I have always thought of monkeys as exotic and charming animals. There are no wild monkeys in Minnesota where I grew up, but I have encountered several troops of monkeys while cycling on quiet mountain roads in Japan. When I excitedly told my wife about the monkeys I met, she was decidedly less enthusiastic. Having grown up in Japan, monkeys are neither exotic nor charming for her. In areas shared by human and monkey populations, monkeys can become a real nuisance by raiding trash bins or pillaging vegetable gardens.
One of my favorite Buddhist stories describes a monkey that was captured and placed in a cage with six windows. A mischievous little boy discovered the caged monkey and decided to play a mean-spirited trick on it. The little boy gathered six delicious-looking pieces of fruit and placed one in clear view of each of the six windows, just out of reach of the monkey’s short arms. Each time the boy would set out one of those fruits, the monkey would rush over to that window and stretch his arms as far as they would go, contorting his body and waving his paws trying to reach the fruit. Once the boy had set out all six of the fruits, the monkey dashed frantically back and forth between the six windows until it collapsed from exhaustion.
I find that in my day-to-day life, my mind is just like that monkey. Instead of chasing after mangos, bananas, apples or oranges, my mind chases after pleasures that I perceive through the windows of my six sensory organs: my eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and thinking brain. In fact, not only does my mind chase after the things I like, it works hard to avoid the things that I dislike.
I can spend hours on my smartphone looking at photos that my friends post on Facebook, but am quick to avert my eyes when I see an animal that has been hit by a car on the roads I use everyday. My ears perk up when someone complements me, but tune out the moment someone points out one of my shortcomings. When I am biking home from the temple on a hot afternoon I can smell a backyard barbeque from three blocks away, but I fail to notice the smell of my own sweat as I walk through my front door. I crave the familiar Midwestern flavor of deep fried cheese curds, but cringe at the prospect of eating nutritious foods like nattō fermented soy beans or grilled mackerel. I love to turn up the air conditioner on a hot day so my skin is comfortably cool, but will toss and turn in bed if it is too warm and I start to sweat. It is the working of my mind that creates all these likes and dislikes. In William Shakespeare’s words, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2)
My minds runs in circles all day long chasing after those things I like and trying to avoid those things I dislike. Eventually, my mind becomes exhausted and flops down on the ground to rest. As I lie there on my back, I notice that the sky above me has been wide open the whole time, filled with possibilities in all directions that I was unable to see because I was too busy chasing after pleasures and running from unpleasantness in those six little windows.
In his final sermon before passing into parinirvana, Sakyamuni Buddha advised his followers “Rely on wisdom, not on the working of the mind.” (Quoted in The Collected Works of Shinran, p. 241) When we rely on the working of our minds we wind up chasing after the pleasures of our six senses and running away from the things we think are unpleasant. When we rely on wisdom, we learn to see beyond those little windows in our mind, and notice the vast sky of possibilities above us. When we learn to stand still and notice the big sky all around us, we will also see that the ground beneath our feet stretches out to the horizon in all directions. When we receive the power of Amida Buddha’s wisdom, we can walk right out of that little cage of our likes and dislikes and enjoy the freedom of a big heart that accepts all possibilities and does not push anything or anyone away.
The nembutsu is the Buddha’s voice of wisdom calling to us, saying, “Hey you, stop running around in that little box of likes and dislikes. Look at that big sky all around you. Everything is just fine as it is. No need to rush about. No need to worry. Namo Amida Butsu.”