Two monks were walking toward a river.
As they were standing there, a beautiful maiden approached and asked if they could help her across. The senior monk, without a moment’s hesitation, picked her up and carried her to the other side.
A few hours of silence past between the monks. Eventually, unable to contain himself any longer, the junior monk asked, “How could you do that, Brother?” “Do what?” “How could you touch that woman? You broke your vows!”
The senior monk paused for a second, and then burst out laughing. He asked, “Aren’t you tired, Brother?” “Why would I be tired?” “Well, I set the woman down on the other side of the river, but you’ve been carrying her all this way!”
There are a few different ways to look at this story. On the surface, it seems to be about letting go. Once the senior monk was done carrying the woman across, what’s done was done. He moved on as if it never even happened. The junior monk went another way. He couldn’t stop dwelling on it, and it ended up making him more and more frustrated.
The senior monk was immersed in the here and now, the junior monk was stuck in his head. So non-dwelling is the basic message.
But we can also dig a bit deeper. The junior monk wasn’t just stuck in the past, he was stuck on a whole bunch of shit. He was stuck on the precepts, on thinking that being a monk was a big deal, and he probably on his insecurities about women. While he was lost in all that crap, he overlooked one of the most fundamental aspects of Buddhism: being helpful.
Someone asked for help, so the senior monk helped. He didn’t make a big deal out of it, and it didn’t matter that she was a woman. He didn’t break any of the monastic precepts, because he wasn’t attracted to her. He just ferried her across and then went about his business. It was ordinary. No big deal.
The story doesn’t mention what the woman did after these events. Maybe she made a big deal out of it too, or maybe she didn’t. I can imagine her either telling her relatives about the events, and some of them making a big deal out of it as well; I can also picture her just saying, “Thank you,” before heading home.
Just like in the wu gong-an, this story has one monk doing something unorthodox, and the other flipping their shit about it. Really, they’re both about the same thing: approaching each moment with an ordinary mind.
An ordinary mind is a functional mind, it doesn’t make problems for itself or others. If it sees something that needs to be done, it does it; if it doesn’t spot anything to be done, it doesn’t do anything. That’s because it’s always fresh, it isn’t a mixed up collection of clean and dirty laundry tossed into the same basket.
In the wu gong-an, when that monk tried to test Zhaozhou with, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” he was basically saying, “Can you do my laundry for me?” The same thing was happening here. The junior monk was carrying loads of stained undies, and he wanted the senior monk to take them off his hands.
In both cases, the response was meant to point out that the monks’ laundry—whether it’s clean or dirty—wasn’t theirs. The same way they tried to hand it over to someone else, someone else pawned it off on them. In both cases, the the response was, “Why do you need laundry? You’re true nature is to be nude, so just be naked!”
Zhaozhou was just being himself, being naked, as was the senior monk in this story. They had nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of since they were devoid of all self-consciousness and self-deceit. They were both just being ordinary, being helpful.
It’s important to discern the difference there. “I want/try/like to help,” isn’t the same thing as being helpful. It took me a long time to realize that. If we try to help, or want to help, then our actions are stemming from the laundry we’re carrying. We’re being self-conscious, and probably deceiving ourselves as well by covering up our true motives.
It’s easy to see the difference, because wanting to help causes suffering when we can’t help, while being naturally helpful doesn’t. If the monk couldn’t have carried the woman across for some reason, he might’ve said, “I’m sorry,” but that would’ve been the end of it. His mind would’ve been just as undisturbed as it was after he helped her because, in either case, he wasn’t dwelling on anything. He didn’t have an agenda.
In Chan, no-self is the basis, no-agenda is the teaching, and no-dwelling is the practice. Zhaozhou and the senior monk are examples of people embodying all three of those principles. When we live like that, not only do we suffer less, but we have more energy to do whatever needs to be done.