Zen Koans Explained: The Muddy Road to Enlightenment

The practice of Zen may be intimidating to newcomers. Interpretation of Zen koans— the often perplexing stories used to test a student's insight—can be confusing and discouraging. In order to facilitate general enlightenment, we will periodically assist in koan explanation.

The koan: "The Muddy Road"

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

"Come on, girl" said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he told Tanzan, "especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"

"I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?"

Points to Ponder: Who is Tarzan? Who is Aikido? Who is girl? What does Zen mean?

The Enlightenment: "Come on, girl." For a man like Tarzan, addressing a woman in such a breezy fashion would have come naturally. Life in the jungle tends to produce hard edges rather than niceties. After swinging on vines throughout adolescence, carrying a girl on his shoulders would have bothered Tarzan little. It is impossible to know for sure, but one would not be out of line in assuming that rape would have at least crossed Tarzan's mind, and could well have happened, were it not for his escort's evident training in Aikido. Tarzan's hostility, evident in his final retort to Aikido's admonitions on chastity, likely mask the knowledge that all of the raw strength and animal instinct in the world is no match for a monk well versed in open-handed throwing techniques and joint locks. And what of the girl herself? She remains a cipher— a delicate porcelain doll in need of help from a big strong man, a kimono buyer in need of a better kimono warranty, which covers normal muddy wear and tear. Who is the real big, strong man? Is it Tarzan, carrying her across effortlessly, on the back of his cheetah? Is it the noble Aikido expert trained in rape prevention? Or is it the girl herself, capable of the miracle of birth? "Are you still carrying her?" A voice dripping with sarcasm thick as the honey fruit of the lost jungle that time forgot. Are you still carrying her? Are you still marrying her? Are you still marrying her? All of these thoughts must have run through Aikido's mind.

Finally, he turned to Tarzan and said, "No." By that time the person writing it all down was gone.

This has been "Zen Koans Explained." Zen be unto you.

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