The Monk and the Scorpion

Alex Chen
6 min readApr 7, 2024
Image Source: Wix AI

Two monks were washing their feet in a river when they saw a scorpion struggling in the water. Knowing that scorpions cannot swim, the elder monk knelt down to scoop it out of the water and set it on the shore. As he slowly and calmly picked up the scorpion, it stung his hand. Out of pain and reflex, the monk dropped the scorpion. He then tried again a couple more times, but faster. However, he still got stung and dropped the scorpion. He then told the younger monk to bring him a tree branch from the shore. Using that branch, he managed to scoop the scorpion out of the water and set it on shore.

The younger monk asked, “Why did you keep trying to save the scorpion when it stung you so many times? What an ungrateful creature.”

The elder monk replied, “If I enter the water, I will get wet; the nature of water is wet. See that tree over there? Anyone can sit under its shade. The tree will never ask if you are young or old, good or evil, human or animal; it will provide everyone and anything with its shade because this is its nature. Similarly, the nature of the scorpion is to sting, so there is nothing to take offence in. Our true nature is to be compassionate towards all living beings, just like the tree serves all living beings without discrimination. When we align with our true nature, we will free our minds from the suffering that comes with discrimination and attachment.”


This parable has different versions on the internet, and above is a version that I’ve synthesized and edited. The story has quite a lot of food for thought and can be contemplated from different angles.

1: Compassion

First is from the perspective of compassion. Most of us have conditional love towards people: “If you are good, if I like you, if you behave the way I want you to behave, then I will treat you well; otherwise, I will be unhappy towards you.” Compassion, on the other hand, is unconditional love: “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, I will always treat you well, try to understand you, and help you achieve your full potential.”

As mentioned in last week’s article, compassion benefits ourselves first because it is an elevated emotional state, as shown in this chart:

Source: Becoming Supernatural by Dr. Joe Dispenza

Whereas the survival emotions (e.g., pain, fear, anger) at the bottom are all overly attached to I, elevated motions (e.g., love/compassion, freedom, appreciation) all dampen the attachment to I and focus more on others. When we feel survival emotions, we feel stressed. When we are in an elevated state, we feel a sense of calm happiness and ease.

Monks are always cultivating their mind to maintain a state of serenity and compassion, so when the elder monk saw the drowning scorpion, he naturally felt compassion towards it. He didn’t think, “This is a scorpion. Scorpions are bad. I don’t like scorpions.” If we have strong discriminations between what we like and dislike, then we create unnecessary suffering for ourselves. The monk had equal compassion for all living beings, so he could maintain his serene state of mind.

When the scorpion repeatedly stung his hand, he didn’t think “What an ungrateful creature! I’m trying to help you, and you sting me?!” Compassion is similar to parental love: Even if a child is naughty, does bad things, argues with parents, and hurts parents feelings, the parent ultimately still loves the child and believes in the child’s goodness and potential. Similarly, the monk understood that the scorpion stung him out of fear and anxiety, so he felt didn’t blame the scorpion and continued to try to save it.

When we have conflict with others, we can reflect on whether we truly understand the other person, and whether we are using conditional love or compassion.

2: Wisdom

Another insight from this story is the importance of wisdom. We’ve probably all had the experience of wanting to help others, but when we tried to help, we ended up creating more trouble for everyone. It’s like when the elder monk tried to pick up the scorpion and got stung, thereby hurting himself and bringing no benefit to the scorpion.

So how can we gain wisdom? One way is of course to study books of wisdom, such as those of ancient philosophers. I previously wrote about this in the article Upgrade Your Thinking. But in the story, the elder monk gained wisdom through his sincere compassion.

Sincere means single-minded and unchanging, while compassion means only thinking about benefiting others. Since the monk was single-mindedly focused on helping the scorpion, he didn’t give up after the first few failures. Since he wasn’t interested in giving up, he continually looked for ways to improve his method, until he finally had a breakthrough: find a tree branch to scoop the scorpion.

Similarly, we can reflect on ourselves when we encounter problems. Are we single-mindedly focused and determined to solve it? Or do we think this problem isn’t really that big of a deal? Are we focused on helping others, or are we overly attached to our own feelings?

3: Pain vs. Suffering

When the elder monk got stung by the scorpion, he surely felt pain, but I don’t think he experienced suffering. Pain is physical, while suffering is mental. I’m reminded of this quote from Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius:

“Do away with the opinion I am harmed, and the harm is cast away too.”

The big question is, how can we “do away with the opinion that I am harmed”? It’s all about how we think. I like Victor Cheng’s definition of “suffering” as “meaningless pain”, which means that if we can find meaning in our pain, then we no longer feel unhappy. In fact, we can even appreciate pain similar to how an athlete appreciates growing pains.

If we want to improve in life, which is a joyful thing, then we need to face tests and challenges. Monks are trying to cultivate serenity and compassion, so when the elder monk encountered the scorpion that stung him, he viewed it as a good test to help him raise his cultivation rather than as misfortune. If he had gotten upset and given up, then his cultivation would have degenerated. He could then thank the scorpion for showing him his lack of cultivation. But he maintained his cultivation and overcame the challenge, so he can thank the scorpion for helping him to increase his level of cultivation.

We probably all face challenges and pain in our lives, but we don’t necessarily have to suffer. We can find meaning in our challenges and use our pain as motivation for our self-improvement and for helping others to avoid the pain we’ve been through. When we do so, we can change our emotional state from suffering (a low state) to appreciation (a high state).


Although we might not literally be a monk, and we might not ever see a drowning scorpion, the metaphorical lessons of this story are highly relevant to us. Do we have conditional love or unconditional compassion? Are we sincere or fickle? Do we suffer in the face of pain and challenges, or do we find meaning and improve from them?

Originally published at on April 7, 2024.



Alex Chen

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.