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The other side of the river


Photo: Joshua Earle/Unsplash
There is a popular Zen story that is both revealing and inspiring for its clarity of thought and deeper meaning.

One morning, two monks, a teacher and his disciple, were travelling together when they came upon a river. They were about to cross it when a young woman approached them and asked if they would help her get to the other side. The monks looked at each other perplexed. They did not know what to do for they had taken vows of celibacy, which meant they were not supposed to look at women, leave alone touch them. Then, suddenly, the Master picked up the woman and waded across the river to the other side where he deposited her and resumed his journey without saying a word.

The young monk was too stunned to speak and followed his teacher in silence. He couldn’t believe what he’d witnessed. The hours passed and it was well past noon when the disciple could no longer keep his emotions bottled out.

He turned to the Master and blurted out, “We’re monks who have renounced life and worldly pleasures. How could you then carry that woman across the river?”

The older monk looked at him and spoke quietly, “Brother, I left her on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?”

The monk’s repartee is a metaphor for how the mental baggage we carry through most of our adult lives can affect our capacity to be happy. Put another way, we often carry the burden of our past deeds as we navigate the river of life. We hold onto unpleasant memories that can hurt us and our loved ones, and sometimes we do so more than we cherish the beautiful moments in our present.

Our mental and emotional well-being, and by extension, our physical condition, lies in our ability to leave painful recollections on the other side of the river – in the past where they belong. If at all we carry anything across, let it be only the things that contribute to personal growth. Selective memory, where we reflect on positive moments and absorb valuable lessons from negative experiences, can serve as a coping mechanism to overcome difficult times and fill our lives with joy and optimism.

The moral of this story is to dwell less on the past and live more in the abundant light of the present.

© Prashant C. Trikannad

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1 Comment


What a wonderful reminder to let things go. Baggage doesn't let us grow and heal. Baggage weighs us down, too, so that we have less energy and strength to face life. That is a great story.

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