with things other than what I am attempting to focus on at the moment, but more than that, I find it difficult to set things down and walk away from them.

The world at the moment is a swirling maelstrom of complications and distractions, of events far beyond my control to influence. Amidst all of the complications, it is hard sometimes to see clearly, what are the things to set on the side of the road and what are the things worth carrying. What are the things that need to be carried.

A small, non-political aspect of this is something I’ve written about before, namely the List of Things To Do. Like most others, I have my list of projects, some with deadlines and some without. I have set some (few) projects down on the side of the road and walked away, but I have difficulty even here not pausing and looking behind me, wondering what if I were to go back and give them one more chance.

I recognize that this is drifting away from the core of the story, and there are analogies that I am tempted to stretch and push beyond their capacity to maintain their internal cohesion. But I do sometimes think of Ekido as the angel on one shoulder, telling me what I should do, and then I think of the angel on the other shoulder, whispering that those things left on the side of the road still deserve my attention, and it is a difficult voice to still.

But still it I must. Each day brings new opportunities, new projects, new ideas and new possibilities, and yes new deadlines. However long I’ve carried them, there are things to be set down and left to their own devices, so that the weight of all of them doesn’t sink me into the road.

~ by Jim Anderson on 12 November 2020.

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