Two monks approach the bank of a river. As they prepare to wade their way across, they turn to see a worried-looking young woman fretting at the site of small broken bridge. When the woman sees the two companions, she frantically runs over and tells them that she needs to get to the next town over before sunset, but she has no way to cross the river because she can’t swim. As one monk begins to offer his assistance, the other quickly accosts him warning that in trying to help the women he will be filled with desire to break his oath of celibacy. The first monk ignores his companion’s council, lifts the woman in his arms, fords her across the river, and continues on his way. After watching the event in utter disbelief, with much chagrin, the companion monk catches up to his friend. Several miles down the road, the companion monk is no longer able to hold his tongue and he asks his friend why he would put himself so close to temptation and risk breaking his sacred vow? The other monk responds:
“I have no need to worry. I left the woman beside the river, but it seems that you still carry her with you.”
I’ve been thinking about this story for the past couple of weeks. It’s a very old parable often used in Zen teachings. As I’ve thought about the message here, I couldn’t help but wonder, what temptations I carry with me? What should I be leaving by the river?
Desire is a curious emotion. We often hear about burning desires, and I’ve recently actualized how appropriate it is to draw this likeness between fire and desire. I need fire within me to keep me going, to fuel my journey, but many times it’s all too easy to lose control. A small flame can quickly become a smoldering blaze. My mental clarity is balanced finely between healthy and unhealthy desire.
About six months ago my relationship of three years came to end. Our relationship represented so much of what my college experience was. Together we went through every trial, frustration, success, and excitement that an undergraduate experience has to offer. From lengthy discussions about newfound philosophy, to the nights we could never remember, and to long road trips seasoned with playlists of our favorite songs. We were in love, and in those days our love was invincible. Young and full of fiery passion, I often thought that nothing would stop me from making things last.
Life happens. Plans change, people grow, and as we begin to learn more about ourselves, our environment seems to change with us. The hardest part about the end was there was nothing or no one to blame. There was no single event that caused a cataclysm, no earthquake, no storm, no life changing circumstance. It was a slow crawl to the end.
Within the last eight months, it became increasingly clear that we both had different ideas of what was important in life. All the things we shared in college became less and less important. As we began to talk about more permanent life-long ideas, the differences between the two of us became painfully clear. We both could only compromise so much without losing what made us, us. Things just couldn’t work out. I knew it for months, but I didn’t want to accept it.
By the time summer had rolled around, I was in the full swing of trying to move on. I busied myself with many social commitments, work hours, and vacations, but within all of these distractions thoughts of her found their way into my everyday life. The shuffle feature on my phone became my worst enemy; our road trip songs would crash through my headphones like a Spanish Battalion. Her scent would find its way into old clothes like a sharp poison. No matter how much I convinced myself that the past was in the past, I couldn’t let her go.
Then I received wisdom from the wise monk: “I left the woman beside the river, but it seems that you still carry her with you.”
Surely this couldn’t apply to me… We broke up! I left her by the river months ago!!
Desire is a funny thing though. Just like a dwindling fire, desire leaves glowing embers in your heart; little pieces of the past you can’t let go of. Paths may have diverged months ago, but the desire was still in my heart. I longed for the past. I yearned for things I once called home. I so greatly desired the familiar comforts I had leaned on time and time again over the past three years. It wasn’t so much that I refused to let her go, it was that I insisted on holding on to the memories with an iron grip.
I decided to find all of the remnants of the relationship left in my room, pack it away in a special place, say one last quiet thank you, and finally leave things by the river.
It’s a tough lesson to learn. The journey is always a trial, but the end is liberating!
Desire has many forms. Temptation is a Trojan Horse. It’s worth considering: what do you refuse to leave by the river?