Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Tale of Two Monks and a Woman

An old Buddhist parable, via Kottke:
The story goes that two monks were traveling together, a senior and a junior. They came to a river with a strong current where a young woman was waiting, unable to cross alone. She asks the monks if they would help her across the river. Without a word and in spite of the sacred vow he’d taken not to touch women, the older monk picks her up, crosses, and sets her down on the other side.

The younger monk joins them across the river and is aghast that the older monk has broken his vow but doesn’t say anything. An hour passes as they travel on. Then two hours. Then three. Finally, the now quite agitated younger monk can stand it no longer: “Why did you carry that women when we took a vow as monks not to touch women?”

The older monk replies, “I set her down hours ago by the side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?”


G. Verloren said...

It's curious how the same story can be interpreted in such disparate ways. I clicked through and read Kottke's commentary, and I was surprised by his take on it.

Rather than seeing it as "a reminder to not dwell on the past in a way that interferes with living in the present moment" as he does, I read it as an admonishment that one should follow the spirit of a law, and not the letter of it. It seems exceedingly obvious that a monk's vow not to touch women is meant to be a vow of chastity, rather than a blanket ban against physical contact of any sort for any reason.

Interpretting the message as "don't dwell on the past" necessarily implies that the senior monk did something wrong, but that's clearly not true. He didn't make a mistake - he exercised discretion and wisdom in being able to recognize a situation as being an exception to a rule, and intentionally ignoring such a rule in order to achieve the best result in a given situation and context. And the younger monk isn't wrong because he's dwelling on the past - he's wrong because he doesn't understand the nature of the vow he's upset over, or why it exists.

Exceptions are necessary for rules to be just. "Stay Off The Grass" doesn't mean that you must never, ever, ever step foot on the grass for any reason - it means the grass isn't intended for foot traffic, and people should stay off it in general so it doesn't get damaged, but if you have a reasonable justification for being on the grass briefly and infrequently, that's understood to be perfectly acceptable.

If your dog slips its leash and runs onto the grass, you're allowed to go retrieve it. If your frisbee gets caught on a sudden gust and wind and lands in the grass, you can fetch it. If if a nearby house is on fire, you're allowed to run across it to go try to help, just as the house's residents are allowed to flee from the fire across the grass. The spirit of the rule is much narrower than the letter of it.

Dwelling on the past can sometimes be a problem, but blind adherence to rules you don't understand is always a problem, and an overwhelmingly more serious one.

G. Verloren said...

Something only the most tangentially related, while on Kottke's blog, I found his post about how "Andrei Kashcha’s 'City Roads' tool will draw you a map of just the roads in any city around the world".

Being the smart-aleck I am, I opened the page and typed in "Venice".

I expected it to be blank - instead, I got a single long line, running west-by-northwest to east-by-southeast.

For a brief moment I thought it must be a bug in the program. Then in a flash, I remembered that there actually is a single road in Venice - the mixed rail and automobile bridge that connects it to the mainland, the Via della Libertà.

David said...

I would say that young monk's error was to mistake his Master for a friend.

David said...

I can't help thinking about this story, and the more I think about it, the more put off I am by the Master. His message about the woman is kindness without caring. I suppose you could say his message about the pupil is caring enough about the pupil's development as a monk that he is utterly unkind to him (I find the Master's reply really rather cruel).

The pupil, on the other hand, cares enough about the rules, the woman, and his Master to brood on them and their interaction for hours.

For me, a pleasant coda to this story might be, "The young monk immediately ran away from his Master, returned to the woman, and joined her on the road. He asked her who she was, where she was going, and what she hoped to do when she got there. The end."

G. Verloren said...


Wait, what?

The master isn't cruel - he answers the confused junior monk by asking a simple question intended to make his student think and reconsider his thoughts and feelings. What's unkind about that? It's dispassionate, perhaps, but it's not intended to cause the student harm - quite the opposite. It's a classic Buddhist response.

What leads you to think the student truly cares about the woman? The story clearly is suggesting that the student would have left her by the side of the river and not given her any help, rather than break his vow in any way, and he expected his master to do the same.

He's not only elevating the rules of his order to a higher importance than the wellfare of his fellow beings, but he's also failing to think for himself and instead blindly assuming he knows the right path. Both go against the very core of Buddhist thought and tradition.

There's a lot that goes unsaid in the story that would be more obvious to those in the society that authored the tale, because they're just default assumptions. There are certain established tropes in play, and the characters follow certain achetypes.

The story assumes you don't need to be told that "a young monk" is generally someone who is not just ignorant and inexperienced, but even wrongheaded and misguided - a young man who thinks he knows everything already, proud and willful, reacting rashly with his gut rather than wisely with his mind.

We don't have monastic orders as a major institution in our society, and so we're not familiar with the idea that many young men seeking to become monks do so for the wrong reasons, or with the wrong expectations and misunderstandings about how it all really works. The closest comparisons we have might be young men going away to college or signing up to join the army - they frequently don't have the first clue about what they're really getting themselves into, but they do it anyway because they have idealized imaginings of what it will be like.

"I'm gonna join up, serve my time, and rise through the ranks to become a general! Then I'll have a cushy desk job and live an enviable lifestyle as an important person of high social rank and standing! The reality isn't quite so simple. Moreover, the military also doesn't really approve of that kind of self serving motivation. They don't want generals who are only in it for their own benefit - they want generals who are dedicated to something greater than themselves.

So it is and was with Buddhist monasteries. A lot of young men joined up thinking, "Hey - I'll get three square meals a day, and if I follow orders and do what I'm told, eventually I'll rise through the ranks and become and abbot or other important person, and then my life will be easy!" And that's entirely the wrong mindset.

David said...

@ Verloren

If one of my students did something regrettable by prioritizing the letter of the rules over their spirit, I would hope I would answer by explaining that the rules can be bent in the service of common sense and a little kindness. Or perhaps I would present the student with a series of simple, not-mysterious hypothetical situations, and hope to guide them to seeing the principle for themselves. To me, the master in this story is simply busting out with a jeer.

David said...

I mention not-mysterious because I think, at bottom, I may not be that on board with the Zen koan aesthetic as such. Maybe it's an Abrahamic thing: we take the beautifully terse scriptural mysteries and beat them to death with hours of pilpul or tafsir or q.e.d or whatnot (I like John's "whatnot"). Then again, I've never practiced any of these disciplines, and I can be pretty non-Abrahamic when it suits me. Maybe I'm just confused. But I still sense an unkind jeer in the Master's response.

G. Verloren said...


I'll concede, it's a reponse that could be seen as lacking warmth. But then again, we're reading the response instead of hearing and seeing it in person.

The master could be giving his student any manner of facial expression - a kind and knowing smile, an annoyed and dismissive eyeroll, an inquisitive look of genuine curiosity, a placid look of serene detachment, a smug look of superiority... each one would suggest an entirely different meaning to the exact same spoken words.

And remember, this is a translated story, and one that has probably also been paraphrased on top of that. It is likely to have been altered from the original at least somewhat, and even at best it probably loses nuance in the translation.


Buddhism can often seem a little "cold" in certain ways, because a fundamental belief is that no one can tell you how to be enlightened. There is a certain degree of shying away from direct answers and explanations, because the expectation is that you will need to be able to find them on your own. Likewise, the thiking is that masters shouldn't be too kind or gentle with you, because if you can't learn without such gentleness, you'll never be able to make sense of the ugly parts of the world where there won't be any kindness or gentleness to go along with your lesson.

There is also sometimes a certain rejection of affection toward individuals - that a person's love for their friends, family, children, spouse, et cetera, isn't really love in a true cosmic sense, because it arguably is a form of discrimination. There is a certain Buddhist ideal of love for all things that sometimes introduces a pressure to treat all things equally, and that can mean flattening the range of responses to both good and bad in the world. So not only do you reject negative emotions and reactions to what you encounter, you also reject positive emotions and responses. In theory you should neither hate a bandit who tries to rob and kill you, nor affectionately coddle a young monk whom you are deeply fond of.

This of course seems very bizarre to Western sensibilities, and even some varieties of Buddhists disagree with the notion as extreme. But it does seem to draw inspiration from stories of the Buddha himself, and the emphasis on "The Middle Way" and avoiding both excessive "good" and excessive "evil" in the world.


I find myself reminded of the relationship between Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy at times - Spock's dispassionate comments and rhetorical style would frequently come off as callous or even perverse to McCoy, despite their actually being neutral in tone.

We tend to read more into neutrality than is actually there. We often interpret a lack of kindness as the presence of cruelty, but that's not always the case.

David said...


Well said. I'm certainly one of those who perceive a coldness in Buddhism. I get it that there are philosophical reasons behind that, and that Buddhism is obviously not about coldness or cruelty for their own sake. That doesn't make me less put off.

G. Verloren said...


I personally take much greater issue with the fact that, on a metaphysical level, Buddhism is essentially a suicide cult.

They believe in an endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and their singular goal in all of it is to end that cycle - to reach a point where they can die and not be reborn. They view the world as fundamentally more suffering than it is worth, utterly unable to "fixed" or improved in any lasting way, and they seek only to escape from it by snuffing out their own existence and entering oblivion.

They're not remotely malicious or tyrranic about this view, thank goodness, but it's still there, at the fundamental core of the entire system. There's lot of the philosophy, aesthetic, and other aspects of Buddhism that I like a great deal, but I could never be a Buddhist simply because I do not agree with their metaphysical assumptions of reincarnation, nor do I agree with their end goal of "escaping". I find existence to be worth more than the cost of its suffering.