Tag Archives: Grasping monkey

Monkey Reaching for the Moon #1: The Monkey

猴子捞月   Monkey Reaching for the Moon (Hasegawa Tōhaku (長谷川 等伯, 1539 – March 19, 1610)

tohaku

I have a copy of this painting here in my study as a daily reminder of my chattering monkey mind.  This version is a fusuma (sliding door) painting by Hasegawa Tohaku  that he painted during the 16th Century (Muromachi Period) in Japan.  It can be seen today at the Konchi-in Temple in Kyoto.  This is a sub-temple of the famous Zen Temple of Nanzen-ji.  While most people pass by this smaller temple to see the main attraction, they miss a beautiful example of a dry landscape garden (karesansui), lovely borrowed landscape (shakkei),  and this wonderfully whimsical picture of the grasping soul of humanity.  You might have to look very closely  at the bottom left/center of the painting to see the pale moon for which the monkey is reaching.

I would like to share three Buddhist commentaries on this theme.  The first is by the great Zen revivalist of the Edo period Hakuin Ekaku (白隠 慧鶴, January 19, 1686 – January 18, 1768)

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

The second is by the Soto Zen Master Dōgen Zenji (道元; 19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253):

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
Although its light is wide and great,
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.

And the third is a line from Nagarjuna (c. 150 CE):

Those who grasp at the notion, “I will be free from grasping and Nirvana will be mine,” have a great grasp on grasping.”

I hesitate to add my two cent’s worth to Hakuin, Dogen, and Nagarjuna, but this image holds a couple of captivating meanings for me.

My first impression is that the moon symbolizes all the elusive and illusive things I think I need in this ephemeral world.  If, however, the monkey did manage to grab hold of the moon, he would be disappointed, since it would instantly disappear in the water disturbed by his grasping hand. So, too, the attractiveness of things seems to evaporate once we have them.  We wait and wait for Christmas morning (or its adult equivalent),  but there is usually a terrific let-down in the afternoon.  We are on to the next better thing: a better job, a better place to live, a better wife or husband.  The monkey will never be satisfied as long as it continues to reach for illusory substitutes for the real thing.

And what is the real thing?  I’ll let Lao Tzu give it a try:

Something mysteriously formed,

Born before heaven and earth.

In the silence and the void,

Standing alone and unchanging,

Ever present and in motion.

Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things.

I do not know its name.

Call it Tao. (Verse 25 of the Tao Te Ching)

Or St. Augustine: inquietum est cor nostrum donec requisecat in te–our hearts are restless until they find repose in the Divine (or in the Tao, or in the Heart of Life).  Until then, I am a monkey reaching for an empty image of the moon.

I find the second level of meaning more subtle–but also more exciting.  The three Buddhist teachers quoted above all suggest that not only should we cease to reach for illusory things, we should stop reaching for anything at all–even for enlightenment!  The moon symbolizes Enlightenment itself, but that straining to reach enlightenment is itself “having a great grasp on grasping.” The desire to be enlightened puts the whole thing on hold, waiting for a thunderbolt in the future to crack open the shell of ego.  Hakuin, however, urges us to give up the striving, and simply to sink into the still, clear pool of NOW.  This is not only where Enlightenment is, it IS enlightenment.  Dogen, too, says that the moon of enlightenment is here in this dewdrop on the blade of grass.  If we can see that, we see all there is to see with dazzling purity.

Contemporary writers such as Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie are fervent in their invitation to love what is here and now, as they echo the ancient voices of Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius, and Heraclitus.

The Third Chinese Zen Patriarch, Seng-Ts’an, begins his Hsin Hsin Ming (Heart/Mind Sutra) with the words “The Great Way (Tao) is easy for one who has no preferences,” i.e. no desires for a better me, a better life, a better tomorrow.  As Hakuin says, the monkey in me will keep hanging from that branch for all the days of my life, always reaching, never giving up, and never getting anywhere.  Maybe it’s time to let go.  If not now, when?

Monkey Reaching for the Moon #2: Grasping The Branch

tohaku

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. Continue reading

Monkey Reaching for the Moon #3: The Pool

tohaku

Let us again refresh Hakuin’s poem that has been serving as a theme for this series of essays:

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

If the ideas in the previous post concerning the branch of attachment seem at all cogent, it is because I have spent so much of my life clinging to that damn branch! My experience of the pool, however, is much more tenuous and fleeting. Rather than talking about its nature (which might be impossible), perhaps I can describe some of its cooling springs.

The first spring is that of presence. Many teachers, such as Eckhart Tolle, are making a big thing of this right now, and well they should! Many of us are rarely where we are or when we are. We are often somewhere and sometime else–in the past or future. We live in daydreams or sporting the bumper sticker “I’d rather be…anywhere else.” Life in the pool, then, is not so much grasping or striving, but embracing the marvels of life as it is here and now. Some of my students think that this is totally unrealistic. How can one live without preferences or plans and desires for a brighter future? Tolle clarifies this beautifully: ” Your life’s journey has an outer and an inner purpose. The outer purpose is to arrive at your goal or destination, to accomplish what you set out to do, to achieve this or that, which, of course, implies future. But if your destination, or the steps you are going to take in the future, take up so much of your attention that they become more important to you than the step you are taking now, then you completely miss the journey’s inner purpose, which has nothing to do with where you are going or what you are doing, but everything to do with how.” (This can be found on pg. 88 in the Power of Now.)

The how also points to another fascinating conundrum that my students raise. Doesn’t lack of attachment engender a lack of caring? If I am not attached to this post–where it will go or who will read it–can I really be said to care about it? I would suggest that the more I am attached to the protective and defensive needs of my ego, the less I am able to care for the people and things in my life.  Milton Meyeroff wrote a lovely small book, On Caring, in 1971.  He says that to care for another person or thing or idea is to support and to rejoice in its growth, while maintaining respect for its own inner nature and agenda.  True caring, that is, entails relinquishing control over the timing and direction of the other’s growth–a difficult trick, indeed, for parents. This idea, however, is similar to the Taoist teaching of wu-wei, that implies a life of graceful activity without a self-inflating sense of authorship or control.

This question, I think, raises complex issues involving the object of my caring, and the motivation that fuels it.  Surely, there are healthy ways to care for oneself, and destructive ways to care for others.  Clinging attachment to oneself or another, however, engendered by a fearful dependency, does seem to diminish the ability truly to care.  Examples abound: the more I am attached to winning a game, the less I care about the wonder and the joy of the game itself, and my playing suffers.  The more I am attached to my righteous ideas of Peace, the less peacefully i work for peace.  It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that I cannot nurture a more peaceful world by injecting it with more hostility and little regard for the humanity of my ‘enemies.’  Finally, the more needy attachment I have for my significant other, the less I can love and care for her.  If we monkeys can let go of our dependent attachment to our own ideas and the needs they engender, then our egos could at least occasionally disappear into the pool of caring.  That, after all, is where we long to be.

Another refreshing spring in the pool of enlightenment is attention: looking and listening. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard has a marvelous passage on the dynamics of recognizing our own uncertainties: “We don’t know what’s going on here…We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise” (pg. 9l). I spoke above of taking everything and everyone for granted as a tragic misconception. My wife and I do our best to pay attention to each other. We take great care to look at each other freshly every morning. What is she thinking and feeling today? Have her dreams evolved? Who is she right now? In order to relate to the woman across the table, I need to look and listen to her, and not to rest in the complacency of my set ideas of her. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds, but more important than words can say. Continue reading