A Shallow Stream

Posted by:

G Sakamoto

There is a story of a priest and disciple who traveled on a pilgrimage together. It was a time when people still walked. A time when going somewhere meant being outside. Sometimes having to contend with bad weather. But often just enjoying a walk, on the way to somewhere, alone or with family or friends. One day the priest and his student met such a traveler, a young woman who stood anxiously on the bank of a shallow stream.

As she saw the two priests approach she turned to them. The recent rain had washed away a foot bridge that served as the only means to cross the stream without wetting your feet. Usually if the bridge was not there you simply rolled up your pants or hitched up your dress and waded across the stream. It was more of an nuisance than a hazard. Sometimes even if the bridge was there it was better to dip your feet in the cold, rushing water and enjoy the smooth, hard stones press against the soles of tired feet.

The storm had passed. In the humid, still air cicadas buzzed and whirred. The woman explained that she was afraid if she tried to cross the stream she might slip and fall. Without hesitation the priest offered to carry her across. He squatted in front of her, offering his back as her means to cross the stream. She climbed on and with surprising grace they were across. She thanked the priest as his student joined them. And then they were alone again.

Their journey would take them through forests and meadows. To small towns and cities. Pass fields of grain and vegetables and rice, cultivated by farmers who followed the cycle of seasons flowing through the earth. They would visit temples. Some with immense importance, with histories reaching back a thousand years. The journey was a time of thought and reflection. A time to think about awareness in this vast ocean of life.

The stream fell away behind them as they climbed the path that followed the contours of the hill. Suddenly, as they reached a particularly steep section of the path, the student cried out in a voice that silenced the forest, “You talked to her. You carried her on your back. We’re on a pilgrimage. We agreed. We’re supposed to be thinking within. Not talking to people. Not carrying people on our back.” The teacher nodded in agreement then said, “I put her down at the stream. Why are you still carrying her?”

Sometimes our expectations can keep us from seeing the possibilities of what can or must be done. Had the priest not offered to help the woman she would have been left alone to solve her problem. Solving her problem on her own may have been the best decision. A lesson she could have learned from her experience was to plan ahead. Perhaps the priest helping her was enabling her to be irresponsible.

But perhaps the lesson was for his student whose expectations interfered with how he engaged the world. Thinking too much about how things should be and not seeing how things are: someone needed help to cross a stream.

We see the world through the lens of our expectations, our preferences and prejudices. This can result in difficulties for ourselves and others. This is the second of the Four Noble Truths.

Then again, perhaps it was simply someone responding to a need with kindness.