Berkeley Zen Center [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Controlling Monkey Mind

Lecture by Sojun Roshi

This lecture is reprinted from the January 2001 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.

I just saw a wonderful play at U.C. Berkeley based on the old Chinese novel Monkey. It was written around the sixteenth century and is one of the most well known tales in China. It's also been made into a movie called Journey to the West. Monkey is a novel about the journey of the Tang Dynasty monk, Hsuan Tsang, who traveled from China to India in the seventh century in order to bring back Buddhist scriptures. In those days it was a very arduous journey through the Pamir Mountains and the Gobi Desert. Hsuan Tsang thought he would be gone for a couple of years but it wound up taking sixteen. He accomplished his task, came back and spent the rest of his life translating scriptures and founding a school. He was regarded as a Buddhist hero. His journey was very dangerous. Whenever he got into a tough situation he chanted the Heart Sutra.

The story begins with the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin looking for someone to go to India to bring back the scriptures for the unfortunate people who don't have them. She picks Hsuan Tsang who is very pure, and asks him to go to India to bring back the scriptures. Because it is so dangerous, she wants him to have some disciples to be his companions on the way.

But the star of the novel is not Hsuan Tsang, who embodies the qualities of strong determination and magical powers; it's the monkey-king. One day the monkey king realizes that he wants to be immortal. In the old days in China, the Taoists were always looking for the secret of immortality. The monkey-king decides, "I want to be an immortal." So he dashes off, journeying miles and miles searching for a teacher who can help him find immortality. He runs into many teachers, but he is so clever that he outwits them all. Finally he winds up in heaven, where he totally trashes the place because he is so mischievous.

The monkey is the symbol of the mind. Monkey-mind is very clever and difficult to control. In the story, nobody can control Monkey and everyone in heaven is really angry with him. It turns out that Monkey's last challenge is the Buddha, who says, "Well, I'll tell you what. If you can hop out of my hand, you win. You'll be immortal."

Using his Taoist powers, the monkey runs to the ends of the earth, where there are huge trees. He leans against a tree, and takes a leak. Then he comes back to Buddha and says, "Well, I made it to the ends of the earth, out of the domain of your hand." But Buddha lifts up a finger and says, "This is the one you peed on!"

So monkey has to go to the nether world. Kuan Yin says to Hsuan Tsang, "I have this mischievous person, this monkey, whom I think will make you a good companion." When Hsuan Tsang agrees, Kuan Yin ordains the monkey, saying, "You will be the disciple of Hsuan Tsang, who is called Tripitika, or 'three baskets of learning.'"

Hsuan Tsang's next companion is a pig. The pig also gets ordained and becomes a disciple. Then they meet another demon called Sandy Monk, who had fallen from heaven and taken to eating travelers. Sandy Monk thought there was no redemption for him, but Kuan Yin says, "If you take good care of Tripitika all the way to the western land, you will be redeemed." So for one reason or another, all three of these demons -- monkey, the pig, and Sandy Monk -- have fallen from heaven and need redemption. And now the four of them, the three disciples and Tripitika, go on an adventure.

Hsuan Tsang, or Tripitika, is a symbol of purity, of lofty intention and faith. He walks into all kinds of situations with his innocent eyes open. The three disciples are always having to rescue him. It's a wonderful way of thinking about the passions - to think of them as your disciples. Tripitika is always training the disciples and correcting their bad behavior. At the same time, the disciples are continuously rescuing Tripitika from his naive bungling. So there is a wonderful balance between all four of these characters.

One time they get separated and Tripitika meets a group of immortals who say to him, "We'd like to hear about the Dharma." They have this wonderful conversation and Tripitika says, "We've been talking all night long." Suddenly his disciples appear and begin chasing these immortals away. Tripitika says, "Why are you doing that?" And they answer, "Do you know how long you've been here? A year!" But Tripitika denies it. "No, I've only been here over night!" Finally, the disciples tell him, "These are not immortals, these are tree spirits who've detained you on your way."

Tripitika is constantly getting hung up, and the disciples are trying to help him get to the western land. He keeps saying, "How much farther is it?" Monkey will get on someone's shoulders and say, "Ten thousand miles." Then Tripitika will say, "Oh, let's keep going, let's keep going." At some point, the disciples look at each other, and Monkey says, "If he would only stop, he would find it." And this is the point of the story.

What is interesting is how we think about these figures. The pig is greed, the monkey is delusion, and the Sandy Monk is ill will. The story is really about controlling the monkey-mind, controlling the greedy mind, the destructive mind, and the restless mind. The monkey is restlessness, and is often used in Buddhism as a metaphor. Monkey mind is very hard to control. How does one control the mind? How does one control the emotions, the passions? That is uppermost in Buddhist practice, something we're always dealing with. If one is too controlling, life becomes constricted. If there is no control, our life becomes a mess. So how do you control without controlling? How do you bring the elements of the mind into balance, without stifling yourself? This is an ongoing problem for everyone.

The monkey wants freedom and immortality, but something is missing in the mind alone. The mind has a function, but it can't work in a balanced way without faith and inspiration. Hsuan Tsang is the spirit of faith, of inspiration and purity. The mind must be the servant of faith. These days, we tend to feel that the mind should be served, not the other way around. It's all backwards and perverted. We believe that desire should be served instead of desire being subservient to the spirit. Many people feel that our destructive ill will should be served. Ill will is a very strong, passionate force. But this energy should be in the service of aspiration and faith. How do we bring these dharmas under control so that they are servants of the true master? There is a Zen koan, "Who is the master?" which I sometimes give to people to contemplate. Who is in control? Who is to be served?

We always put emphasis on aspiration and intention. Aspiration and intention are so important because they steer us in the right direction. Once we have the right direction, all the other aspects of the mind line up behind it. In the Eightfold Path, it's called "right thought," or "right aspiration." If we have right thought in front of us all the time, we don't become so ambivalent. Greed, ill will, and delusion are always vying for supremacy. We go back and forth with them, in our ambivalent way. That's why aspiration is so important, not the aspiration to get something, but to cultivate the way.

This is exemplified through posture. When we have the aspiration to sit up straight, the body and mind follow and line up with each other. When you get sleepy, they fall apart. So then you wake up and re-align them. This off-and-on process continues over and over but at least you know which way to go.

Too many people are lost. No matter how smart they are, it doesn't help. As smart as poor Monkey was, it didn't help until he became the servant of his true nature. The heart and mind should be in balance. Hsuan Tsang was the heart and Monkey was the mind. The mind by itself has a tendency to become arrogant and cunning. Monkey was the master of cunning. When the mind is not controlled by the heart, it becomes cunning, arrogant, and destructive. When they're in balance, things work well. When the mind and the heart take care of each other and are settled in the hara, there is balance and harmony.

Student: The story seems to be saying that greed, hate, and delusion are necessary for survival.

Sojun: They're not, but they are aspects of our mind. All aspects of our mind want to propagate themselves. The desirous aspect of our mind doesn't want to have any limits, so it becomes greed. Desire in itself is neither good nor bad. Desire is life force. When desire has a direction for practice, it is called "way-seeking mind" rather than desire.

Student: I wonder if you'd say a little more about right aspiration. We may have the goal of meditating, but the difference between doing it and not doing it is very fine.

Sojun: We're creatures of habit. We're cultivating good habits or bad habits. We are also creatures of rhythm. In order to accomplish something, we have to establish a rhythm in a sustained way. Our lives are controlled though various rhythms: the rhythm of school, the rhythm of work, the rhythm of family. If you don't establish a rhythm for zazen, you won't do it. We have strong currents in our life, and if the rhythm of zazen is not one of them, another current will come along and cut it off. Your intention has to be very strong because there are a lot of forces both outside and inside that will keep you from sitting even though you want to sit. Wanting is the first step but it is not enough. One has to create a rhythm. If you go to a monastery, the rhythm is already set up. Everybody practices and that's what you do there. If you are not into that, you leave. In a sense, that's the container. But here, you have to create your own container. That is the challenge of lay practice. A way to do that, for instance, is to take a month and say, "For this month, I will sit zazen on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday." Then honor that intention by following that program. That way you create a rhythm. At the end of the month ask, "Is this the right rhythm for me?" Maybe the answer is, "No. I'll change to Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday." Then you do that for a month. Every month, look at it and ask, "Is it right?" If it isn't, then change it. If it is, then continue. Don't leave it open-ended. That's what leads to failure. So this is how you create a sincere practice, a practice that helps you and works for you. Be careful what you commit yourself to and honor your commitments.

Last revised January 20, 2001. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

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