Sermons

Monkey Wants The Moon

posted on March 27, 2017

Monkey Wants the Moon – March 26, 2017

The monkey is reaching

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 into the deep pool,

The whole world would shine

With dazzling pureness.

 

This poem was written by Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku, a great reformer and reviver of koan training.

I found it in the September 2012 issue of Shambhala Sun, a bimonthly magazine founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

I was immediately taken with this poem, and wanted to speak about it with you back then – but something got in the way and I didn’t get back to it until now.

Henry Shukman, and English writer and Zen Master now teaching at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe, commented on the poem. I’ll read it again, with his commentary:

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 into the deep pool,

The whole world would shine

With dazzling pureness.

Shukman says, “This seems to me a very rich poem. It’s clearly personal as well as general — I doubt anyone could write this who was not capable of seeing himself or herself as just this very monkey, searching desperately, tenaciously for a peace and joy that are obstructed by nothing but the searching itself. What a conundrum that monkey is in! He’s desperate to find some relief, longing for a happiness he senses must be possible, yet he’s unable to stop grasping the imagined safety of the bough of the tree, and unable to keep from longing for and seeking that elusive happiness.”

He goes on. “It reminds me of a Daoist teaching I once heard. The large fish can be brought in by an angler on the finest line for one reason only: the fish wants to avoid pain. If it would only lean into the pain, it would snap the line in a moment, and be free. So we too find it hard to stop seeking the pleasure we mistake for happiness. Getting what we want, not getting what we want — which is more helpful as a goad to the path?” (Shambhala Sun, September 2012)

Here endeth the quotation.

There is another very famous story about monkeys. In Africa, when hunters want to catch a monkey, they use a strategy that understands the monkey’s behavior patterns — patterns that work against the monkey’s best interests.

The hunter takes a jar with an opening slightly larger than a monkey’s hand. He ties a rope around the neck of it using a knot, called a monkey’s knot which is a cradle of the rope around the jar.  The hunter places some food in the jar, like rice or a banana slice.

The monkey reaches his hand into the jar, grabs the food, making a fist with his paw. Now, the monkey’s dilemma:  the monkey cannot get his hand out of the jar unless he drops the food. The neck of the jar is simply not wide enough. Of course, the monkey could drop the food and easily get his hand out, but it won’t. Despite having at his command the means to escape, it does not — it holds his hand grasping the food until a hunter throws a net over it, capturing it.

The monkeys in both stories are trapped – but not by anything physical. They are trapped by an idea… [the idea that they must hold on to what has worked for them in the past, even though that has become lethal.] What a great metaphor this is for our paralysis in the face of, for example, climate change: we’re so rigidly attached to a certain notion of progress that we can’t let go when it turns against us. “The difficulty,” as John Maynard Keynes put it, “lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.”

Rollo May said that anxiety is present in every authentic encounter. There is a risk in living– an anxiety around being open to the new and in going forward to meet newness in our life situation and in people. We can be trapped by our need for security.

Personal growth occurs only when we are able to risk letting go. One of the wise teachers in my life, my neighbor Judy Perowski, said to me, “Buffy, growing isn’t adding on. It’s letting go.” Letting go of patterns and thoughts that no longer serve – letting go of what once was security but now is an obstacle.

Master Hakuin, who wrote the poem, knew all about effort on the Way. Shukman tells us, “He went through years of desperate striving in the course of his own training, longing to have his moments of awakening acknowledged by masters, who were kind and wise enough to withhold the blessing he craved.  He famously contracted a severe case of “Zen Sickness” — attachment to the emptiness his meditation had brought him to — and meditated for painfully extended periods in the hope of curing himself of it.

“Then finally one day, after feeling himself trapped under ten thousand feet of ice, he was suddenly attacked by a mad old woman wielding a broomstick. She pounced on him for some unknown, imagined offense, and beat him roundly and soundly, leaving him not just battered and bruised but utterly shocked — shocked to the core of his being, shocked with a shock that filled the universe — and miraculously awakened, liberated. The grip on the bough had given way. He had found at last the single, wide world shining with dazzling pureness, and no one left to hold on.” (Shambhala Sun, September 2012, p.96)

These Zen stories all point us to one thing – the need to see the world as it is, to shed our illusions about what might be or what should have been, and to wake up to our own true nature. Our own true nature includes the difficult truth that we are temporarily here – and this temporary condition makes us very anxious. We can’t expect to totally get rid of our fears and anxieties but we can remove the power of fears and anxieties to destroy our lives. Robert Senghas writes, in Cycles of Reflection, that it’s an essential part of the human condition that we are anxious about death, and if we insist on trying to avoid that anxiety, we shall become captive of it. It’s only when we acknowledge that, yes, we are afraid of dying, that we are able to live fully. The “peace which passes understanding” of the Christian tradition does not refer to the peace of death, but to the peace which can come to us in life when we accept the anxieties of living.” (p.45)

The cover of the issue of Shambhala Sun where I found the poem bears a beautiful photo of a wooden figure, Guanyin of the Southern Sea, and the enticing words: “Real Peace in Times of Stress: Simple, powerful techniques for real relief from what puts you on edge – at work, at home, in relationships, and more. A special section for living in a stressed-out world.”

They thought they knew stress in 2012. They could not have foreseen the stresses of 2017. But as the timeless tales of monkeys holding on when letting go would serve their interests better tell us, stress is an ever-present fact of life. Happiness or suffering, fame or insignificance, praise or blame, gain or loss – hope and fear — these are the dualities of our lives, among others. We hold the bough of the tree and lean over the pond, reaching for the moon, wanting, wanting, wanting. But the thing we want is an illusion and if we were to let go the bough of the tree we would discover the truth.

We would certainly get a little wet – that’s the cost of learning the true nature of things. When we choose to live as authentic a life as we can, we open ourselves to pain and loss. When we continue to search outside for what is already within us – like, for example, the “Kingdom of God” – like the monkey, we allow the search itself to blind us to what we already have.

Judy Lief writes in the same issue, “You could ask, what’s wrong with preferring happiness to sadness or praise to blame? Isn’t the pursuit of happiness what it’s all about? Isn’t it obvious that gain is better than loss? But it is one thing to recognize what we would like to attract and what we would prefer to get rid of, and quite another to be obsessed with getting our way and terrified of things going wrong. The problem is that hope is joined at the hip with its partner, fear. We can’t have one without the other. When we are caught in this hope-fear cycle, our attitude is always tense and even our most satisfying experiences are bound by paranoia.”

You have all heard, I’m sure, that at the heart of Buddhism lies the idea of detachment. Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha – arrived at what is called the Four Noble Truths after many years of contemplation. They are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering.

The monkey suffers because he wants the moon. He can’t see that his attachment to his desire – and his attachment to the bough of the tree – cause his suffering. If he were to let go the bough of the tree he would land in the water, and he would learn that the moon he sees in the pond is but an illusion – and he would be freed of that illusion.

And – “The whole world would shine

With dazzling pureness.”

Because he would know a truth he did not know before. Just as the author of the poem learned the truth when his body was awakened – quite unpleasantly! – by the old woman and her broomstick. Clinging to an illusion, we are not free. Learning to see things as they really are – well, that’s a life’s work, isn’t it?

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