Connecting through heart AND mind

in life •  3 months ago

Today I am having two stories about "attachment" for you.

I would like to use first a parable and then a metaphor to interpret the concept of "unattachment".
The first one is about two monks on a pilgrimage the second one about an old farmer. This is a continuation of my former post on this theme.

Both texts have been handed down from the Buddhist tradition. I will give my interpretation and thoughts to them. Unfortunately, I can't give any further information. I only found the quotations. Basically, these can be found under the generic term "Zen stories".

Two Zen monks, Tanzan and Ekido, traveling on pilgrimage, came to a muddy river crossing. There they saw a lovely young woman dressed in her kimono and finery, obviously not knowing how to cross the river without ruining her clothes. Without further ado, Tanzan graciously picked her up, held her close to him, and carried her across the muddy river, placing her on the dry ground. Then he and Ekido continued on their way. Hours later they found themselves at a lodging temple.
And here Ekido could no longer restrain himself and gushed forth his complaints: “Surely, it is against the rules what you did back there…. Touching a woman is simply not allowed…. How could you have done that? … And to have such close contact with her! … This is a violation of all monastic protocol…” Thus he went on with his verbiage. Tanzan listened patiently to the accusations.
Finally, during a pause, he said, “Look, I set that girl down back at the crossing. Why are you still carrying her?”



Tanzan is reaching out to his higher spirit. In an instant, he decides. He is fully connected to an authority of wisdom - the Buddha - and acts fluently without hesitation. He is present to the chance of practicing and willing to serve the other male, prepared for either reaction, may it be anything like anger or astonishment. Tanzan hopes even for irritation as he does not explain his move. As he is very well aware of the others unease during the walk to their destination he does not fall for acknowledging what he senses from Ekido. Calmly and even forgetting all about him he walks and lets Ekido build up his objection.

Tanzans present self knows about his younger self which fell for interrupting the learning process in asking the wrong question which had been: "What is going on inside of you?" But not this time, indeed. The last time he was falling for being too fast is long gone. Now he lets it all ripen to the point where the full force of Enkidos attachment finally blows from his lips. That is the right moment to give the gift of his question to Ekido. It's a simple question, yet it is one, not easy to find. It connects to Ekido, picks up the act of carrying in the physical and spiritual sense. Would anyone ordinary come up with a simple question like this? Wouldn't it rather be a defensive response or an often heard one like "exceptions confirm the rule". Would that have touched Ekido in the way he must have been touched in receiving Tanzans question? To listen, really listen, it's necessary to catch what is truly expressed, easy and most difficult at the same time. It's like the experience of being unattached in wanting to hit the ball into to the basketball-hoop and exactly out of that reason hitting it. Backwards.

... While I was trying to give this interpretation an incident came into my mind. Two years ago I had an encounter during a camping vacation with a loose friend. Where it happened that I inwardly didn't care to an objection of hers towards my son. I did not interfere with the encounter between her and him as I found it not needed. But I could sense that she badly wished that I should have done that. As we had an evening plan we started to walk towards the car in order to get some things. She was radiating anger but didn't say anything. I made a mistake and asked her what was going on and it then came all over me. I knew immediately that I shouldn't have done that but have waited until it came either by itself or also cooled down.

If spirited by what's needed one doesn't have to take sides. Even though if it sounds as if I am in awe for Tanzan, I also sense Ekidos grief. He suffered through the whole walk, making it a all a misery for himself. How could one not feel for him? But as empathy is not pity the question is not "how can I handle the situation" but "how can Ekido handle it?" It's about giving trust to Ekido's own source of wisdom. As the only answer to Tazans question: "Why are you still carrying the women?", can be given by Ekido himself.

Recently, I was told by @sukhasanasister that I "should make no mistake as I speak nine out of ten times not from my heart but from my mind." So this time, I wanted to walk my steps in using my heart before I involve my mind. I know, it doesn't function in that clean separated way but for the sake of understanding, I am dividing it. The interpretation was indeed hard to formulate. The difference I felt strongly. Interestingly, I was not all up for length, quite the contrary, as you see it's a relatively short interpretation. If I wouldn't have considered her measurement I outright would have started by the following headline.

That's how I think about the parable:

The monk who carries the woman across the river disregards a basic rule. His behavior raises the question as to whether it is necessary for all conceivable situations at any conceivable time to ensure that a rule should not be broken.

It seems to allow exceptions as the question can be answered with "No". It makes it clear that a basic rule should always be considered in individual cases. Also, a formerly set rule suggests the fact that people fail in following them. Otherwise, a rule wouldn't be necessary in the first place. In this case, this consideration allows the investigation of whether someone is harmed by breaking the rule.

The fact that rules are drawn up at all is basically derived from the idea that at the beginning of the formulation of a rule there must have been incidents beforehand that ultimately led to the point that it made sense at all to bring a rule into being and to specify it. No one would want to make rules if they hadn't first discovered a mistake that would have been noticed either because of frequent occurrences or because of a certain severity. If you look at it this way, the establishment of a rule is not at all prepared for all-encompassing infringements that have been realized and recorded. Whether a case belongs in the category of a rule violation at all or causes so little damage that it can be safely ignored despite a rule violation is always an individual question (for example with the famous symbolic one dollar fines for an offence, which indeed fulfils the facts, but from such little damage for all involved that one can refrain from a hard punishment).

Ekido is the "inglorious guy"

However, I would like to deviate briefly from this question and state that it is primarily about the fact that Ekido is attached to the principle of chastity. In his world, a violation of this rule does not seem to be allowed to occur, at least not even if a woman's touch is only intended to help her across the river without ruining her clothes.

One could conclude from this that if Ekido connects impure thoughts to touching a woman he carries across the river, he would refrain from doing so because of his possible weakness. Since he cannot know whether Tanzan could also have untrue thoughts about the matter, he must insist on his duty. As a reader, this case can therefore only be viewed from retrospective. No matter where the accumulated criticism may have come from, he actually expressed it, so he must have been dissatisfied with himself and the observation of the situation.

Ekidos reaction is very suitable for the teaching of attachment since it merely means that violations of the law occur again and again. This simple fact seems to me to be of great importance here.

Whether monk or no monk,

every human being knows about the fact that laws are repeatedly violated. However, if I insist that this must not be allowed to happen, I am cementing myself in such a way that I could no longer be able to handle a single case flexibly. I am stiffening to a basic principle.

In this case, Tanzan simply decided that his vow would only have prevented him from helping the woman across the river. His statement that he only carried her, dropped her off and then went on makes it clear that his violation of the law did not cause him any headaches.

Beyond the framework of the story, I imagine ...
The monks return to their monastery after the pilgrimage. Truthfully, they report the incident. The abbot of the monastery asks both of them in a personal conversation about their perceptions and feelings.

Clever abbot prescribes paradoxical intervention

Ekido will report his dissatisfaction. As far as he picked up the teaching from Tanzan, he will have accepted to have received a lesson of non-attachment. It is possible that the abbot will continue to provide him with the task of going into the village and exposing himself to additional situations in which he meets women or to other things that should teach him not to be attached. Neither to be prickly about a law nor to his desire to touch a woman.

He will ask Tanzan if he has had any impure thoughts while carrying the woman. If the monk - who should tell the truth - replies with "no", the abbot does not necessarily need to consider a "punishment". If he answered "yes", the abbot would have to come up with a proper teaching or a consequence for Tanzan. The abbot could still impose a kind of "punishment" by passing a soft one since a law has definitely been broken but can be judged mildly due to the circumstances.

I can very well imagine that the abbot would have asked what consequences could have happened for the woman at the river if Tanzan wouldn't have helped her crossing it and depending on his answer concluded that weighing up Tanzans decision against the unknown consequences the greater damage would have taken place by leaving the woman to her own. It also could have risen the question if the woman had been a foreigner and not acquainted to the rule and therefore might have suffered from the monks rude behavior not helping her. That also could have outweighed the violation of the rule. Interestingly, this requires trust in the answers and perceptions of the two monks.

The abbot will want to shed light on the above question of whether someone has been harmed and derive his measures from the monks' answers.

Two in one

In any case, however, the parable is told wisely in order to clarify the problem of attachment, since it does not seem to be a trivial matter, but rather an important basic rule has actually been interwoven.

One major issue, in this case, is legislation, the other is that of attachment to it.

What would have happened if Tanzan did not have taken responsibility and instead would have argued it out with Ekido right at the river bank? Do you think he would have been successful in teaching un-attachment to Ekido beforehand? How could that have been achieved then? It rises the question if not the matter would have been totally altered as un-attachment is only possible to have been taught in retrospective. Otherwise, the matter of discussion had been to violate or not to violate the rule. The only solution then would have been to sit down and give the woman company as long as other humans would have entered the scene and could have carried the woman over the river who were not bound to that rule.

Grudges are very sticky, my friend

My conclusion is that we all are very well capable of carrying a grudge. Not only for an hour but sometimes for months and years, even for a lifetime. I talked to adults way over forty who are holding resentments towards their old grown parents.
What exactly are they attached to? Is it the notion that parents have to prove their love over and over again? Could be seen that way. The attachment I would rather call "self-doubt". The desire that things and people must be perfect and that they are being used to lessen the self-doubt misleads where the suffering person avoids looking at. Inwards instead of outwards.

I cannot create harmony when I stick to my doubt.

Holding on to doubts is like looking through a blind window.

What makes it even more clear that self-doubt is a sticky thing is when love was actually being shown. Parents do show their love but if one is occupied with doubt he is not able to receive signs of love and even misinterprets caring for non-caring.

To dig further into the topic of attachment here is

the second metaphor for you:

There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.
"Such bad luck," they said sympathetically.
"We'll see," the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.
"How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed.
"We'll see," replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
"We'll see," answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
"We'll see", said the farmer.


When I transfer the message from the farmer's reaction to my life, it shows me that the days of my existence are full of occasions where I can practice. The average Westerner approach to daily events seems to be the opposite of the farmers take on them.

What I and most other people I know are doing is to jump from one situation to the next. I'm acting like a kid sitting on a seesaw. If something desirable reaches me, I am at the top and cheer, something unwanted reaches me, I am on the ground and complain.
Up = pleasent
Down = unpleasant

Unattachment now doesn't mean to free me from pleasant or unpleasant situations. It only means not to stick to them.

Buddhists do enjoy chocolate

Even though in some Zen monasteries the monks exercise a purist way of life the different sects are wanting to connect with the Western world. From what I see the ordained monks and nuns truly show an interest to cope with modernity. And why wouldn't they? If a religion is for the people than it should seek interfaces between the monastery and worldly life.

To feel joy and happiness to have them being entertained and exposed to sense pleasure is not strictly forbidden. When the monks and nuns are being offered pleasures they do not refuse to take them. Once a dish is served they accept it and enjoy a good meal. They stay open to all kinds of adventures but try not to stick to them. They know it will be over and that is it.

The teaching is that if I truly care for what I call my life that I try not to be glued to happenings and my judgment/attachment to them.

Are monks better off?

The accusation average people formulate towards monks is that they live a life which avoids daily events which can put them in the danger of attachment. As reasonable as this may sound it forgets that monks and nuns still have a life and that they encounter challenges every day just like any other human. Maybe not in the same amount, but still.

But I need them as examples of a higher achievement of following the ethics, otherwise, I (we) would miss orientation and good examples. There is not much value in following ordinary people as they fail ever so often to ethical principles. At least we do need those role models who accomplished already a state of "right living" in order to have a wide bandwidth instead of a narrow one. The monks and nuns themselves need that, too. And the best role model to rely on is the Buddha or the Bodhisattvas themselves.

Would you like to be an authority?

Have you ever thought about the fact why not all people, even not close friends or family members listen to you or lack trust towards you? It's because they know you and either witnessed you breaking ethical rules or were told by you that you failed in being true to the universal principles. Were you a person of high integrity, were you obviously leading a life which proves that you follow all the rules and that you are a person of great empathy, compassion and serenity they would start to follow you, trust your word and want to rely on you.

Nobody takes advice from another one which does not past the test of ethics. This is not a matter of argumentation, nor one of cleverness but one of unspoken and often not unraveled inner notions of people towards you and others (and themselves). The number of rants and complaints speak for this truth when we are presented fraud, betrayal, killings, cold-blooded overreaching and playing out of power.

The desire for running before even being able to walk (again, thanks to @sukhasanasister)

A phenomenon I observe a lot - and towards I fell myself in my beginners time to learn about Buddhism - is that people aim for the highest state of existence before they reached even the bottom of the mountain. Or as if they want to skip elementary school and higher classes altogether to immediately reach a college degree. I talk about the desire to become totally un-attached. Of course, the role model is again the Buddha himself.

When one puts the Buddha in the equation of how to be un-attached then it's said that he reached a level of being that nothing in the universe can reach him. He is an entity of which is said that he does not feel either disgust nor despair in the face of atrocities or suffering. That he reached a state beyond all that. You could murder in front of him, no bloody scene could bring him out of balance. This is often described as non-caring. Which might be true but from what I think this is a dangerous goal to want to go for when you are a first grader.

One could easily create the desire to skip all the practice labor and aim right towards the awakened state. It's like wanting to be a chef by studying all available recipe-books and websites without ever cooking the meals. Asked, if you can serve us a tasty dish, you would answer: "I don't need to do that because I know already all about tasty dishes." Of course, no jury would let you pass the test and you never become a chef when you refuse to practice (or show your examples of practicing) what is theoretically taught.

I felt tempted to go around and talk about Buddhist teachings and what I learned from them. But I actually never did except here on this platform. I don't talk about my learnings with my family and friends. The only person I talk to " in real life" is my man. I would, when someone asks me and recently a friend of mine asked for some recommendations of sources which I still owe her. I do it here on the platform because with you I don't have physical relationships and am not entangled in decision making for my daily life like "how do we arrange the childbirth party or the funeral, what am I going to tell my boss or my client?" etc.

Do you feel the difference between spirituality and min-orientation? I admire the mind, don't take me wrong. It's a good servant but a bad master.

Also, I want to mention @vimukthi and @alexander.alexis with whom I had exchanges on this topic. The fact that we come from different sides regarding our interpretations was also giving the impulse to write again about this theme. My thanks for pushing me.

Photographs from top to bottom:

  • Oskar Vertetics on Unsplash
  • takahiro taguchi on Unsplash
  • Sorasak on Unsplash
  • Thibault Carron on Unsplash
  • Scott Umstattd on Unsplash
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