Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Five Bonds of Desire: Monkey Mind (sutra)

Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, CC Liu, Wisdom Quarterly translation based on Makkata Sutta by Andrew Olendzki, "The Foolish Monkey" (SN 47.7)
"Monkey mind" is mental frenzy brought on by the Five Hindrances (
A monkey with a foolish and greedy nature will soon be ensnared (
On Himavat, king of mountains (the personification of the Himalayas), there is rugged and uneven land where neither monkeys nor humans wander.
And on Himavat there is rugged and uneven land where monkeys indeed wander, whereas humans do not.
And on Himavat there is a level stretch of land, quite pleasing, where both monkeys and humans wander.

There a hunter set a sticky trap on trails used by monkeys in order to ensnare them. Some monkeys there were foolish by nature, but not greedy. Seeing the trap, they stayed away.

The burnt nose she-monkey (
But there was one monkey who was both foolish and greedy by nature. He went up to the trap and grabbed it with his hand. His hand got stuck there. "I'll free my hand!" he thought. And he grabbed it with his other hand. It got stuck there.

Thinking "I'll free both hands!" he grabbed it with his foot. It got stuck there. "I'll free both hands and a foot!" he thought. So he grabbed it with his other foot. It got stuck there.

"I'll free both hands," he thought, "and both feet!" He grabbed it with his snout. It got stuck there.
Now that monkey, ensnared in five ways, lays down and howls. He has fallen into trouble, fallen into ruin, for now the hunter can do with him as he pleases. Not releasing the monkey, the hunter skewers him then picks him up and goes off with him. This is what happens to those who wander beyond their range, in the sphere of others.

Therefore, meditators, wander not beyond your range, in the sphere of others. Wandering there, Mara (the killer, the corrupter, obstacle to enlightenment and liberation, the personification of death) will gain access, will gain a foothold.

Whoa, you're skating on thin ice, boss! - What? I'm just monkeying around, worker.
Beyond one's range
And what, for a meditator, is beyond one's range, the sphere of others? The five strands of sense desire are. What are the five?
  1. forms discerned with the eye -- appealing, pleasurable, yearned for, and lusted after
  2. sounds discerned with the ear...
  3. fragrances discerned with the nose...
  4. flavors discerned with the tongue...
  5. touches discerned with the body -- appealing, pleasurable, yearned for, and lusted after. 
These, for a meditator, are beyond the range, in the sphere of others. Wander within your proper range, in your natural sphere. Then Mara will not gain access, will not gain a foothold.
The range of meditators
What, for a meditator, is within range, in one's natural sphere? The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are. What are the four? Here [in this Dharma and Discipline], meditators:
  1. One abides observing body as body -- ardent, mindful, clearly aware, leading away from unhappiness and worldly concerns.
  2. One abides observing sensations as sensations...
  3. One abides observing mind as mind...
  4. One abides observing mental phenomena as mental phenomena -- ardent, mindful, clearly aware, leading away from unhappiness and worldly concerns. 
These, for a meditator, are within range, in one's natural sphere.
Andrew Olendzki (edited by Wisdom Quarterly)
Andrew Olendzki (
This cautionary tale does not end well for the monkey. Fables like the adventures of Curious George deal with foolish monkeys.

The story is taken from the collection of discourses which discuss the Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Samyutta), the root teachings of the insight (vipassana) meditation tradition. The message has to do with applying "wise attention" (yoniso manasikara), changing one's frame of reference through which we  receive and process sense experience.
If we give our attention to the appeal of the pleasure that accompanies sensory experience (the sticky tar trap), we are necessarily caught by the object of perception. There can be no freedom of mind/heart, because we are subtly and usually unconsciously yearning for more gratification. Instead of satisfying our desires, such experience merely stirs up more desire. We take it as normal, so we seek satisfaction of sense desires by pursuing pleasure in the realms of the senses.
The intensive-meditative and monastic ideal that shaped early Buddhism involves a different way of relating to experience. The idea is not that monastics avoided or ignored sense data -- which is hardly possible when all of our sensory experience passes through these gateways. Rather, the instruction is about not getting ensnared by our craving for sense pleasures. Sense data itself is not harmful, but the sweetness of pleasure wrapping each sense ensnares us when we are overtaken by our "foolish and greedy nature."
The different strategy is that an intensive-meditator wander in a more fruitful range, within the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, in the presence of equanimity. Insight meditation trains us to attend more dispassionately to alluring and annoying experience. When we simply observe with mindfulness and clear comprehension, we undermine what the hunter has set for us (i.e., Mara's trap). We are then able to overcome death and attain "deathlessness" (nirvana).

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