Two monks were returning to their monastery one evening when they came across a stream in full flood. A beautiful young woman stood on the edge, looking anxiously up and downstream, desperate to find a way across.
As the monks approached the crossing, the older of the two scooped up the young woman and placed her on his shoulder, entered the water and carefully made his way across to the far side. When they reached the riverbank, the monk put the young woman down and walked swiftly on without a backward glance.
That night, as the monastery was preparing for bed, the younger monk sought out the older monk in his cell, and said; “You know that our Order forbids us even to look at a woman, but you picked her up and placed her on your shoulder!”
The older monk looked at his younger companion and said, “My son, when I carried her across the river, I put her down on the other side. But you have carried her in your heart ever since!’
Some of the questions this story raises are about how we interpret the laws (or ‘rules’) that we either choose for ourselves, or that we agree to abide by, as part of the commitment of being in a community.
How serious is this ‘forbidden’ breach for the older, more mature monk? And for whom was it a breach of the Rule? Does the Rule really override doing the right thing – ie helping someone in a desperate plight? The older monk was clearly able to make the decision for himself, weigh up the alternatives and issues, and make up his mind – in a matter of moments.
Other questions concern our inner awareness of our feelings. Why does the younger monk accuse the older monk, while hiding his true motive behind a cloak of self-righteousness? Perhaps because he is unaware of his own inner state of being, functioning entirely through an external life while remaining oblivious to his inner emotions and responses.
So what about our selves?
Well, one response might be to ask: What’s really bothering me? Is it because someone else is breaching the external rules? If so, do I really have the task of being my brother’s keeper?
Or, is it because of my own internal needs for affirmation—like the beautiful young woman’s Thank You—not being met? Or, am I afflicted with thoughts of lust at the sight of this beautiful young woman, and really wanted to carry her myself—and show her what a wonderfully kind gesture I have made! We generally don’t see the world as it is, but as we are.
Something more than our personal experiences shapes our judgment of others—our own attitudes influence the way we ‘see’ the world.
What do we choose to see today?