The grandmother and the young monk. Or how desire reveals us.

- through Fabrice Groult

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This is a most disturbing story that haunted me for many years until I could understand its meaning. It is one of the most difficult koans and relates to sexuality.

An old woman in a remote village in Japan had given refuge to a young monk, having him build a beautiful hermitage at the bottom of the garden and bringing him tea and food every day for ten years. The monk, for his part, had nothing else to do in return than to devote himself assiduously to the practice of meditation and to the study of the teachings of the Buddha. Such was the agreement they had sealed until the day when she really wanted to test the real understanding of the monk. What had he really understood in his solitary practice? Hadn't he strayed into his serene immobility? Would he have fallen into the trap denounced by Nagarjuna concerning emptiness? He then had a brilliant idea, that of asking a fresh and beautiful young girl of seventeen springs, the most beautiful in the country, it was said, to pay a visit to this monk. Dressed in her finery, her black hair neatly combed and smoothed, her body perfumed, the young girl took the path that led to the door of the cabin where the monk was seated on his mat, absorbed in deep meditation. She sat down opposite him and gazed at him for a long time. His face, with its pure features and as if washed by the silence in which he was bathed, was of great beauty and nobility. She placed an offering of food to which he paid no more attention than to her. His meditation must be very deep, she told herself. And seized with a sudden desire, she approached him and placed her wet lips on his. He didn't move an eyelash. Didn't respond to the sudden embrace and remained still and stoic in the soft morning light. She spoke to him: "You are beautiful, young monk, don't desireare you? He then opened his mouth to say in a proper manner: "I am an old dead tree on a cold cliff, no warmth is to be found in the middle of winter." The young girl, touched and impressed by so much detachment, but also disappointed to see him not answering, got up and greeted him profoundly with joined hands. On her return, the old woman questioned her; she told him the strange episode during which the monk had remained unmoved. " What ! she exclaimed, so that's all that madcap understood! For ten years I have sheltered a wretch and a sloth! And she rushed to the hermitage from where she dislodged the monk with a broom to immediately set fire to the hut which, in a few moments, caught fire and of which there were soon only a few left. handfuls of ashes.

The Virtue Trap

What could this sudden anger of the old lady mean? Because make no mistake, she would probably have seen just as red if he had let himself be tempted by the pretty young girl. So therefore, taking or rejecting is the same error. How to get out of this impasse ? I would like to point here some modest directions that can illuminate this incredible story and our own life.

First of all, this monk, locked in a moral and rigid practice, defending his virtue and his reputation, pays little attention to this young girl. He hardly listens to her. Shows no compassion for his suffering and his trouble, and thinks only of preserving his virtue and demonstrating and publicizing it. His virtue is the fruit of navel-gazing and essentially narcissistic. However, to walk is first to get rid of concern for oneself, to pay attention to others and to what affects them.

To walk is first to get rid of concern for oneself, to pay attention to others and to what affects them.

Then, his virtue is learned, it has no kind of freshness, he recites a lesson and poses as a hero of morality. True virtue arises from circumstances and adapts to whatever it encounters. He could have invited the young girl to sit down, offered her a walk in the garden, admired the flowers of the season with her and invited her to practice rather than serve the dish of a warm morality mixed with disdain and of arrogance.

Finally, the trap is there, the question and the answer is not to take or push back, to seize or to throw. And it is in these terms that the monk articulates and manifests his understanding. He obeys a dualistic scheme, unable to live without conceptualizing and deciding reality by separating it between right and wrong, illusion and truth. Any action would have been right not as such, to make love or to forbid it, but because emanating from the right intuition nourished by love and understanding. This monk was incapable of it. So he was driven out by his own bewilderment and spiritual drunkenness.

A last word and not the least. The ultimate reversal of this koan : in this story, who are we? Are we not these three faces in turn? Don't we adopt these worn-out and often misplaced strategies? The conduct of the monk is certainly haughty, that of the young girl far too enticing. But what about the violent and very severe old woman? Who is right ? Who's wrong ? Isn't there a place and a moment when these three ways of dancing with reality no longer have a place? Are seduction, aggression or judgment authentic behaviors or conditioned reflexes?

Let us burn the abode of this very koan, understand this comedy that we all play, and then come alive and fresh into our lives.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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