One evening, as he was meditating, a young Tibetan monk suddenly noticed a small spider crawling slowly towards him from the corner of the ceiling. He tried to shake off his fear, but couldn’t do it, so he had to end his meditation early. He tried finding the spider afterwards, but the spider was nowhere to be found.
The next night the same happened once again – only this time, the spider seemed bigger. Once more, the moment the monk stopped meditating and started looking for the creature, it miraculously disappeared.
The visits soon turned into a routine: every night, the little beast would reappear in the corner of the room, growing larger and more frightening with each passing day. The monk’s fear grew with it, and, one day, he decided to go to his teacher and ask for an advice.
“Next time, I want to react,” he explained, after going over the spider’s visits. “I will keep a knife in my lap and the moment the spider comes, I will jump and kill it.”
“I see you have already made a decision,” replied the teacher, “so I won’t meddle much. However, could you do me a favor and kill the spider tomorrow evening? Today, I want you to take a chalk instead of a knife, and just try to draw an ‘X’ over the spot you intend to strike. I want to see if you will be concentrated enough to be accurate tomorrow…”
The young monk didn’t like the idea of drawing an “X” over the stomach of a giant spider, but he had vowed to obey.
“Tomorrow I will kill him, all the same,” he whispered before closing his eyes and sinking into meditation. The spider appeared shortly after and the monk fought through the fear and disgust and managed to draw an “X” over the spider’s stomach.
The next morning, he went to inform his teacher and remind him of his promise. “I did it”, he said with a sigh of relief.
The teacher lifted the young monk’s robe: “I know you did,” he said.
There was an “X” written across the pupil’s stomach.
- Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, wrote that “fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
- Most of our fears are internal: even a real spider may be a symbol of something within us.
- Killing the real spider will do away with the problem briefly; killing the symbolic spider will do away with the problem once and for all.
- “The Spider and the Monk”, Zen Stories (Tsai Chih Chung)