© Rafe Martin 2013
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 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 ties 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 a monkey bodhisattva can be 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.