An Unforgettable Zen Story About "Letting Go"

Here is my favorite Zen story about letting go and moving on.

Posted Mar 08, 2015

There is a classic Zen story of letting go that is told in many different versions. One of my favorites appears in a book for young readers by Jon J. Muth called Zen Shorts. 

Two traveling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. The rains had made deep puddles and she couldn’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there, looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her, so they couldn’t help her across the puddle.

The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn’t thank the older monk, she just shoved him out of the way and departed.

As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!

 “I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”

It feels good to let go—not when other people tell us to “let go and move on,” but when we ourselves see the necessity of it.  Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting or whitewashing the other person’s behavior. It means protecting ourselves from the corrosive effects of staying stuck. Chronic anger and bitterness dissipate our energy and sap our creativity. Each of us has a certain amount of energy that fuels our spirit. If five percent—or seventy-five percent—of that energy is directed toward carrying someone who has wronged us, then that same percentage is unavailable for other pursuits.

If anger keeps us stuck in the past, we won’t be fully in the present, nor can we move forward into the future with our full potential for optimism and hope. We don’t need to forgive a particular bad action when the other person fails to genuinely acknowledge the wrong.

But we do need, over time, to dissipate its emotional charge. We need to accept the reality that sometimes the wrongdoer is unreachable and unrepentant, and we have a choice as to whether to carry the wrongdoing on our shoulders or not.