Carrying the Woman

According to Zen literature:

          "A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current.

          As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross.

          The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

          The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

          Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side.

          The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened... Finally the younger monk blurted out:

           “As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

          The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”

What does this classic Zen story tells us about?

Immature Masters Vow

The story reveals a friction in the psychology of Zen monks, caused by a primitive vow of their tradition, which they took, "not to touch women".  What is the origin of this 'personal determination' or "vow"?  A "Vow" is understood as a determination to achieve something great, something of value and something to be proud of.  What was the lofty reason to determine "not to touch women"?  Is not touching women natural?

Gender bias and a hidden hostility towards women - can be sensed in this Zen "vow", taught to the abovementioned monks through their tradition. The "vow" is based on a dualistic perspective based on male - female differentiation and based on devaluing women in a primitive, male dominated hostile attitude - barring touching them.  One would not touch something dirty or something which causes disease.  But Zen has always been based on dualism and on being male dominated school of practice and rituals.

Arrogantly silencing questioner

The younger monk was confused by the older monk's violating a "vow".  If younger monks are taught vows by older monks who later violate the vow they taught - then this master double standard attitude can be considered as hypocrisy.

The younger monk was enrolled in Zen hierarchy and was supposed to teach future younger monks vows and show them his behaviour and consistency.

Being a hypocrite, the older monk dismissed the whole subject - belittling the sincerity of the younger monk in voicing a 'worry about the past'.  But the reason why the younger monk asked about the matter was not just "the past "- it was his willingness to clarify the situation for himself about a "future similar event," and about the value of his earlier "Vow".  He had to refer to what took place in past moments - because the event had implications for him about similar events in the future.  

The elder monk's implication that the past is not importnat - this is not a Buddhist thinking, because what we call "past action" produces a "latent effect" on the future,  The future is influenced by causes we make at each moment.  This very moment becomes the past in few moments ahead.  There is no separation between past, present and future.  

The older monk wanted to just burry the matter in the graveyard of the past, in a most simplistic way, and went on the attack blaming the younger monk of "worrying too much" about violating vows.  

Zen Followers comment:

For Zen believers, the older monk gave a "clever" and "tricky" answer, a "wisdom" to be admired, as the abovemnetioned source of the event says:

          "This simple Zen story has a beautiful message about living in the present moment.

          How often do we carry around past hurts,

          holding onto resentments when the only person we are really hurting is ourselves."

This comment is based on falsehood; it refers to "hurt" - while there was no hurt experienced in that story of the mentioned koan.  Zen commentators try to shift the essence of the koan in order to give a justification for a hypocrite monk who arrogantly silenced any question about his behaviour.

Of course, we should live in the present moment, but living in the present moment requires mindfulness to the causes we make at the present moment.  Buddhism does not encourage us to close our eyes on causes we have made in the past, but to have clarity in mind and sincerity in attitude to prevent past mistakes from having influence on our future.  

It could have been more valuable and honest for the older monk to initiate a dialogue himself with the younger monk on the event - and discuss how to reconcile the true reality of life with the theoretical teachings.  But instead of speaking about flexibility, broadmindedness, and pleasure in offering help to others, he just arrogantly silenced a sincere companion.

Women in Zen

According to G Victor Sogen Hori, as explained in the book "The Faces of Buddhism in America"  (edited by Charles Prebish and Kenneth Tanaka, University of California Press, 1998):

          "First monasteries were segregated by sex, so that, in general, only men taught men,

          and only women taught women. That at least was the theory [in Japan].  

          In fact the monastery system for women has atrophied.  

          The last Rinzai monastery for women closed its doors in early 1970;

     there are still some Soto monasteries for women.  

          Because there are almost no training halls for women, a woman who wants

     to do Zen practice with a "roshi"

          must seek out a male "roshi" and make an individual arrangement with him.  

          When his monks has "sesshin", she comes to the temple and sits in a separate

     room rather than in the "zendo"

          with the male monks.  

          When they have "sanzen", she tags along in the end.  

          The "roshi" is free to make of this relationship whatever he wishes....

          So in fact, a male Zen teacher in Japan can have female students, but the numbers are not many" .     Page 70



Author: Safwan Zabalawi (Darshams)


Juvenile Mind of Zen Master