Friday, February 1, 2008

Two Monks Carry Woman

Zen Buddhist story

Two monks, going to a neighbouring monastery, walked side by side in silence. They arrived at a river they had to cross. That season, waters were higher than usual. On the bank, a young woman was hesitating and asked the younger of the two monks for help. He exclaimed, 'Don't you see that I am a monk, that I took a vow of chastity?'

'I require nothing from you that could impede your vow, but simply to help me to cross the river,' replied the young woman with a little smile.

'I...not...I nothing for you,' said the embarrassed young monk.

'It doesn't matter,' said the elderly monk. 'Climb on my back and we will cross together.'

Having reached the other bank, the old monk put down the young woman who, in return, thanked him with a broad smile. She left her side and both monks continued their route in silence. Close to the monastery, the young monk could not stand it anymore and said, 'You shouldn't have carried that person on your back. It's against our rules.'

'This young woman needed help and I put her down on the other bank. You didn't carry her at all, but she is still on your back,' replied the older monk.

Another Buddhist version:

Two monks were strolling by a stream on their way home to the monastery. They were startled by the sound of a young woman in a bridal gown, sitting by the stream, crying softly. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she gazed across the water. She needed to cross to get to her wedding, but she was fearful that doing so might ruin her beautiful handmade gown.

In this particular sect, monks were prohibited from touching women. But one monk was filled with compassion for the bride. Ignoring the sanction, he hoisted the woman on his shoulders and carried her across the stream--assisting her journey and saving her gown. She smiled and bowed with gratitude as he noisily splashed his way back across the stream to rejoin his companion.

The second monk was livid. "How could you do that?" he scolded. "You know we are forbidden even to touch a woman, much less pick one up and carry her around!"

The offending monk listened in silence to a stern lecture that lasted all the way back to the monastery. His mind wandered as he felt the warm sunshine and listened to the singing birds. After returning to the monastery, he fell asleep for a few hours. He was jostled and awakened in the middle of the night by his fellow monk. "How could you carry that woman?" his agitated friend cried out. "Someone else could have helped her across the stream. You were a bad monk!"

"What woman?" the tired monk inquired groggily.

"Don't you even remember? That woman you carried across the stream," his colleague snapped.

"Oh, her," laughed the sleepy monk. "I only carried her across the stream. You carried her all the way back to the monastery."

Still another Buddhist version (though I have my doubts of its authenticity):

Two monks are walking along a country path. They soon are met by a caravan, a group of attendants carrying their wealthy and not-so-kindly mistress and her possessions. They come to a muddy river, and cannot cross with both mistress and packages - they must put one down and cannot figure out how to do so. So the elder monk volunteers to carry the woman across the river, on his back, allowing the attendants to carry her things, and then all can go on their way. The woman does not thank him, and rudely pushes him aside to get back to her caravan.

After traveling some way on their own, the younger monk turns to his master, and says, "I cannot believe that old woman! You kindly carried her across the muddy river, on your very own back, and not only did she not offer thanks, but she actually was quite rude to you!" The master calmly and quietly turned to his student, and offered this observation: "I put the women down some time ago. Why are you still carrying her?"

Japanese Zen Buddhist version:

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 onto 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. Are you still carrying her?”

(Based on an autobiographical story by Japanese master Tanzan, 1819-1892)

Christian medieval story

In one of my favorite stories, set in medieval times, two monks who are on a long journey are walking through a great forest. One is middle-aged, and has been with their monastic order for years. The other is a young novitiate. As they walk along the path, the hours go by, sometimes in conversation, sometimes in silence.

At one point, they come upon a wide, rapid stream. Sitting at the edge of the water is a young woman, who is evidently in some distress. As soon as she sees the two monks, a look of relief comes over her face, and she hurries up to them. "Father," she says, addressing the older of the two, "you would be doing me the greatest favor if you would carry me across. The water is swift, and I do not know how to swim. If I should slip and fall . . . ."

"Of course, my child," the monk replies, "I would be most willing to carry you across." The young novitiate shoots his companion a surprised glance--for under the rules of their order, they are strictly forbidden to touch women. Nevertheless, the older monk takes the young woman up in his arms, carries her across the stream, and sets her down safely on the other side. After thanking them graciously, she goes on her way, and the two monks continue on their journey.

There is silence between them for an hour, then two. Finally, the younger monk musters the courage to speak. "Father," he says, "you know that we are not allowed to touch women."

"Yes, I know."

"How, then, could you carry that woman across the stream?"

My son," he replied, "I put the young woman down two hours ago. But you are still carrying her."

Another Christian version (Catholic)

Two monks were making a pilgrimage to venerate the relics of a great Saint. During the course of their journey, they came to a river where they met a beautiful young woman -- an apparently worldly creature, dressed in expensive finery and with her hair done up in the latest fashion. She was afraid of the current and afraid of ruining her lovely clothing, so asked the brothers if they might carry her across the river.

The younger and more exacting of the brothers was offended at the very idea and turned away with an attitude of disgust. The older brother didn't hesitate, and quickly picked the woman up on his shoulders, carried her across the river, and set her down on the other side. She thanked him and went on her way, and the brother waded back through the waters.

The monks resumed their walk, the older one in perfect equanimity and enjoying the beautiful countryside, while the younger one grew more and more brooding and distracted, so much so that he could keep his silence no longer and suddenly burst out, "Brother, we are taught to avoid contact with women, and there you were, not just touching a woman, but carrying her on your shoulders!"

The older monk looked at the younger with a loving, pitiful smile and said, "Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river; you are still carrying her."

A Daoist Version

A monk and his novice were walking through the forest. They come to a stream. On the bank there was a beautifully dressed woman, crying. The monks asked her what was the matter. “I am on my way to a wedding. I have to cross the stream to get there, but the bridge has been washed away. I was searching for a place to cross where I wouldn’t ruin the dress, but I can’t find one and if I don’t make it across soon, I will be late.”

Without a word, the elder monk scooped her into his arms, waded across the stream, and deposited her on the other side. Ignoring her thanks, he waded back and the two monks resume their walk. They continued on their journey, but the younger monk was agitated and obviously had something on his mind. The elder monk stopped and asked him what was the matter.

“Elder, I am confused. Our vows prohibit us from fleshly contact with women, yet you embraced that woman in your arms. How can this be?” The elder monk eyed his novice with kindly concern. “Novice,” he asked, “I left her on the bank of the stream. Why do you still carry her?

From a Jewish website (though there is no claim it is a Jewish story):

Let me illustrate: Once there were two monks traveling on a pilgrimage who came to the ford of a river. There they saw a girl dressed in all her finery and obviously not knowing what to do, for the river was high and she did not want to ruin her clothes. Without any ado, one of the monks took her on his back, carried her across the river, and put her on dry ground.

Then the monks continued on their way. But, before long, the other monk started complaining, “Surely it is not right to touch a woman; it is against our command-ments to have close contact with women. How could you go against the rules for monks?” and so on he complained for what seemed like hours.

The monk who carried the girl walked along silently, but finally he remarked, “I set her down by the river, but you are still carrying her.”


Eowyn said...

You have a lovely weblog, and I have bookmarked it :o)

I have a suspicion we are on the same page, and that you are a fellow seeker. I ask you to check out my own blog -- -- and my guy's blog -- located at the bottom of

We are currently heavily into orgone energy investigations as a way to help heal our world. If you're interested, just ask.

Thanks again -- :o)

Michelle Wood said...

Hi eowyn,

Thanks for stopping by!

I LOVE your subtitle....

Your blog and that of your guy are just great.

I have heard of but do not know a lot about orgone energy, so I may be stopping by and asking a question or three!

karmasurfer said...

Each time you dive into the meditative waters you emerge a little cleaner. Like washing clothes in the river, I felt myself being cleansed with each successive story. By the time I reached the Jewish story I was no longer "carrying the woman."

Was this your intention? To repeat the lesson until it's learned?


Michelle Wood said...

Hi Karmasurfer,

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

My intention is to show the similarities between religions and spiritual traditions, and therefore between the people who believe and follow them.

I have this fantasy that when people realize that they are more similar than they are different, they will stop fighting over the differences.


Tandava (Carol Henning) said...

Thank you for this!!

A friend of mine loves to quote this parable -- although interestingly, he apparently gets it wrong!

In his version, the second monk is upset because the first monk has delayed them by helping the woman. He stews on this for an hour or two while they walk, and then finally bursts out in anger at the first monk.

To which the first monk gives the "you're still carrying her" reply. Have you ever heard of this version, or did my friend simply invent it out of whole cloth....

Michelle Wood said...

Hi Tandava,

Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment!

There are so many different versions, it would not surprise me if your friend has seen a version of this story that I didn't find when writing this post.

Buddhette said...

What a wonderful blog entry! This is my favorite Buddhist story and it is nice to read different versions of it. Some time ago, I shared this story with a friend and it helped him get over a breakup. :)

Buddhette said...

What a wonderful blog entry! This is my favorite Buddhist story and it is nice to read different versions of it. Some time ago, I shared this story with a friend and it helped him get over a breakup. :)

Michelle Wood said...

Hi Buddhette,

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the stories, and really happy that the metaphor of carrying a burden or leaving it behind helped your friend to get through his break-up. Really, most burdens we carry are in our minds.

Wiggletoes said...

I love this Buddhist parable. Whenever I get into an argument and couldn't let go of it hours later, I think of this story and silently tells myself "I am still carrying that old woman, put her down now."

Michelle Wood said...

Hi Wiggletoes,

Thanks for leaving a comment! Yes, it's a good reminder to let go of burdens we don't need!

sxoidmal said...

What a fascinating compilation, all the variations on a theme. I think such a collection itself underscores why we shouldn't worry about the concept of "authenticity." Who authored the first story? Who authored the words s/he used? Who is the authority of the first concept that someone painted, pressed, or carved into letters?

It's a good story with something for everyone. If anything is necessary, that is all that's necessary.