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two traveling monks parable

by Dominique Allmon

can we put an end to our suffering?

One of my favorite Zen parables wisely talks about letting go of things. For many of us this is a very difficult task. Our minds crave permanence and we try to hold on to things without even realizing that our attachments are the main cause of our suffering. We define ourselves through our experience and through our memories. Without them we feel invisible, insignificant. For as long as we can hold on to something we feel we exist. Even if it is pain of a past experience, a disease, or a loss of a loved one. We seem to know who we are and which way we are going, even if the pain is tearing us apart.


Two traveling monks reached a river where they met a young and very attractive woman. She was in despair. She had to cross the river, but was afraid to do so. The current was too strong and she was afraid of drowning. Without hesitation, the older monk picked her up onto his shoulders and carried her across the river. Arriving safely on the other bank he sat her down and bowed. She expressed her gratitude and departed. The monks continued their journey in silence. Unable to hold his silence any longer, the younger monk spoke with reproach "Master, of all people you should have known that our spiritual teaching forbids us contact with women, but you have picked that one and carried her on your shoulders! How can that be!?"

"Brother," replied the master, "I set her down on the other side hours ago, but you are still carrying her."

letting go of pain

This simple and amazing story describes the state of mind of most people. Long after the original experience, we are still carrying it around. This is especially true when the experience was painful. The First Noble Truth teaches us that there is suffering. The human existence in itself is painful and filled with suffering. We experience physical, emotional, and existential pain.

According to the Second Noble Truth, this pain is amplified by our own attitude towards our experience and our attachment to it. We "own" our experience. We "own" our pain. When pain becomes our identity, we are not willing to let go of it easily. We hold on to everything that was done to us. We hold on to every mistake we have made if only out of fear that we could make the same mistake again. We hold on to every false belief that only perpetuates our suffering because letting go of it feels like losing ourselves without a trace. Sometimes we would deny ourselves the right to joyful existence and chose to suffer holding on to the injuries of the past. We never forget. If the memories are not present in our conscious minds, they are deeply embedded in our subconscious. 

Although the psychology of suffering is very complex, it is possible to break the attachment to pain. The Third Noble Truth postulates that it is possible to end suffering. Meditation calms the mind and allows profound introspection and self-analysis. In severe cases psychotherapy may be necessary. The success of any of these approaches lies in our ability to understand that the only way to end suffering is to detach ourselves from it. Letting go of pain takes courage, but it is absolutely necessary if we want to live happy, fearless, and fulfilled lives. Letting go of pain takes discipline. Only when we consciously focus our minds on the present, are we able to experience our lives to the full.

The Fourth Noble Truth teaches us that there is a way to end suffering. There is no promise that we would never suffer again, but our existence in the present allows us to sort through our emotions in the instant, when they arise, and to acknowledge the situation for what it really is. We do not have to carry the experience around for the rest of our lives. We could leave it right there and move on. Detachment from pain is by no means a loss of identity. The memory of our experience does not go away. We do not deny its existence. It only assumes a different role in our personal history. We need courage and discipline to go through this process. We just have to convince ourselves that we are worth it and that there is a life after the pain is gone. Every single day new perspectives open before us. We just have to allow them in. And remember, we all have to cross a river, sometimes with a very heavy load. Do not forget to leave your load as soon as you crossed your river.


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