The Five-Minute Buddhist Books

Recommended Host

Koan: The Muddy Road

Koan: The Muddy Road

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

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

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

13 comments to Koan: The Muddy Road

  • Hey Brian, thanks for the “Muddy Road” story, however I’m not sure it fits into the Koan category. I’ve heard this story several times but it wasn’t called a koan.


  • Yeah, most of the stories I post in the Koan category aren’t precisely koans. I do tend to use the term rather loosely. Still, it’s a story that requires introspection and consideration, so the term does loosely apply.

    And the books I get these from call them Koans too, so I’m at least not the first guilty party 😉

  • Brian,

    Was Wondering if any story with a ambigous “moral” point function as a koan? Stories can teach; and many legends and fairy tales do just that.

    Does the Zen tradtion have a cannon, which may suggest what is not a Koan? Perhaps the stories may require the presence of a monk, considering monks are pursuing a particular path.

    This koan, sweet and simple, appears, as moral truth, in the sufi tradition. It suggests- or may suggest- dogmatic reasoning as attachment. Tanzan understood the “rule”. He did not allow his mind- or compassion- to be imprisoned by it.


  • Again, the definition of a koan is somewhat flexible:

    Koan: A story about a Zen master and his student, sometimes like a riddle, other times like a fable, which has become an object of Zen study, and which, when meditated upon, may unlock mechanisms in the Zen student’s mind leading to satori.

    Koan: a story, dialogue, question, or statement in the history and lore of Ch√°n (Zen) Buddhism, generally containing aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet may be accessible to intuition.

    Koan: A paradoxical anecdote or story; used to bring Zen students to realization and to help clarify their enlightenment.

    There are many of the paradoxical (the third definition above) koans that can be considered “canon,” but for the most point those things are ambiguous to the point of being annoying. Although they helped someone reach enlightenment at some point in the past, they really aren’t much help to anyone else (just my opinion). At my most generous, I think they are way beyond the level of Buddhism we deal with here.

    Therefore, I prefer to use the first or second definitions of koan for the stories on the site. These stories make people think, but aren’t so deep that the meaning is beyond most people’s grasp.

    We’ll get to the really paradoxical stuff eventually, but I really doubt most readers would enjoy most of the really “wacky” ones.

  • Thanks,

    But the second definition raises another question: what kind of intuition?

    The fact that modern and classical hermenutics itself subjects ‘reason’ to subjective experience and that-on a common-sense level- ‘meaning’ is always contextual and open, not closed, may push your third definition into the forefront.

    That is, why can such koans serve people in the past and not serve us in the present? Are we saying historical Japanese Zen must be contextually understood and that stories are only relevant to their contemporary periods? Isn’t suffering universal and therefore not time-bound? Implicit in your perceptive statements, is a cultural or ethical relativist point.


  • “what kind of intuition?”

    You already know the answer to that question. Work it out. {Evil laugh}

    But seriously, let’s look at the one about the old man and the girl from a weeks back (“No Loving Kindness”). Today’s Muddy Road story is actually pretty easy to understand, but that one isn’t; there are several interpretations of what’s going on in the story, just like you said with your subjective/contextual comment. Meaning is subjective and always open to the reader’s interpretation (as in any literature), but still, there are just so many reasonable interpretations.

    Here’s an example of one that I would call a “type 3” koan:

    A monk asked Hogen, “I, Echo, ask you, Master. What is Buddha?”
    Hogen said, “You are Echo.”

    What does it mean? Echo knew what it meant, but you or I could go all over the place assigning meaning to that.

    But back to your question, something like the short koan about Echo would have caused Echo to gain enlightenment right there on the spot. Otherwise, no one would have bothered to write it down. Did it cause you or me to gain Enlightenment? No, and probably no one else reading this just reached Nirvana either.

    Many of the short, paradoxical koans came from a specific teacher and were individually tailored for a specific student. Master Hogen knew his Student Echo, and after years of training, he knew that this question could help Echo. He didn’t care about you or me, he wanted to help Echo, there and then.

    That’s not to say someone today cannot learn from the old paradox-koans, but they weren’t intended to be messages of great wisdom from the past. Supposedly, if you spent years under a modern Zen Master, that Master might make up just the right question or puzzle for you.

    It’s not a matter of being cultural or period-specific, it’s individual.

  • The above, as usual, is just my opinion!

  • Lovely,

    A nice, clear, and instructive explanation. I’m puzzling over the koan. I am uncertain how Echo may have found Enlightenment by it.

    The idea we are individuals with certain specifics is not too different from liberal individualism. Maybe this aspect of Buddhism, is what some Christians or Monotheists find spiritually concerning.

    Intuition-I guess- must, in the end, be quite personal.

    Thanks Brian

  • RK Henderson

    Can anyone explain to me why, when I read a debate about what is and isn’t a koan, I have a powerful urge to kick over a bucket…?

  • Parkesy

    RK, you aren’t alone…

    “If you call it a koan, you affirm it. If you call it not a koan, you negate it. Beyond affirmation and negation, what would you call it?”

  • gio colendra

    …a monks is living in a solemn place…which can be the ..child of christ which they can be serve god in there way…ekido was inloved with that girl bec. she is lovely ones..but when tanzan lifted the girl he only lift the girl just only to helf the girl…but ekido was jealous bec. tanzan lifted the girl…so ekido tell that you can not be loved with that girl bec. we are monks…the angel of god..

  • Remi

    I think we all carry garbage and baggage around. The more we can settle and drop the baggage the more the path becomes clearer

  • Stephen

    Its such a simple koan and yet so easy to just read and forget. I find with people I am carrying all sorts of baggage around that i would do well to put down and will now make an effort to put down.