Indian Philosophy – Buddha & The Monkey Mind

avatars of vishnu with buddha

Many of the debates between ancient Indian philosophers were concerned with separating the eternal and universal from the temporary and particular.  Buddha taught that all things are impermanent, including our individual selves and our shared world.  Buddha was critical of the Hindu idea of the atman and the caste system, even though Hinduism recognizes the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, and some Buddhist texts speak of the Buddha going to high heaven realms and teaching the Hindu gods, who rejoice upon being enlightened more than they apparently already were.

Monkey reflection moon painting

Even our conceptions and understandings of the whole and truth itself are evolving and changing depending on circumstances.  This constant transformation is a central cause of fear and clinging to particular things to seek stability.  However, because particular things are not permanent, the mind must jump from one thing to another, seeking ideal stability in each thing and then leaping to the next with the same hope, endlessly without rest unless wisdom is developed.  To illustrate this, Buddha use the metaphor of the monkey mind, of a monkey leaping from branch to branch trying to find the branch that is completely secure, ignorant of the insecurity the monkey finds in every particular branch.

buddhist monk on phone

Buddha says that we all have contact with reality, much as each blind man has direct physical contact with the elephant in the Jain story.  By having contact with reality, we become familiar with things, and by becoming familiar with things, we come to have positive, negative or neutral feelings towards them.  Feeling can lead to perception, perception can lead to reflection, and reflection can lead to obsession.  If we are satisfied or dissatisfied with something in experience, this can lead us to focus on it rather than ignore it, as we do with countless things that are pleasing or displeasing in passing.  If we focus on a thing and how it is satisfying or dissatisfying, this can lead us to reflect on it later, when we are no longer experiencing the thing, and if we reflect on things we are not directly experiencing, this can lead to obsession.  If the Buddha is correct, our lives are unfortunately filled with obsessions that cause ignorance, which itself causes problems.

Buddha Hall Dragons

When we reflect on our perceptions, we can focus on whether or not things are making us happy, but we can also reflect on whether or not our perceptions and reflections themselves make us happy, leading us to bondage and suffering or freedom and happiness.  Thus, in maintaining awareness of our feelings, perceptions, reflections and obsessions, we become increasingly aware as we feel, perceive, reflect and obsess that we can obsess about our reflections but we don’t have to, and we can reflect about our perceptions and feelings but we don’t have to.  Because we cannot say with absolute certainty that our feelings, perceptions and reflections are the complete and total truth, we must try to maintain awareness that the perceptions and reflections that arise from our feelings are only useful some of the time.  As Kalupahana says, “it is easier to be enslaved by a concept that gives the impression of being permanent and incorruptible than by a perception that is obviously temporal and corruptible.”