At Arms Length

I’ve long admired Starfoxy’s personal blog and astute comments here and around the blogs. She’s graciously agreed to grace Exponent II with some guest posts over the next few weeks. Starting now . . .

There’s a parable I heard recently. I think it’s Buddhist, but I’m not sure. It goes like this:

Two monks were walking alongside a road that was tremendously muddy from the recent rains. As they walked they came across a woman dressed in fine silk clothing. The woman explained that she needed to cross the road but could see no way to walk across without ruining her clothes. The first monk cheerfully offered to carry her across the muddy road. She thanked him gratefully as he set her down and she went on her way.

As the monks continued walking the second monk was troubled, and when the first monk asked him why he said “I have been taught that women are a dangerous temptation, they can cloud your mind and distract you from the path. I don’t see how you could just pick that woman up and carry her around as if it were nothing.”

The first monk responded, “I put that woman down by the side of the road and left her there. Why are you still carrying her?”

Aside from the pithy one-line ending, I thought this is a great parable that has wide variety of meanings which are incredibly fun to pick at. Lately I’ve been thinking especially about dealing with ‘dangerous’ people. Is there a ‘best practice,’ a simple default way to act that will prevent temptation in most or all cases? Or are such blanket statements a dangerous foothold for un-Christlike attitudes towards other people?

Now it’s time for my (hopefully) pithy one-line ending: What if those monks were missionaries?


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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  1. Caroline says:

    I love this parable. We hear a lot about “the world” versus “us” in typical LDS rhetoric. I like how this parable questions the dangers inherent in mingling with the other. I like how he’s able to interact in a personal, positive, and helpful way with someone he was taught to consider as dangerous.

    I don’t know if I’ve ever come accross someone I’d label as “dangerous.” Seems to me like most people are people, everyone a mix of good and bad qualities. (Not to say there aren’t murderers, rapists, and torturers running around – I’d like to avoid them.) But in general I can’t think of a group of regular people I would like to make a practice of avoiding because they might lead me into temptation. What types of people are you thinking of, Starfoxy? (I’m curious.)

  2. Deborah says:

    I had a strong reaction to this parable that took it in a different direction: The “woman” was anger.

    I’ve spent so much of my life believing, at a gut level, that it is “bad” to express anger. When I began dating my husband — who comes from an expressive family — this posed a certain conflict. He would express anger boldly, but get over it remarkably quickly — often within minutes!. . . I would then fester quietly for HOURS (“noble” anger at him for getting angry!). He once said something remarkably similar: “Why are you still carrying that around? I let it go hours ago. Do you get some satisfaction from holding on to it?”

    Sometimes I wonder if fearing/hating something keeps it closer to us than finding a way to constructive way relate with that which we would shun.

  3. AmyB says:

    This parable can be analyzed on many levels- that’s the beauty of metaphorical stories, isn’t it! Looking at it in terms of rules is one way I view it. Rules are often made with good reason and for protection, but every contingency cannot be foreseen and in some cases rules fly in the face of common sense and even common courtesy. I believe that if one is to take full spiritual responsibility, one has to be willing to look past the rules to higher principles, just as the monk in the story who (physically) carried the woman.

    I also had a reaction to the story on another level, which is reflective of my current path in coming to terms with being a woman in this world. I am weary of women being representative of temptation, of the too commonly used(in my opinion) archetype of the evil seductress or the whore. It makes me sad that fictional monks, missionaries, and teenage boys in the church are taught to view women as a temptation to be avoided. It feels so demeaning to me. Once I’ve worked through my own issues with this, perhaps other meanings will be more open to be, like Deborah’s moving interpretation of the “woman” as anger.

  4. Starfoxy says:

    AmyB I’ve had similar thoughts when I first read this parable- it touches that raw nerve that gets fed up with insisting that my mere existence should not consitute a temptation. As I’ve thought about it more, I saw that a non-symbollic teaching of the parable could be that the temptation is not in the woman but in the personal response to the woman. The first monk was not tempted by the woman because he avoided her with his thoughts and emotions (ie he didn’t undress her with his mind or get caught up in reminding himself what a dirty temptation she was) in this way he was able to interact with her as an ordinary human being. This may or may not be the intended meaning, but if it is then it is incredibly progessive even today.

    Caroline- The particular types of people I had in mind aren’t really a cohesive group, but rather are the people we (or at least I) were told not to be friends with at school. The message mostly came in a positive format, for example instead of saying ‘don’t make friends with drug dealers’ the leaders say ‘become friends with people who share your standards and goals.’ It should mean that we put an extra effort into making friends with similar standards, but it normally ends up meaning that we restrict our efforts to be friendly and welcoming to those with similar standards.

    Deborah, your anger idea just further confirmed that this can mean something different to every person who reads it, I would never have thought of that. I think your last sentence, however, perfectly sums up the common thread in every interpretation I’ve come across. Strong emotions go both ways, loving or lusting after a woman may distract you, but hating or fearing her will distract you just as much. Well said.

  5. John says:

    Technical troubleshooting test.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Heh. Interesting, my kids have that story on a CD of stories told by Mark Binder (great one, by the way, if you have little kids who enjoy a good dose of bodily-functions humor), but the dangerous thing to be carried is a horrible slobbering monster, not a woman. Its danger is in its uncleanness.

    I wonder if that’s an authentic variation on the tale or if the storyteller just changed it to make it more interesting for kids? And if it is authentic, what does that add?

  7. John Remy says:

    *****History Break!******

    The earliest reference I can find to this sort of thing is an ancient Indian Buddhist story of a hermit who offered to carry a beautiful woman across a river on his back, and was found carrying her still as he approached the market. The version told by Starfoxy is generally attributed as an ancient Chinese Zen (Chan) story, though I’m still looking for a specific reference. It makes sense that it is Buddhist in origin, because the primary teaching is that of non-attachment to the things of this world. Zen also has a tradition of rule-breaking.

    Okay, back to the regularly scheduled blog!

  8. Starfoxy says:

    John- I wondered if you wouldn’t know more of the history of this story. Thank you for sharing that. I’m glad to know the history so I can share it with confidence.

    Ana- I have no idea what a horrible slobbering monster would add to the story. Ideas? Anyone?

  9. annegb says:

    I take it as resentment. Which I never put one down in my life.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Is life with the Trader always like this?

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