The Buddha was a Monkey
By Rafe Martin©
Even the Buddha had his trials – and not just when as the ex-Prince Siddhartha he sat beneath the Bo-Tree and Mara the Tempter appeared. The jataka tales show he had lifetimes of challenge and difficulty – perhaps facing the very kind of things we might be dealing with in our lives now. It seems that for the Buddha, being on the right road doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to find ourselves on a gently sloping downhill path strewn with rose petals. I find encouragement in such stories. They reveal that our great ancestor, too, had to deal with things as they are in this world, on this planet. Injustice, malice, loss, and decisions that eat into the bone – he knew all this intimately. Indeed, the Buddha, over countless lives of sustained practice exertion, as Dogen calls it, as the jatakas show, discovered exploring his own nature as steadily as he could in the midst of his difficulties, in midst of resistance, anger, disappointment, injustice, and anxiety is how he grew, how he evolved. It is how his practice developed. The old teachers all say that there is no limit to how far we can go. And they, add, the lotus of pure mind not only blossoms in the flames of samsara, the difficulties of our burning world, but actually only opens and blooms fully because it is in the fire. We are grateful then for our difficulties. They make us, and our practice, reach to their fullness. We are grateful – at least we try to be from time to time. Absolutely grateful. To the bottom. In short, these stories show we are not alone. This is, indeed, the way of the Bodhisattva. And in the jatakas we discover that our own lives, with all their problems, just as they are right now, are exactly the same life as the life or a life of the Buddha, as well as of a buddha.
To be clear – there are 547 Jataka tales in the Pali Jataka tradition, another thirty-five in the Sanskrit Jatakamala or Rosary or Garland of Jatakas an inspirational Mahayana work, and still other jatakas scattered through sutras and in verses, carvings, paintings for which complete tales no longer exist. But, given that the stories are said to go back world ages – which might mean Big Bangs – there should in reality be thousands, even millions if all were known. The Buddha only told a jataka when some issue in his Sangha roused the opportunity for using such a past-life tale to reveal and teach a useful Dharma point. He didn’t just sit there mouthing his past life history. So, those teaching opportunities gave rise to the six hundred or so, now extant, (of which there are in reality also a number of “repeats” in shorter, longer and modified forms) which is still a considerable amount.
Garahita Jataka No. 219
Once long ago when Bramadhatta reigned in Benares, the Bodhisattva came into the world as a monkey. When grown he became leader of a monkey troupe. One day a skilled woodsman trapped this monkey. Seeing that the monkey was large, handsome, and smart – when the woodsman got to the trap the monkey had already half opened the latch and, with a little more time, would have been free – he threw a net over his catch and brought him to the palace. He knew that the king enjoyed watching the antics of monkeys, so this particular monkey would very likely make a good gift for his royal majesty.
And so it was. The king was well pleased with the gift the woodsman brought. He put a golden collar and chain around the monkey’s neck, gave him all kinds of good foods to eat, interesting toys to play with, and treated him with kindness. Eventually he began taking the monkey everywhere with him, so entertaining did he find his new pet. So the monkey got to see much of human life and at the very highest, most courtly levels. He attended archery tournaments, gymnastic events, horse races, banquets, and weddings; he went to the theater, dances, musical gatherings, and observed legal judgments. Wherever the king went, he went. At night he slept near the king on a silken pillow. The king continued to increase in his affection for the monkey who became more than a pet, but something of a real companion.
One day the king called for the woodsman who had brought the monkey to him. “I have been thinking,” said the king. “Do you remember the exact spot where you found my monkey?”
“I do, my lord,” answered the ranger.
“Then, as I have come to love this little beast, I want you to take him back to his home and release him. He has been my companion for several years and I am grateful. But now I want him to be free. It pains me to think of him confined, far from the green forest where his family and friends still live.”
So the king unhooked the golden collar and with a last caress and a little bow, gave his faithful monkey to the ranger, who dutifully took him back to the very spot in the forest where he’d trapped him. And there, following the king’s wish, set him free.
The monkey bounded away. Scrambling up along the face of the great boulder that served as the monkeys gathering place he was met by his fellow monkeys. They gathered around him in joy and astonishment, overwhelmed to see their chief safely returned to them after all this time. Fearing the worst they had long ago given him up for dead. After all, humans sometimes roasted and ate monkeys. Or simply kept them caged till they died. Now the monkeys cried aloud, chattering in joy as they patted their chief with their small hands in happy disbelief.
When at last the hubbub subsided, they asked their king, “Where have you been all this time? And how is it that you’ve now returned safely to us? Did you escape?”
The Bodhisattva said, “I was trapped by a woodsman who brought me to the king. For these last two years I have been living with the king as his pet and his companion. I have dined on rich foods and slept on silken cushions. I saw how kings and nobles live. I wore a golden collar and a chain linking me to the king or to a post or to a ring on a wall. I tried many times to escape. I longed for the forest and to be with you all. After a time I accepted my new situation and did what I could to make the most of it. I am not one to mope. Though if the chain and collar had ever been unclipped I would have made a run for it. It never was. As there was nothing more I could do, I made friends with the king who returned my friendship. One day the king suddenly seemed to realize that I was not free, that I had been stolen from my home, and taken from my family and friends. He saw and was saddened by this truth. He realized his own error in this and ordered that I be returned and released.”
The monkeys were impressed. “Amazing!” they exclaimed. “That is a good king.” Then, “Tell us,” they said, “what was it like living among humans?”
“No,” said the Bodhisattva, shaking his head from side to side. “I will not do that. I am free now, and will not speak of it.”
“Oh, tell us they,” begged. “Please tell us. We, too, would like to know of the ways of men.”
The monkey leader settled on his haunches. “Gather close,” he said quietly, “for I would not raise my voice to say what I will now reveal. And I will only say this once.” The monkeys gathered in close around him and he began.
“All people, high to low, king to beggar exclaim, ‘Mine! Mine!’ ‘This gold is mine,’ they proclaim. They look at a tree, and say, ‘This is mine. It is my tree.’ At a mountain and again, ‘mine!’ At a river and yet again, “mine!” at a horse, an elephant, a man or woman, a child, a mango . . . a monkey. ‘Mine! Mine!” they proclaim day and night. They have no peace from this. They know nothing of selflessness, pay no attention to impermanence, but think that by saying ‘mine” they actually possess things, that they do possess things and can keep them. They will even kill others of their own kind for the sake of this horrid “me and mine’! I learned of this awful truth when I went with the king when he made his judgments in the royal court.”
The monkey’s gathered around their king felt their hair stand up on end. They shivered uncontrollably. Their teeth chattered in terror. Many covered their ears with their hands crying out, “Stop! Stop!! It is enough!” Some fell down and wept, exclaiming “Terrible, terrible!” moaning, “The horror of this will never leave us. We will never return here to our favorite gathering rock again. It has been stained forever and is no longer a place of comfort and good tidings. We must choose another place to meet.”
Then they all scampered away, abandoning their ancestral gathering place to the jungle. And their chief, the Buddha in a previous life, too-painfully wise now in the ways of men, went with them, never to return.
Garahita Jataka # 219: The Buddha Now Sees the Basic Error of the Human World.
(The Buddha as a leader of a troop of monkeys is captured and sold to the palace, where he becomes the pet of a human king. In the palace and out on jaunts with the king, while in captivity he observes human life. Eventually the king frees his pet and has him returned to the wild. When the other monkeys gather to hear of what he has to tell them about his time among humans they are horrified.)
In this jataka, the Buddha is a monkey. There are actually a number of monkey jatakas in which the Buddha enters life on our planet as a monkey. This is not surprising given the geographical origin of the jatakas. Even today, India is crammed with monkeys. They are as common as crows. Twenty-five hundred years ago monkeys and humans must have been observing each other regularly, on a daily basis. People could not help but notice that monkeys were a lot like us. They cared for their young often quite sweetly, were smarter than one might expect, ingenious when it came to stealing food, nimble, quick, entertaining, and exasperating.
The jatakas reflect this range of very human behaviors. In some tales the monkeys are foolish – they pull up plants to water the roots – thereby killing what they sought to protect. In some they are strident, in others clever. Kipling, who grew up in India, makes short shrift of monkey in The Jungle Book. He names them the Bandar-log – literally “monkey people” in Hindi and all the jungle people despise them. They are shiftless, vain, boastful, careless, flighty, and self-serving, without depth or purpose – in short caricatures of the worst of our own humanity. Their slogan is “We are great. We are free. We are wonderful. We are the most wonderful people in all the jungle! We all say so, and so it must be true.” But in the most famous and well-regarded jataka tales, wisdom and compassion come to the fore. The most famous monkey jataka is Maha-kapi or Great Ape Jataka, in which the Buddha-to-Be is a monkey king who sacrifices his life to save his people. He uses his own body to become a bridge over which his monkey people, threatened by a human king and his huntsmen, can escape from danger. It is a powerful, even stunning metaphor for the nature of leadership. The story appears in two slightly different forms in the jataka tradition, one in the Pali and one in Sanskrit. In the Sanskrit version the monkey king dies simply as a result of the strain caused by having all the monkeys run over him. Exhausted, he falls and dies – but not before giving the human king sage advice on how to be a truly noble leader. In the Pali version, a jealous monkey, (the Buddha’s nemesis, his psychopathic cousin Devadatta in an earlier birth), stamps on the monkey king’s back before crossing over, breaking his spine and precipitating his fall. In both versions the Bodhisattva succeeds, nonetheless, through his selfless actions in converting the human king to the path of true kingship. That is, to a life of service to the people, moving him from the self-centered path he’s been on of using his subjects merely as tools to serve himself. Politicians and CEO’s please please take note! Such stories are not and were never meant for the education of children. They are guides offering precious seeds, even relics of a True Path. In Tibetan Buddhism there is a profound tradition of terma. Terma are relics or treasures hidden in the earth and sky, forests and mountains by enlightened teachers, which are meant to be found by future generations. Jatakas are in a real sense Buddha’s relics. They are terma left by Shakyamuni for us to discover in our time, to open with our insight, so that we ourselves, and all beings, can benefit from the teachings and Dharma energy they each contain.
For example, in another almost equally well-known jataka as that of Mahakapi or the Monkey King, the Bodhisattva is also a monkey who risks his life to save a man who’s fallen into a deep pit. Interestingly, to do this, the bodhisattva monkey must practice. He prepares himself for the difficult task ahead by climbing trees with heavier and heavier stones tied to his back. In this way he develops, tests, and finally confirms his growing ability to be of help. When he finds that he is strong enough to be of service, he jumps down, lifts the man onto his back, and clambers back up out of the pit, carrying the starving, injured man to safety. Alas. The man is a hard-core reductionist and only sees his courageous and compassionate savior as so much protein, as meat, as a meal. The monkey, while saintly, has not yet said anything like, Jesus’, “Take of my body and eat.” So this limited view is a crass violation of interspecies hospitality and gratitude. Though if the man had asked – who knows? The monkey is a bodhisattva after all. Perhaps he would have offered his flesh as sustenance. There is a very famous jataka of “The Hare in the Moon” in which the Bodhisattva as a rabbit does exactly this – offers his own body to a starving beggar who is really Shakra king of the gods come to test his bodhisattva chops. (Sorry for the pun.) But in this tale, once out of the pit, the man picks up a rock and strikes the monkey on the head, planning to cook and eat him. Fortunately he is so weak from his ordeal in the pit that the blow is only glancing. The monkey, though battered and stunned, forgives the man his gross discourtesy. He takes no revenge, does not abandon the man to his well-deserved fate but, keeping his own potentially violent emotions in check, or better yet, fully transcending them, leads the faithless man safely from the dark forest. But not, alas, in this particular tale, out from the dangerously dark forest of his own warped, self-centered mind. The Dalai Lama recently used this tale in teaching large crowds of mostly Tibetans gathered in Dharamsala. It is a very pointed story about Not seeking revenge, surely an important teaching given China’s terrible actions in Tibet itself and towards Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhist culture. So jatakas are coming back these days as central Buddhist teachings – and for adults as originally intended, and not simply as quaint children’s tales. Though that is also a noble use and purpose. Jatakas can educate young minds to high values of wisdom and compassion as well as demonstrate the workings of cause and effect.
But let us remember this point. Jatakas tie all schools of Buddhism together. They are one of the few threads that run through all teaching lines. Jatakas even appear below the radar in our koan curriculum and, more visibly, but not necessarily notated as such, in the teishos and mondo of our Zen ancestors. In part they did not NEED to be pointedly mentioned. Everyone knew jatakas in the old days of culturally-grounded Buddhist practice. So whether you were in India, SE Asia, Tibet, China, Korea, or Japan jatakas were included in your cultural inheritance, and formed part of the context of practice for those who actually committed themselves to the Path. A reference to a jataka then would no more need a citation for a traditional audience then we today would need a footnote to give a source to someone saying, “May the Force be with you.” Or “To be or not to be.” Or “The answer, my friend is blowin’ in the wind.”
Jataka 219 Garahita is a very short jataka. One page in the original and that’s it. In it the Bodhisattva isn’t shown dealing with difficulties or facing trials or temptations. He doesn’t seem to make difficult choices. Yet the whole tale is itself about difficulty. He has been stolen from his home, taken from family and friends and, as a leader, from his life-purpose. Yet somehow he deals with it successfully. How? We’re left to fill that in on our own, to understand how hard the transition from freedom to gilded captivity must have been, how isolating and unreal, and so how solid the monkey-Bodhisattva had to have been. We must grasp the skills shown by the Buddha-to-Be in maintaining his equanimity and essential kindliness in the midst of this difficult and seemingly unfair turn of events. It is a very modern sort of storytelling. Little is spelled out for us. Instead, our own skills of comprehension and amplification are called upon for it to have its full impact. It is a jataka haiku. Once a Native American storyteller was asked to comment on the brevity of some of her stories. She said, “Our stories are so short because we understand so much.” There may have been an implication. Was she noting that our culture’s stories tend to be rather lengthy perhaps because we understand so little? Actually I filled in a bit and amplified the story so it works for us. The original is even terser than the version I put together where the Bodhisattva talks a bit about how he dealt with what happened to him. Then again we have the wonderful brevity of koans in our tradition. Little said, yet much to be understood. All we really know is that the monkey handles it. How do we deal with our own setbacks? With obstacles and unfairness? There is a model here, subtle and understated as it might be; one we would do well to reflect on and examine.
Did the Bodhisattva monkey experience terror when he was captured? Was he depressed by his enslavement? Did he try to bite those who held him? Did he tug at his golden collar and chain and nearly strangle himself in trying to break free, before he finally accepted his new condition? Did he resent his lack of freedom? Did he enjoy the food, the toys, the king’s friendship, the colors, sights, and smells of the city and court? Did he long for his friends and for the wild? All we know is that he held his own and made the best of a bad situation. We don’t know his process. I think of Joseph in Egypt, that great karma tale of the Bible. Unjustly sold into slavery by his own brothers, then unjustly accused of rape and unjustly imprisoned, he did not sink into despair or seek vengeance. He used his personal skills in the prison to make it a better place, not just for himself, but for others as well. He did not despise the jailor but treated him as a fellow human being. In time he helped manage the prison. He interpreted the dreams of the dreamers and did not become enraged when he was forgotten, the promise of the cupbearer to speak of him to Pharoah and free him, broken. He stayed steady. In time he is not only released but becomes second in command to the Pharoah. And when his brothers arrive he skillfully works to teach them, and ultimately even free them of their own bad karma.
That’s a long tale. And a profound one. This monkey jataka is very brief, still, brief as it is, it touches squarely something significant, and not just for the jataka tradition, or for Buddhist believers, or even for the Sangha of practioners, but for us all – human and non-human alike. It reveals the unconscious assumptions that underlie the so-called, “pyramid of life,” the mental construct that we humans have created to seat ourselves comfortably at the top of the living heap. And it turns that pyramid over in one vigorous flip. It shows how non-human nature may actually view us. As human beings we have the amazing potential to wake up, drop our conditioned self-centeredness, and be of benefit to all. But when we give in to childish views instead, and linger in addictive, self-centered dreams of dominance and ownership, we create the very nightmare of life on earth we now all know too well. The tragic consequences of our error of “me, my, and mine, above all,” play out all around us everyday. And this story, so clear on this central issue, an issue with a message of direst consequence for our own time, is 2500 years old!
And, it is not just a short jataka but an unusual one. In the tale, the human king and the monkey never speak to each other. Animals and humans tend to converse freely in jataka tales, communicating effortlessly at an equally high level of intelligent, even philosophical discourse as in the story of “The Monkey King” and in the equally central tale of “The Banyan Deer.” So, is this story one of the jataka tradition’s rare hedges toward realism? In this it is like the famous jataka of “The Hungry Tigress,” which also reads simply as description. The starving tigress and the selfless Prince never talk. Internal motivation is supplied for the prince, and then action is recorded. It is almost novelistic staying well within the bounds of our ordinary view that human is human, and animal, animal. Or maybe such tales are set, not in a far distant past age, but one closer to our own time, when communications between human and other realms have become very limited. We do, of course, have our horse whisperers, dog whisperers, and the occasional Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, and other dedicated scientists and animal lovers. But other than that, the doors of real communication between species seem pretty closed and, while potentially friendly interchanges remains possible, they are rarely equal. We’re still trying to find a way back in, a way to break the code that will allow us to actually converse with the smartest non-human beings on the planet – whales, chimps, gorillas, magpies, parrots, crows, ravens and – who knows? Maybe octopuses, too! (If so, then there’s a wild conversation lying ahead to be sure.) Of course, every kid who grows up with a dog, a cat, a bird, a bunny, a turtle, a horse may know quite a lot about all of that. For all animals communicate with us, usually better than we with them. Though our chats are rarely so openly or completely verbal as in the jataka tradition’s one-on-one, high-class interspecies salons. Zen tradition heads straight into the mystery of how things really are nonetheless. Case sixty-nine of the Shoyoroku or Book of Serenity an important book of koans especially regarded in Soto tradition, titled “Nansen’s Badger and Fox,” goes simply like this: “Nansen addressed his assembly and said, ‘All the Buddhas of past, present and future do not know it really is. Instead, the badger and the fox know it really is.’” Interesting wouldn’t you say?
To return to the tale, what’s odd for a jataka, too, is that the king in our jataka needs no prompting to show his nobility and kindness. Instead, of his own free will, he releases his captive pet. There is no need for the Bodhisattva as the wise animal to convert the human king to a higher level of morality. Which is the standard jataka pattern. Instead, this king is basically a decent guy all along and one day he just sets the monkey free. There’s no wrenching “twist.” The huntsman doesn’t do anything mean to the monkey once they’re both out of the king’s sight. (“Aha! Now I have you in my power you wretched little pest!”) No. He just takes the monkey back and sets it free. “Goodbye, Monkey!” and it’s done. There’s no spiritual drama. There is no human/animal conversation, no wisdom presented, no evil revealed.
But then comes the corker. While all these humans are good, it’s the entire human world that’s crazy, actually horrifying, to the so-called “lesser beings.” Those who we think of as below us on life’s great pyramid, find us in this story, not funny, not wise, not cute or admirable, but horrifyingly deluded, and dangerously destructive. We know that in reality animals can be purer in their affections, more faithful and loyal than humans. Dogs return for years at the appointed hour to the railway station to wait for a master who will never again get off the train. Elephants do not eat for an entire week until their dog friend is back on its feet, released from surgery. Animals can also be courageous and selfless in the midst of harsh circumstances. Dogs will attack bears to save their so-called “owners.” They will drag strangers to the place where a child or another dog lies hurt. They will charge through flames to pull humans from fire. They are not warped by concepts of “me” and “mine.” We know this. We ourselves honor our fellow humans who do such things, seeing in their actions the expression of the highest nobility and deepest humanity. And we give them well-deserved medals for selflessness and heroism. Yet, as animals do these things, too, perhaps it is not our human nature being expressed at such peak moments, but our common, animal one. Or better yet, our common-to-all-life, True Nature.
Rarely do we ever see what animals must overcome to reach out and save us or how compassionate they must be to befriend us, how tolerant of our wrong thinking, our distance, alienation, and painful lack of intimacy with ourselves and all the other living things with whom we still have the good fortune to share this beautiful planet. And intimacy, let’s remember, is another word for “enlightenment.” So, how Zen-like we may say, our animal friends must be.
For the whole point of Zen is to help take this delusion of alienation, the whole self-centered, internal solar system with “me and mine” as its blazing inner sun, away, and free us – and the world – from the waking nightmare that makes us feel like strangers, mere visitors to the planet and the universe, entitled to freely do unto other species what we would never want done unto us. Zen practice – zazen, teisho, dokusan – all of it — allows us over time to reclaim our innate intimacy with moon, stars, snow, wind, ants, jaguars, trees, flowers, people. It’s not something we have to “get.” It’s ours from the first, from the start – if we only knew it. If only “me and mine” even temporarily fall away, there it is. We begin Zen practice because we get a glimpse of this truth, that the self-centered drama with us in the starring role and everything and everyone else, the earth and its beings, family and friends at a distance, is somehow dangerously skewed. We begin to question, where is this “me” that thinks it owns all this, and has dominion over it? What is this “mine” made of? Can I find it? Can anyone?
The verse to Mumonkan’s (Wu-men kan) or Gateless Barrier’s koan case number eight, “Hsi-chung Builds Carts,” a koan we examine fairly early in our curriculum goes, in part, like this: “When a wheel revolves even a master can’t follow it” (Robert Aitken translation). Not even an expert can say a word about it says Zen Master Mumon or Wu-men in his Gateless Barrier. Who can say where a fist goes when it is open? Who can say where is my “my” when we become real? Where has it gone when we laugh and dance and walk and write and sing and eat and make love and talk with friends, and play ball with our kids? Our habitual clinging to not-in-reality-separate things, by a non-truly-but-only-provisionally existent thing we call “ourselves,” is the core of the problem. And while this is so, and we all know it, how hard it is for even a minute or two to let it go, just let it go, and openly see what might then arise, or what might have actually always been. Intimacy means waking up and seeing what’s been here from the start. It can be overwhelming – in a good way. Yet our seeming separation promises so much that we return again and again to our habitual clinging to it. But that promise is always, if we pay attention we come to notice, just around the bend, just over the next hill, just after the next pay raise or the next award or degree, just over there, over in the future, somewhere yet ahead. There is jam yesterday and jam tomorrow but no jam today, as Alice reminds us. But what about today?
Why should it be so hard to realize and act from where we already stand, who we already are? Why can so little be said, about our own realization of intimacy? How come we can’t just know it? Then again, why don’t we know how we digest food, or grow in height, or read, or speak, or write, or understand, or catch a thrown ball? We do these things yet do we know how? No, we don’t. What can be spoken of are the contexts of these things – what foods to eat to be healthy and grow to our fullest, what books to read to become better writers, or gain more understanding of some subject. We can speak, too, of the contexts of practice/realization, the things, the practices that make our moments of letting go and realizing our nature, possible – posture, breath following and counting, koan practice points, shikan taza’s just fully sitting.
Let me tell you a little story from a youth spent or mis-spent reading Tarzan comics. Once a year DC put out a gorgeous, extra-thick Tarzan annual. It had a wonderful animal painting on the cover, different each year. It cost 25 cents instead of the usual 10. I looked forward to that issue all year. Not only were there additional stories and the great cover art, but there were, “Jungle Facts.” One of these is relevant here. On one page in one issue there were drawings and written explanations of a monkey trap. It worked like this. You take a coconut and hollow it out, leaving some of the delicious meat inside. You enlarge the hole you used to scoop out the meat till it is large enough for a monkey to insert its slender hand – but not large enough for the monkey to withdraw its hand once it is clenched in a fist, grasping coconut meat. You stake the coconut to the ground with wire. Then you wait. Soon the monkey arrives. It smells the fresh coconut meat. It reaches in its hand and grabs a fist full of coconut meat. But it can’t withdraw its clenched hand. The knuckles won’t fit back out. It tries and tries ever more desperate but it can’t be free unless it lets go. But it won’t let go. It clings . . . and so the monkey is trapped. Then you can come along and take your monkey. Monkey-trap-in-Tarzan-comic as Zen teaching.
What we cling to is what traps us. Is this how even the monkey bodhisattva was caught? Let go let go let go!! Otherwise we’re bound to suffer the consequences of our habitual narcissism. For, when we look at the world we are like Narcissus gazing into the pool – we see only the reflection of ourselves. We see “mine.” The good news is that we need not make ourselves renounce things, or people – or push anything away to find our freedom. Nor should we say, “Since, there is no me or mine I’ll just take your laptop. It belongs to no one after all.” Watch out! The Buddhist precepts are very clear on such wrong, willful, self-centered interpretations of emptiness. What we need to do is simply see clearly and then, over time, learn to let go of the internal mechanism, our habit of clinging to the conditioned sense of “me and mine” that intrudes into our lives out of a limited, that is self-centered vision. Which is, simply put, a summation of what the practice of Zen is all about.
Without intimacy, that is, without the effort of ongoing practice towards an intimate sense of our actual, non-filtered-by-self-centeredness-being-in-the-world, we know only one degree or another of alienation, not reality itself. Not the wind and rain and flowers. Not the green grass beneath us, or the blue sky above. Not the shining stars. Not the gorgeous, ever changing clouds. Not our child’s smile, the touch of a hand, the lick of the dog’s tongue. Not the cat’s meow. Reality doesn’t mean something different from what is most ordinary, from what speaks to us all the time – if we only listen. We’ve all had such moments. Zen practice doesn’t give us anything we don’t already know, haven’t already seen, isn’t already ours. It just helps us live there, in the truth of things as they are.
The good news is that one consequence of our alienation is itself the desire, the aspiration to live free of it. The consequences of failing to accord with the greater reality are not just personally tragic. Our normally conditioned, limited view literally poisons actual lives in our real world. Because we think and worse, feel that we are the center of everything, that “me and mine” are king and queen of the universe, we can’t help but inadvertently cause harm. We live like drunks staggering into tables in a darkened room. Glaciers melt, and earthquakes split the ground beneath us as the result of our literal “fracking” with nature. Polar bears, whales, mountain gorillas, rainforests die off, never to be seen again. Many many beings suffer. For real. All because of an error in the way we understand our own minds and how we use our own minds; how we touch base with, or fail to touch base with our very own Mind.
And yet people still ask, “Is Zen really relevant in the West? Isn’t it an Asian thing?” Or, “Is taking up old koans, one-on-one with a teacher really relevant today?” What can I say, but, “Yes, yes, and most definitely, yes!” To dislodge “me and mine” from the center of our minds – which is what focusing on a koan point or on our breath or other practice does even just a bit, opens the gate to so many important new possibilities. We become more human, more ourselves. And perhaps less likely to pick up rocks and pound our animal saviors – or our own noble animal natures on the head. “Me and mine” is clearly the problem in the jataka where the monkey bodhisattva is betrayed and attacked by the man he’d saved: “My life is clearly more important. Screw the monkey,” thinks the man in the pit. Yet in the words of our own now gone new world traveler, Neil Armstrong, “One small step by a man, one giant leap for mankind.” And let me add – “and womankind. And animal, plant, ocean, mountain, river, atmosphere kind.” One small step along the Path brings benefit to ourselves and countless others. Not in esoteric or mystical ways but in simple, ordinary ones.
As we intrude less into and disrupt less frequently our own lives, and the lives of those around us, we can live with greater satisfaction and equanimity, with more wisdom and empathy shining through us. Why? Because wisdom and compassion are in reality, our own nature. Yet, because it is a practice, and never a certainty or habit, never a given, but always a possibility to be actualized, it remains a choice, a step we must take over and over, everyday. We work at it in the zendo, and in our lives, everyday. And, while we’re not truly in dominion on this earth – microbes probably are, and insects – we still have lots and lots of technological and economic power on our side. So, what we do both individually and as a species, the choices we make and things we do – or do not do – willy-nilly affect countless lives, human and non-human. For good, or for ill.
The Buddha as a monkey saw the horror of “Mine! Mine!” clearly. “Mine! Mine!” is still the disease that plagues us. It is an unavoidable aspect of the human realm, of human being, and seems to have been so since earliest times. There has been recent conjecture that early hunting and gathering groups bonded into larger groups in order to brew beer and have feasts and ceremonies. That is, the compulsion to self-transcendence, the urge to escape the prison of “me and mine” has always been a human issue, part of our very core aspiration and drive. Then, again, birds will eat rotting juniper berries till they stagger and flop around, unable to fly. Maybe all beings know some form of this illness. And while it may be unavoidable, it can be outgrown and left behind as the center of our personalities. Taking up a koan point, counting or following the breath, sitting fully aware “thinking not-thinking” allows us to set “me and mine,” that haughty inner king and queen off to one side, so that our real Mind can come forward, front and center. When the waters of the old pond settle and the waves become still, when all is quiet, the water transparent as air, you can sometimes see all the way to the bottom. What is there? What? Maybe there is something we can say, after all.
The peace and quiet, the sense of oneness that comes through ongoing sitting is not yet the end of “me and mine.” But it is the beginning of the end. And one day, maybe we, too, if we keep going, will be as wise as monkeys.