Monkey Reaching for the Moon #2: Grasping The Branch


Some folks have asked just what is the branch the monkey is holding on to. Let’s start to approximate some insights by refreshing our memories of Hakuin’s poetic interpretation:

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’s let go the branch and
Disappears in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
with dazzling pureness.

It seems to me that the monkey’s grasp on the branch symbolizes the attachment that the Buddha taught was at the root of all human suffering. I’d like to look at three facets of this attachment.

First, the Buddha taught that human suffering is caused by attachment to wanting life to be the way we want it to be or think it should be. This causes us to resist life as it is, which in fact sets us in opposition to life. In his Handbook Epictetus says that we will drive ourselves crazy trying to control what can’t be controlled, and what can’t be controlled is everything outside our own minds. Our attitudes, beliefs and values are under our control, he says, and this is where we need to focus our energy and attention. What happens to us is never the cause of suffering. What we think about what happens to us causes our suffering.

This fundamental attachment, then, is actually to our own ideas. This is perhaps the most difficult prison from which to escape, the prison of Plato’s Cave which is of course the Cave of our own minds. The difficulty lies in the fact that our minds create the world we live in, and to change our basic beliefs is to transform the world as well. That is easier said than done. The old cliche about the devil you know is relevant here. Like the monkey, I hold onto the conditioned ideas that bring me security with ferocious rigor. Yet as the Dhammapada teaches in its first lines: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. Speak or act with an impure (negative) mind, and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart. … Speak or act with a pure (positive) mind, and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.”

The second facet of attachment is a corollary of the first. The mind is something like the static lens of a camera. It freezes the world and other people so that I can be secure in my (supposed) knowledge of how things are. But, really, this is like trying to capture a river in a water glass. The world and the people in it are constantly flowing, and in order to see this we need to relax the grip we have on old ideas. When we think we know something or someone, we stop looking closely. This casual taking for granted is especially easy to do, and a fundamental cause of suffering, when that someone is an intimate member of our chosen or natural family. When you live with a person for years on end, it is tempting to think that we know them like a book. What a tragic misconception this is.

The third facet of attachment is a further corollary. Not only does the mind freeze the world and other people, it also freezes my idea of who I am. This is Ahamkara in Yoga Psychology, the I-Maker. When I latch onto the ideas of who I think I am (John the Good, Cool Philosophy Professor), my words and actions emanate from that Cave of ideas, and I am neither Good nor Cool. This is what Lao Tsu is getting at, I think, in verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching: “A truly good man is not aware of his goodness, and is therefore good. A foolish man tries to be good, and is therefore not good.” If I am good because of some idea of rightness that I think allows others and myself to see me as good, that “goodness” is actually flowing from Ego, and what I do (in music, or teaching, or intimacy) might be Right, but it is never very Good.

Transforming our mind/world undercuts the ground upon which we believe we stand. In my experience these times of transformation can be terrifying. There was a time in my life when the ground had been shaken by the death of loved ones and the ending of a marriage. The old patterns clearly had caused suffering, but newer, fresher beliefs were not yet in evidence. This felt like the dark night of the soul, and as Heidegger once said, there is an urgent temptation to retreat from this night “into the comforting womb of the anonymous ‘they;'” that is, into the mind/world of familial, cultural, and religious conditioning. But to travel through that darkness, as San Juan de la Cruz says “sin otra luz ni guía, sino la que en el corazón ardía,” (without any light or guide except that which burns in one’s own heart) is the only exit from the cave of suffering. Maybe we can think of this time as the fall the monkey has to make between letting go of the branch and hitting the water. But what is the nature of that deep pool? For now, let’s surrender to the free fall, and leave the pool for the next post.

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