The letter VS the spirit
The letter VS the spirit
Zen Kōans

Let us explore this kōan illustrating the practice of non-attachment. Two monks, Tanzan and Ekido, are traveling together down a muddy road.

Ahead they see an attractive traveler, unable to cross the muddy path.

Tanzan politely offers his help, carrying the traveler on his back across the street, and placing her down without a word.

Ekido was shocked.

According to monastic law, monks were not supposed to go near women, let alone touch a beautiful stranger.

After miles of walking, Ekido could no longer restrain himself.

“How could you carry that women?”, he angrily asked out of sheer anger.

Tanzan smiled, ‘I left the traveler there. Are you still carrying her?’

The letter VS the spirit: Interpretation

This story, like most other kōans, has numerous interpretations. But one popular reading suggests that despite never having physically carried the traveler, it was Ekido who broke the monastic law by mentally “clinging to” the woman.

This type of conflict examining the grey area between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law- was common in Kōans.

Kōans help to establish an essential Buddhist ideal: abolish binary thinking. The purpose of these kōans is not to reach a simple solution. It’s the very act of struggling with these paradoxical puzzles which challenge our desire for resolution, and our understanding of understanding itself.

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