Apr 012010

The Muddy Road, a personal favourite of mine, comes from 101 Zen stories. It tells the story of a Buddhist monk named Tanzan, who lived in Japan during the Meji Period. He was famous for ignoring many of the Buddhist rules and for his mastery of Zen.

The Muddy Road

Tanzan and Ekido were once travelling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. As they came around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross at an intersection.

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

Ekido did not speak until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer 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?”

What we can learn from Tanzan and Ekido

In the story above, Ekido was the perfect foil for Tanzan. He memorized the rules of Buddhism by heart and followed them to the letter. But his understanding proved to be rigid and superficial. Knowing that he was vulnerable to desire and distraction in the presence of women, he avoided them completely to maintain his inner harmony. This however, was not true harmony to begin with. Tanzan’s actions bothered Ekido so greatly that he was still thinking about it hours later. The incident distracted him both externally and internally.

Tanzan, on the other hand, did not bother about the rules. They were not necessary for him to maintain his clarity of mind as he had already understood their true meaning. As such, nothing could affect his inner harmony. This clarity allowed him to see the situation as it was; someone needed his help and so he offered it. Because he had no preconceived judgments or attachments to the situation, he was able to move on immediately.

The dangers of distraction

While it is not easy to have Tanzan’s clarity of mind, it is useful to work towards it. In this day and age there are endless distractions which our minds can fixate upon like Ekido. Some examples are worries or temptations. The issue at stake is one of moderation and self-control. If we find ourselves obsessed or affected by something to a significant degree, we are distracted. While our minds remain fixated upon these distractions, a whole host of side effects occur. We have no inner peace. We lose sight of our goals. We become less productive than we should be. And finally, we miss the important things around us.

How to deal with distractions


The first thing we can do when faced with distractions is to realize that we are distracted. No matter how harmless it seems, we should avoid meeting distractions halfway. Every chance we give distraction will only allow it to strengthen its hold over us. The sooner we are on our guard against distractions, the easier it will be to nip it in the bud.

-Flight or fight

When faced with distractions, we have to decide whether it would be best to avoid it or face it. Avoidance is a good option when we have no self-control. But avoidance is a temporary solution. We are only truly free of a distraction when it no longer has any hold over us.

If we cannot avoid a distraction, we should make it a point to get it over with as quickly as possible. Then we should move on without looking back. Tanzan knew that it would cost him little to help out the girl. And so he did without a fuss and moved on after doing so.

-Constant vigilance against internal distractions

Apart from external distractions, we also have internal distractions. It is therefore important to observe and manage the things we see, do and indulge in. We cannot expect to be healthy if we eat junk food. Similarly we cannot expect to have inner harmony if we keep exposing ourselves to temptations.

Then there are the thoughts that we cling to. It could be our worries or events from the past that we are unable to let go of. These distractions tend to clutter our mind again hindering our ability to be in harmony with ourselves and the world. Whenever our minds have too much clutter, we should take the time to let go of unnecessary thoughts to the best of our abilities. Focus on the solutions, what we can do and not the problems. Confront the issues one at a time. Write it out, bring it into the light of the world and take active steps to deal with it.

If we can’t let go of these distractions, there is no need to be unduly worried. A river can wear down even the hardest of rocks with time. Similarly, slow and persistent effort will eventually allow us to let go. At least making the effort to clear what we can will go some way in restoring our inner harmony.

Parting Thoughts

It’s not easy to be free of distractions. But if we are constantly vigilant, we are less likely to forget our goals and to have more harmonious lives. In this manner, we can emulate Tanzan and move on quickly.

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