July 21st Sunday Service Message: A Monk with Heavy Thoughts

Release your attachments to how things "should be."

In the third message of the six-part summer series Wisdom Tales from Around the World, Rev. Joanne tells us the story of “A Monk with Heavy Thoughts.” 

Coming from the Zen Buddhism tradition, it tells of a senior and junior monk who are walking down a path together and come to a river with a strong current.  As they prepare to cross they see a young, beautiful woman in need of help to brave the waters.  She notices the monks and asks for help.  The senior monk carries the woman on his shoulder and lets her gently down on the other bank.  They part ways.  The junior monk is upset.

Hours go by and the senior monk noticing the discomfort of the younger monk asks, “Is something on your mind?”  The junior monk says, “As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman, how could you carry her across the river?”  The senior monk replies, “I left the woman hours ago at the bank, however, you seem to still be carrying her.”

This story is an illustration of how we often “carry” thoughts, either knowingly or unknowingly, that do not serve us.  These unnecessary thought burdens cause us undue suffering.  The junior monk, perceiving wrongdoing by the elder monk, could not release his need to be right and to correct his brother.  This caused him suffering that he could have avoided completely had he released from his mind his thoughts of what was “permitted” for monks and his need to point out the error the elder monk made.

While we may see the primary meaning of this Zen tale to be that we should not hold onto thoughts that do not serve us, we might also see another lesson.  The elder monk certainly knew the prohibition for him to touch a woman, but was wise enough to see past rigid dogma and help someone in need.  No harm was done to his vows because intent is everything.  He behaved nobly and with honor.  That was something the younger monk could not see.

Rev. Joanne reminds us that Buddhism teaches something called The Four Noble Truths.  They are:

1. Life is suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by attachment.
3. We can transcend suffering by releasing attachment.
4. The means to release attachment is through the Eightfold Path.

While the discussion of the full meaning of The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path are beyond the scope of both one Sunday talk and this short essay, what is important to understand within the context of this lesson is that most of our attachments reside in our subconscious minds.  Modern psychological research estimates that only between 5% to 7% of our cognitive activities (decisions, actions, emotions, behaviors) occur in a conscious manner.  The vast majority of our interactions with the world are non-conscious.  These non-conscious actions include autonomic responses such as blushing when embarrassed, pupils dilating when attracted to a person or thing, quickly turning your head to face the direction of a startling noise, and increased heart rate and blood pressure when angry or frightened.

Also included in the non-conscious part of us are the stories we tell ourselves about how things should be.  These stories may come from societal conditioning, individual experiences (both pleasurable and traumatic), the environment in our family of origin, or religious teaching.

Rev. Joanne tells us of a recent experience a congregant shared with her.  In her home, there was a clothing rack that fell over and dumped all of the clothes on the floor.  Having employed the spiritual practice learned last week to stop, breathe, and take a step back before acting or reacting she was able to see past the irritation and frustration of having to pick up all of the clothes, repair the rack, and perhaps launder and press some of the clothes that fell.  The point is that had she gotten upset at the misfortune of the accident it would not have changed the fact that upset or not, the mess still needed to be cleaned up.  So, if the mess needed to be cleaned up either way, why be upset and angry in doing so?

Zen Buddhists have a saying:

Before enlightenment – chopping wood and carrying water.
After enlightenment – chopping wood and carrying water.

We all have ups and downs in our lives (hopefully more ups than downs).  A good, succinct summary of the Four Noble Truths is “In life, pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

We can greatly lessen our suffering in life when we release our attachments to how things should be.  This does not mean that we should take an “oh well” attitude about everything, or not want to improve our lives and the lives of those around us.  What it does mean is that when things occur we would prefer not to, we can choose to dwell in suffering or to release that attachment and move forward from where we are.

One tool to help us do that is to connect with Divine Mind.  Rev. Joanne reminds us that “connect” is actually not the correct way to think of that, since we are never not connected to Divine Mind.  Rather, we should focus our attention on the Christ Spirit within ourselves and become aware that by doing so we are much better equipped to handle whatever life may bring.


All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind,
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows,
Like a never-departing shadow

The Dhammapada (Buddhism)

Spiritual Practice:

Think of one person that you don’t particularly like.  Make the choice to think kindly of them today, tomorrow, the day after, and always.

Rev. Joanne asks us not to immediately turn it up to 11 and think of the person with whom we have the most issues.  She suggests that we start with a less contentious person and exercise our loving-kindness muscles before attempting too heavy of lifting.  If we start with a too difficult situation we may become quickly frustrated, stop the practice, and conclude the technique does not work.

Remember, this practice is not about changing the other person – they must do that on their own. And truth be known, they may not actually need to change.  They could be just fine.  Just because you are angry, upset, or offended does not mean you are right.  You may be right, but that is not guaranteed.  This practice is about changing ourselves and our reactions to others and to the wider world.  Finally, this is a private practice so it is important that it remains only in your heart.  Sharing names or situations with others is not holding kind thoughts, it is just wanting to be right again!

This week, I will hold kind thoughts for someone I do not particularly care for.  Unless you are a saint, everyone has someone they can think of.  Who will you hold in your heart with kindness?

Greg Skuderin