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Koan: No Loving Kindness

Koan: No Loving Kindness

There was an old woman in China who had supported a monk for over twenty years. She had built a little hut for him and fed him while he was meditating. Finally she wondered just what progress he had made in all this time.

To find out, she obtained the help of a girl rich in desire. “Go and embrace him,” she told her, “and then ask him suddenly: ‘What now?'”

The girl called upon the monk and without much ado caressed him, asking him what he was going to do about it.

“An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter,” replied the monk somewhat poetically. “Nowhere is there any warmth.”

The girl returned and related what he had said.

“To think I fed that fellow for twenty years!” exclaimed the old woman in anger. “He showed no consideration for your needs, no disposition to explain your condition. He need not have responded to passion, but at least he should have evidenced some compassion.”

She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.

18 comments to Koan: No Loving Kindness

  • Kimberly Scott

    Ok. I was really hoping to come here and find someone else had already commented on this koan. This is probably the second koan I’ve read in my life and I’m very new to Buddhism and even newer to Zen. I can only offer my gut reaction to this little story. Forgive me for my ignorance. I hope I’m not coming at this from way out in left field. We shall see…

    The old woman showed a lot of compassion for the monk by feeding him for 20 years and building him a little hut. Much like the compassion we show for our pets. Although, I allow my pets to live in my house with me. It’s too hot and lonely for them outside. Perhaps as hot as it was cold for the monk alone in his hut? I don’t know.

    Twenty years in the dog house is a really long time.

  • I dunno either. This is one of the ones that stumps me a bit. By most standards, the monk “passed the test” by not giving into the girl’s seductions, but the old woman considered it a failure.

    The answer he gave her though… ‚ÄúAn old tree grows on a cold rock in winter, Nowhere is there any warmth,‚Äù is what I really don’t follow well. I keep trying to read something sexual into it, because it was in response to a seduction. I suspect he was simply saying “I’m too old for that sort of thing,” but whether or not that really is the case, then I, like the old woman, am not really sure.

    But on the more material side of it, for a monk to be fed and housed for 20 years, however simply, was a pretty good deal for the monk.

  • Kimberly Scott

    I thought of the sexual angle, as well. I guess the tree could be phallic. Is it, or was it, a cultural norm for women to “keep” monks? How old is this koan?

    Why did the woman try to trick the monk? What did she expect him to say? And why would she burn his house down, after 20 years, simply because he didn’t do what she “expected” him to do? Was she simply pinning her own hopes for enlightenment on his? But, then you would think, like you said, he passed the test by not giving in to the seductress.

    The old woman said he showed no compassion for the girl’s feelings. Maybe, the woman felt he showed no compassion for her own feelings. What did she want for her 20 years that would have caused her to become so angry? It’s the woman whose compassion “ran out.” Does true compassion run out? Do compassionate people try to trick monks?

    Last question: Do these koans really have “answers,” or are they just something to tickle the brain with? Sorry, I haven’t listened to all of the podcasts, yet.

  • First, I have no idea how old the story is. Pretty old, and we’ll have to let it go at that.

    Anyone could “sponsor” a monk. It was part of normal culture to support the local monks with offerings and food. Building them a house and feeding them for 20 years sounds a bit on the excessive side to me, but it probably happened. The sponsor being a woman probably wasn’t unusual either; anyone with enough wealth could have done it.

    “What did she want for her 20 years that would have caused her to become so angry? It‚Äôs the woman whose compassion ‚Äúran out.‚Äù Does true compassion run out?”

    Good question. There may be something in that line of thinking.

    “Do these koans really have ‚Äúanswers,‚Äù or are they just something to tickle the brain with? ”

    There is no right or wrong answer. The story itself may or may not even be true. Some old master at some point in the past told this koan to one of his students and when the answer occurred to the student, he achieved enlightenment. Some of them do have a “point” that can be useful to anyone who thinks on them enough. The answer is often unique to the person, so what yu take away from this and what I do could be completely different, yet both are valid.

    I think I explained the story behind koans back when we covered Zen. Check in the archives.

  • ‚ÄúAn old tree grows on a cold rock in winter,‚Äù replied the monk somewhat poetically. ‚ÄúNowhere is there any warmth.‚Äù

    The old tree, the monk. The cold stone in winter, the woman. For 20 years the old woman supported the monk and allowed him to grow. There was no warmth, no feelings of love, compasion, ect, between them.

    The monk does what he does and lets others do what they do for their own reasons.
    The old woman expected the monk to respond in a certain way, and when he did not she was angery.

    It is neither good nor bad that the hut and monk were burnt. One chooses their actions and others choose their reactions to it.

  • Aaron

    I know it’s a little late to respond to a post that was started in August, but I’m reading the archives and decided to drop my opinion on this story.

    I believe the answer (as to why the old woman reacted how she did) lies in this part of the story:

    “He showed no consideration for your needs, no disposition to explain your condition. He need not have responded to passion, but at least he should have evidenced some compassion.”

    The old woman acknowledges that the monk need not have responded with passion, but is upset because the monk showed no consideration for the needs of the young girl (which need not be sexual consideration) and “showed no disposition to explain her condition” (why would a young beautiful woman attempt to seduce an old man out of nowhere?…obvious suffering). The monk reacted coldly, rather than with loving-kindness, as Buddhists are called to react to all sentient beings. After 20 years, the monk only showed concern only for himself (stopping at resisting physical desire), but showed no loving-kindness to the young girl by speaking with her, and attempting to help her. As the monk had learned nothing (that is to say, in so far as this koan is concerned), the old woman burned his house down. It was obviously useless to house him further if he had made no progress toward such a fundamental tenet after studying for 20 years.

    Being a renouncing, in the sense of Buddhism, is much more than simply denying or avoiding…..just a thought.

  • From LeO:

    Interesting to read the above responses. The Koan is quite old, cause already Ikkyu composed some response to the case.

    On the other hand Zen tries to find ways how to treat *problems* #properly# (whatever #properly# means.) So, on the one hand a good understanding of the problem is required, but on the other hand how to respond.

    How to respond, if someone obviously tries to seduce you? Without being uncompassionate? I mean it not only when a woman tries to seduce me as man. I mean it as well in daily life. ‘You like one more chocolate?’ ‘Come on, the last piece you should finish to eat.’ ‘Let’s drink together, cause it is ….’

    No, I chocolate has too much sugar and is not good for the teeth. The last piece does not taste any longer, cause …
    I do not wanna get drunk like you.
    I do not wanna have sex with you, cause you are too young.

  • ‚ÄúAn old tree grows on a cold rock in winter … Nowhere is there any warmth.‚Äù
    James’ reading above makes sense, but I read it a little differently: I thought the old tree was the girl and the cold rock was the monk — that the monk was invoking the image of a cold, passionless embrace in order to strengthen himself against temptation.

    And then as Aaron indicated, the old woman was angered because the monk showed concern for his own condition but not for that of the girl.

  • Spotsy

    The old man merely described the relationship between him and the old woman = he is an old tree, he can grow and continue to grow even though she is a rock, providing some things, but unable to grow herself. His reply recognizes the reality of the situation, that the young desirable girl is an aggresive act by the old woman and so makes a non-act, non-response. He sees with compassion that she is being used by the old woman, he sees with compassion that the old woman is limited, he sees with compassion his own situation of being dependent on the rock.
    She intends burning down his house to be an act of punishment, but it too might be an act of compassion though she did not intend it. For in burning down his house, he is no longer an old tree growing on a rock, but is freed from one more thing. And perhaps she too may start to grow.

  • ZenBstrd

    Aaron has the right idea. Everyone else is overthinking.

  • BuddhiHermit

    Not every Buddhist is dedicated to the path of loving kindness.

    Even those that are, recognise that being truthful, means admitting if it has not been achieved yet.

    Had the monk progressed, then normal emotional contact would not have been any comfort. Compassion sometimes requires a harsh teaching, and the ruse with the girl would have been transparent to the monk. His reponse was deeper than common knowledge would suggest.

  • the-ramen-girl

    my reply to a 2 yr old post:

    i think that line of the monk simply meant he made a lot of ‘progress’ regardless of the conditions or circumstances he was in.

    ‘An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter,’ ‘Nowhere is there any warmth.’

    my translation of this would be ‘i (old tree) made progress in a (cold) hut even w/o any (physical) warmth from anyone’

    so sexual act is not necessary to continue his journey.

    the hut was burned down because the old lady sheltered and fed him for over 20 yrs, and to her perhaps what she did already meant loving kindness and that the monk should’ve at least showed some care to the girl. clearly, the old woman didn’t understand the poetic response of the monk. it is the monk who journeyed through the path of enlightenment and not the old woman so what authority does she have to judge his progress? so since her relative mind fogs her understanding, she thought the monk didn’t learn anything and it’s useless to continue to shelter him.

  • Phil

    The monk’s words were in fact compassionate – he let the girl down gently and without critiquing her motivation or leading her on. The woman conflates passion with compassion and reacted violently once her expectations went unmet. Patronage is fickle.

  • ZenCorgi

    “He showed no consideration for your needs, no disposition to explain your condition. He need not have responded to passion, but at least he should have evidenced some compassion.”

    She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.


    She is reacting by passion (anger) and not with compassion. She is a hypocrite.

  • AliSDK

    A. How a tree can grow without what we consider to be essential (warmth), it can reveal that we let ourselves taken by the illusion of the appearances.
    B. Maybe the tree is a representation of the old woman, who lives in ignorance (relative reality, misleading). And yet, although nothing is real, she bases her thinking (growth) on the illusions.
    C. The tree can be a representation of the monk, who, although living in a cold world, he is still able to find resources to progress.

    “An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter. Nowhere is there any warmth.” Does the meaning is that an old tree can handle, knows how to grow even in winter on a cold rock, without heat, because it is old and has accumulated experience? Does old age refers to the maturity and to the penetrating (thought) view, which sees beyond what we can normally see(understand)?

    And then the old woman’s reaction may represent the limiting human thought without the ability to understand many things and to see that “An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter, without any warmth.”

  • Godmode

    Spotsy got it right

  • Empty Falcon

    A brief comment:

    The title of *this* piece (but not pieces generally) should be the first indicator as to what the student of Zen should be paying attention to – although stating such is, in fact, stating a great deal more than should be said – if the Koan is not immediately apprehended, as here – but not in general – it is a clue.

    Basically speaking, “No Loving Kindness” indicates the following:

    Her act of “support” was not that of non-conditional “Loving Kindness”, but rather a quid pro quo contractual understanding (on her side) that the monk perform in whatever manner she saw to be fitting. As such, the precept of “Loving Kindness” is violated as it has as it’s subsequent a requirement to perform in such and such fashion.

    The point, of course, is that while it could be the case that the monk realized the sudden temptress as being an agent of the old woman, this fact is mostly, if not completely irrelevant except parenthetically, i.e. as a lesser and basically insignificant consideration of the more profound communication – ancillary rather than central.

    In summary, it is useful and pertinent to remember that Zen’s teaching is essentially, and finally, Empty, i.e. the tussle and struggle for their meanings are paradoxical in nature; which is to say that even if one settles upon an interpretation, no final interpretation is valid as the attainment of Satori is dissolution and entry into the Void.

    As such, the title itself of “No Loving Kindness” is also paradoxical and mutually contradictory; for how can one excel in the act of “Loving Kindness” if there is, in fact, no “Loving Kindness” (hence the pun “No Loving Kindness”) except as a manifested precept conditioned into existence by the act of this, that, or the other person or persons?

    In this regard, we may consider the standards of verification of “No Loving Kindness” and its compliment of “Loving Kindness” as that to which the Zen Koan is pointing directly; in this case the major hurdle is not to get caught up in the notion that the directive of “Loving Kindness” is itself ultimate or final – but rather another hurdle itself.

    Hence while the remarks of the monk may be used didactically by commentators to urge Zen students in the direction, paradoxically, of Koan settlements – which is itself paradoxical as Koans may neither be settled nor not be settled, ultimately – his statements are just as meaningful as meaningless and hence Empty as he issues them from the Void.

    And now if you’ll allow me to end with a poem by Alan Watts called, “Birdie Burble”:

    I went out of my mind, and came to my senses,
    By meeting a magpie who mixed up his tenses,
    Who muddled distinctions of nouns and of verbs,
    And insisted that logic was bad for the birds.

    With a poo-wee cluck and a chit chit chit,
    The grammar and meaning don’t matter a bit.

    The stars in their courses have no destination;
    The train of events will arrive at no station;
    The inmost and ultimate Self of us all
    Is dancing on nothing and having a ball.

    So with a chat for chit, and tat for tit,
    This will be that, and that will be IT!

  • Catman

    In case anyone is confused, the poster Aaron said it best (scroll up).