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Cracker Barrel: 'The Hapless Monk'

Last week, while browsing through some books I hadn’t read in quite some time, I came upon a delightful story known as “The Tale of the Hapless Monk.”

Used by Buddhists as a traditional teaching tale, reminiscent of the wisdom of Aesop’s “Fables,” the aim of the story is to show how intoxicants cause heedlessness. It’s as old as the hills — but as fresh and fascinating as the sunrise.

* * *

“One lovely spring day, a monk was out on his begging rounds when the beautiful wife of a wealthy businessman, recognizing the monk as susceptible to temptation, invited him into her home. There she engaged him in a spirited conversation. When the monk finally realized that too much time had passed, he went to the door only to discover that it was locked.

“Please,” he asked the woman, “would you open this door?”

“Not just yet,” the woman said. “I will let you out of the room only if you do one of the following: Kill the goat who is tied up outside the back door, have sex with me, or drink this jug of wine.”

“The monk tried to think his way out of this dreadful situation. As a peaceful Buddhist, he couldn’t resort to violence against the imposing woman to fight his way out of the house. Killing a goat would mean breaking the precept against killing; having sex would be breaking his monastic vows of chastity; here it would also mean adultery, which is sexual misconduct and stealing as well. The perturbed monk decided that the least offensive thing he could do would be to drink the wine, which would harm no one but himself. So he did.

“Not accustomed to strong spirits, the hapless monk got very drunk, which quickly weakened all his resolve. By then he was so hungry and lacking in mindfulness that he killed the goat; and while it was cooking, he and the woman had sex. Thus all his pure vows were lost.”

* * *

The traditional teaching of the story, of course, is that mind-altering substances can start the practitioner off on a long, slippery slope; although you may start out on the high ground, if you are not mindful and conscientious, before you know it you can find yourself sliding uncontrollably into deep and murky water.

In our so-called post-modern age, such cautionary tales may seem quaint and faintly silly, smacking of mildewed notions of right and wrong that no longer pertain. But the sobering truth is that millions of modern citizens continue to fall prey to the same temptations that bedeviled the hapless monk.

Today the choice of intoxicant may be marijuana or meth or Miller Lite, and instead of killing a goat, the enflamed passions may lead one to rob a convenience store or blow one’s paycheck on pull tabs hoping to hit the Big One, but the pattern and the principle is the same.

We may encounter the seductive temptation in a neighborhood bar, in a chat room on the Internet or in the office at work; and once under the spell, commence to make the same sad choices as the monk of yesteryear. Vows are broken, relationships ruined, families ripped apart, children’s lives darkened by the shadow of dysfunctional adults.

At root is the problem of mindlessness, of not paying careful attention. Whether running from stress or recoiling from boredom, whenever we allow our minds to be dulled or drugged or unfocused, trouble is apt to follow.

Respect for reality can never be outdated. To see things as they are, without distortion or denial, is the key to serenity and ongoing joy.

As Lily Tomlin once said, “The best mind-altering drug is truth.”

Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel