A monk asked an old woman, "What is the way to Taisan?"
The old woman said, "Go straight on."
When the monk had proceeded a few steps, she said, "A good, respectable monk, but he too goes that way."
Afterward someone told Jõshû about this.
Jõshû said, "Wait a bit, I will go and investigate the old woman for you."
The next day he went and asked the same question, and the old woman gave the same answer.
On returning, Jõshû said to his disciples, "I have investigated the old woman of Taisan for you."
The old woman only knew how to sit still in her tent and plan the campaign; she did not know when she was shadowed by a spy.
Though old Jõshû showed himself clever enough to take a camp and overwhelm a fortress, he displayed no trace of being a great commander.
If we look at them, they both have their faults.
But tell me, what did Jõshû see in the old woman?
The question was like the others,
The answer was the same.
Sand in the rice,
Thorns in the mud.
Ancient Chinese, Japanese societies were sexist by today's standards, and yes our society is still sexist. The Buddha was purported to have said upon his Enlightenment, "How wonderful all people have this same clear bright mind that I have just awoken to." I have been told that here in the USA the majority of teachers of Buddhism are woman. Maybe to underscore the equality of men and woman in deep Buddhist understanding the wise old woman appears in this story.
In his Song of Zazen Hakuin tells us "Not two, not three, straight ahead runs the Way." It mirrors the statement by the woman in this story. If you want to get to the place of practice which in this case is symbolized by Taisan which is the name of Joshu's Monastery but is in fact not a physical place but something inner. That inner attitude is to be straight ahead. It is not to let yourself get diverted by competing interests and teachings, have faith in the Buddha Way. It is to be straight ahead in your inner world, do not be self deceptive nor deceive others. Most importantly, not to let your mind fall into duality. When practicing zazen practice zazen and try not to let your mind wander. When chopping wood just chop wood. Whatever you do fully engage mind and body in the task. This is the practice, this is the road to Taisan.
Some might object to judging one's zazen or having a goal in practice. They might say that judging ones practice or having of a goal is a hinderance. In the Soto School they say, "Practice is enlightenment." There is a pitfall either way we look at this issue. On the one hand if you don't acknowledge a goal then there is no reason and motivation to practice. If you think you are enlightened just because you are sitting in a zazen pose then your inner practice will be lazy. On the other hand if you think about any goal during practice then you are falling into dualism and also not really practicing. This is something we each have to work out but I have to say that for myself I know what real and good zazen is and when I am not really practicing. I have no problem making this judgement and doing what I need to do to turn not so good zazen into good zazen(quiet and concentrated zazen).
The goal of practice is to really practice. To really practice is not so easy. To really practice can take many years of practice. To really practice is to be straight ahead, it is not to fall into duality, it is to be fully engaged mind and body. To really practice that is enlightenment. As Hakuin says in the Song of Zazen,' "Those who practice true zazen even once will see all karma erased."