OF MINDSETS AND MONKEYPOTS
Petr Karel Ontl
Bodhi Leaves No. 131
Copyright 1993 Buddhist Publication Society
BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY
KANDY SRI LANKA
* * *
DharmaNet Edition 1995
Transcribed directly from BPS Pagemaker files
Formatting: John Bullitt
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution
via DharmaNet by arrangement with the publisher.
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* * * * * * * *
OF MINDSETS AND MONKEYPOTS
In village India, so I am told, there are men who earn some extra
rupees by trapping and taming monkeys to be sold as pets. Over the
years, through trial and error, several ways have been devised to
capture these primates, but the simplest method is said to be the
monkeypot. In a clearing, the trapper fastens a short piece of cord or
thin chain to a stake or tree-stump. To the other end he attaches a
small pot, one with a rather narrow neck. Into this pot he drops
several nuts, and scatters a few more on the ground nearby. He then
goes a short distance away to wait out of sight.
Soon a band of monkeys arrives and descends to feed. Before long,
one of them discovers the contents of the pot. He puts his hand in
easily enough, but, having grasped the enticing snack, he cannot pull
his clenched fist out through the narrow opening no matter how hard he
struggles. In fear and panic the trapped monkey creates quite a
ruckus, which brings the trapper running with net and cage. The
monkey's fate, for all his cleverness, is sealed.
At first glance it would appear that the villager is the trapper,
the baited pot his trap, and the poor monkey his victim. No doubt the
villager sees things the same way, and the hapless simian, were he
able to speak, would likely agree. A closer look, however, shows a
different perspective. The villager is not the trapper, nor the pot a
trap, because there is nothing holding the monkey. He could very
easily remove his hand from the pot and rejoin his kin in the freedom
of the treetops if only he would let go of the nuts. //If he would
only let go!//
The monkey in our anecdote does not suspect that he is being held
prisoner solely by his mind. He has found some nuts. Greed --
unreasonable and unreasoning desire -- has arisen. Though the jungle
abounds with fruits and nuts and all kinds of foods, his conditioned
reaction dictates that he must have //these// as well. His narrow
mindset is the only thing that imprisons him, that prevents him from
letting go, from seeing the absurdity of his predicament as well as
the obvious way out of it.
Now, before we make any smug comments about the monkey and his
intelligence, or the apparent lack thereof, and before we congratulate
ourselves on our vastly superior reasoning powers, let us see where we
This business of letting go is so easy, and yet so hard, for monkey
and for human being alike. We are both caught up in the same
predicament. The details may be different, played out on higher levels
of sophistication or complexity, but the end result is the same:
enslavement by //concepts// and //conditioning//. While the monkey is
done in by its greed for a few nuts, we humans are done in by our
greed for wealth, fame, power, status, pleasure, and shiny trinkets
and toys which we believe we absolutely must have, and cannot live
without. Even more fundamentally, we become enslaved not so much by
the material objects themselves, but by our //attitudes// and
//feelings// toward them.
We endlessly seek gratification for the senses: pleasant things to
look at, to listen to, to touch, to taste, to smell. And more: we are
spurred on by thoughts or concepts created by our ego-driven minds.
These last can be the hardest to satisfy since we cannot just please
our senses and be content. Rather, we strive to fulfill fantasies of
outdoing our peers, of turning them green with envy by having the
Biggest, the Costliest, the Latest, the Shiniest. We are always caught
up in competition, in a game of one-up-manship.
It cannot even be said that we are materialistic: We don't know how
to be! We don't genuinely enjoy and appreciate the material things we
have, much less life itself. We don't even know how to relax.
Aggressive competitiveness and acquisition become so obsessive, so
compulsive, so ingrained, that everything we do, right down to the
simplest recreational activity, is turned into a contest, a race, a
struggle to outdo others, ourselves, a clock, or a calendar.
Everything becomes a contest for money, trophies, prestige, or some
other form of recognition.
The //ironic// part of all this is that while we are frantically
making more money, getting a bigger house, and another pricey car,
hoarding more and better playthings, and trying to impress the dickens
out of the neighbors, we have less and less time to enjoy the very
things we are slaving for. The //tragic// part is that in the same
feverish process of acquisition of material things, we so very often
lose our families, our health, our self-respect, and our peace of
mind. Rush, rush, rush! Tempers flare, ulcers growl, blood pressure
soars. Millions of us die from stress-related illnesses. Millions more
try to find relief from their misery in alcohol and drugs. In the end,
all we manage to do is to rush into an early grave. Though we may rise
to an ever higher and higher "standard of living," at the same time
our society is falling apart before our very eyes. The prize is not
what we expected, is it?
All this misery in the name of what? $UCCE$$? Are we really that
different from that poor monkey? We do not know how or when to let go
either. Or what to let go //of//. Who is to say that we are not even
worse off than our furry little friend?
Craving is a normal, basic part of our conditioned nature. There
are certain things that are necessary for our physical survival and
mental well-being, and others that are detrimental. The mind of every
sentient being discriminates, putting these things into convenient
categories, labeling them "good," "bad," and "indifferent" according
to how it perceives them. And there are, of course, gradations within
According to the needs of the living organism, itself an extremely
complex psycho-biological process, a complicated psycho-biological
//sub//-process causes a desire to arise in the consciousness,
alerting the organism to seek or avoid certain objects or conditions
to ensure its proper functioning or survival. So far, so good. This is
a necessary strategy evolved to maintain and protect the sentient
being, be it man or microbe, as it goes about its business in the
When this survival mechanism gets out of hand, and instead of
serving, takes over as master, it plunges us into a fog of cravings
and longings. This vague, objectless wanting leaves us perpetually
dissatisfied and unfulfilled. It leaves us feeling empty, driven to
search endlessly and compulsively for an elusive "something" that we
hope might quench the craving. But we do not know //what// we want, or
even //why// we want it.
Like the monkey drawn to the baited pot, we grasp at all sorts of
things -- and ideas -- with essentially the same results. We get
trapped, if not in the literal, physical sense, then certainly
psychologically, which makes the suffering even more damaging and
prolonged. And the emptiness persists.
But there is a solution, and it is rather simple. Simple, now,
though not necessarily easy. Rather than give in and blindly obey
these impulses to grasp more, to acquire more, to hoard more, we need
to confront and analyze them. Where do they arise, and why? The
answers may surprise us: Behind this acquisitiveness is the
ego-concept, which necessarily gives rise to insecurity and fear in
myriad forms. These in turn cause us, consciously or subconsciously,
to seek all sorts of things with which to defend the apparent solidity
of the ego, to embellish and adorn it, and to build a protective wall
around it: power, status, fame, attention, and material possessions.
We are even driven to exaggerate the basic requisites of food,
clothing, shelter, and medicine to rather outlandish proportions.
To put it simply, due to ignorance of the nature of the ego, we
fail to make the distinction between "This is needed" and "I WANT."
Through ego-motivated thinking we create a great deal of unnecessary
suffering for ourselves, and we sacrifice much, even most of the
quality of our lives.
The Buddha taught that as conditioned beings living in a
conditioned existence (Samsara) we can never be completely free of all
sorts of unpleasantness, stress, and suffering. All conditioned
phenomena are flawed, and that inevitably gives rise to
unsatisfactoriness. This is the First Noble Truth of the Buddha's
teaching, and far from being a vague philosophical speculation, it is
something that each of us experiences first hand for him-or-herself in
daily life. While true and permanent freedom (Nibbana) comes about as
a result of the insight gained through Vipassana meditation, we can
eliminate a great deal of unnecessary suffering in the meantime by
applying the principle of renunciation.
Unfortunately, the very word "renunciation" has a strange medieval
ring to it in this modern, Western-dominated, supposedly hedonistic
age. For most, it carries the smell of sack-cloth and ashes, an image
of penance, self-denial, self-deprivation, even self-torture. It is
thought of as a negative, dejected turning away from the world, a
gloomy giving up on life, the last refuge of spurned lovers and aging
It is none of those things. Genuine renunciation, as the Buddha
teaches it, is akin to throwing open the windows of the mind to
morning sunshine and crisp, cool air. Renunciation is "cleaning
house," getting rid of trash and useless clutter, both figurative and
literal. It is recognizing that when we become attached to things, we
do not own them, instead //they own us//. It is putting things in
//proper perspective//, simplifying our lives, and being satisfied
//In short, it is COMMON SENSE//.
No need to say more.
You're smarter than the monkey.
You can figure it all out from here.
* * *
DOES THE DHAMMA STILL HOLD TRUE?
On occasion the question is brought up whether the Dhamma is still
valid in our time. Some people seem to think that while the Dhamma may
have been well suited for the Asia of twenty-five hundred years ago,
it has no place in a twentieth century world dominated by fast-paced,
aggressive, increasingly amoral Western technology and materialism,
and therefore it should be retired to a museum, to rest amid the musty
relics of a vanished Golden Age. In other words, it is as if an
age-old system of treatment were no longer useful because the diseases
of today are different.
Others approach the problem from another perspective. The efficacy
and appropriateness of the Dhamma are not questioned. Instead, they
feel that people today do not have the necessary time and opportunity
for effective application and practice of the Dhamma. The medicine is
right for the disease, but the patient is not able to take advantage
of the treatment.
Let us examine both of these views. It is true that the ancient
world was a different place from ours. Certainly life must have been
considerably slower-paced, as it is even today in agricultural village
societies. In short, the 20th century Rat-Race, the technology that
created it, and all that they imply, both good and bad, did not exist.
It is very tempting for us to look back longingly to some gentler
and quieter Golden-Age Utopia-That-Never-Was. Yes, the ancient world
surely was a very different place, perhaps more so than we realize, or
even are capable of realizing. But in no way can that be taken to mean
that it was a better place! These differences are really only
superficial and cosmetic.
The underlying problem, the basic problem of the world, remains the
same no matter how much the exterior trappings may change. And that
problem is that the world is a place of suffering.
The world is a place of suffering, but the suffering is not in the
world. It is in the mind. It is in your mind, and it is in my mind,
and it is in the mind of every sentient being in existence. That is,
of course, the kind of statement that brings out the critics who
insist that Buddhism is pessimistic. Not so. Buddhism impartially
states what everyone can see and verify independently for himself or
Let us define suffering. In his first sermon given after his
Enlightenment the Buddha said as follows:
Birth is accompanied by pain; disease is painful; death is
painful. Sorrow, lamentation, grief, and despair are suffering.
Enduring the unpleasant is suffering, and separation from the
pleasant is suffering. Not getting what one wants is suffering.
Indeed, all the five aggregates which arise from craving and
attachment are suffering.
Who can possibly argue with that statement? Suffering is physical,
mental, and emotional. And none of us is exempt or immune.
It is true that pleasure and happiness also exist. No one can deny
that, either. But pleasure and happiness are fragile and fleeting.
They depend on certain conditions being in accord with what we want
and expect. As soon as those conditions change (and change they
will!), as soon as we no longer have things our way, some degree of
unhappiness or suffering arises. Be it trivial or severe, it is
We each create our own misery and unhappiness, and even determine
the degree to which we suffer by the expectations we set up, and by
the strength and inflexibility with which we hold those expectations.
We have just restated the first and second of the Four Noble
Truths, and all we have said is just as true for us today as it was on
the day that the Buddha first uttered his Teaching. We see that the
ancient and contemporary worlds are alike in that both are filled with
sentient beings, all of whom experience suffering, and all of whom
To this suffering the Buddha was no stranger. He saw it clearly all
around him, and he was sensitive to it. Out of his compassion he set
aside his own life of comfort and privilege in order to find, once and
for all time, full and permanent release from the suffering inherent
in all conditioned things, situations, and circumstances.
After years of diligent searching, he succeeded in liberating
himself. After that attainment of Enlightenment, again out of his
great compassion, he spent the remaining forty-five years of his life
showing the way to liberation to any and all who would listen. The
Dhamma, the Teaching of the Buddha, is not his invention any more than
the laws of physics are the invention of Isaac Newton. Newton was
simply an observer who devoted himself to the investigation of certain
laws of nature which he studied, experimented with, described, and
brought to the attention of others for the benefit of society. Just so
did the Buddha devote himself to finding the cause for the arising of
suffering, and the means to its cessation.
The Dhamma is a summary of the Buddha's search, discoveries,
applications, and results. It is a report of the way the laws of
nature and mind operate, and a set of instructions, a manual, as it
were, of how we each can most effectively use that information for our
own greatest benefit in all aspects of daily life, and ultimately for
liberation from suffering. It is eternally valid.
The first two of the Four Noble Truths serve to identify the
problem and to reveal its cause. The Third Noble Truth identifies the
remedy and the Fourth Noble Truth is the actual application of the
treatment. It is now entirely up to each of us to take it from there.
The Buddha did all that he could do. No one could have done more. The
doctor can identify the disease and indicate the remedy. But he cannot
undergo the treatment on behalf of the patient. Similarly, the Buddha
shows us the path, and gives us a detailed map with comprehensive
instructions, but each of us must put forth the effort to travel that
path in order to reach the goal. No one can travel it for us.
What does it mean to be a Buddhist? What does it entail to follow
the path that the Buddha mapped out for us? Can we do a good job of it
(here's that magic phrase again!) in today's world?
To be a Buddhist in name only is very easy. It is also a colossal
waste of time, a disservice to all practicing Buddhists, and an insult
to the Buddha.
To be a serious practicing Buddhist does take time and effort and
commitment. One has to take time to study the Dhamma, to be well
acquainted with the core of the Teaching. One must know the Precepts
not just well enough to repeat them, or to do the minimum to "get by,"
but to understand in depth their ethical and moral basis. Once a
person has this knowledge and understanding and lives by it, one
realizes that it is not for the sake of one's spiritual benefit alone,
but that it orders and simplifies all of everyday life as well. This
includes family, business, and social relationships, child-rearing, in
short, all the aspects of lay householder life. And upon this solid
foundation, and only upon it, can one build one's meditative practice,
that is, the mental cultivation of insight that leads to
Yes, it does take time and effort. But all worthwhile endeavors do.
And this is the most worthwhile endeavor of all, bar none! We find
time and energy for all sorts of draining, useless, even harmful
pursuits. Certainly we can make time for the application of the
One further point must be addressed. Many persons seem to feel that
in order to make significant progress, one needs to enter the monastic
life. That they cannot do so because of lay responsibilities, or
because they feel they are not suited for monastic life, appears to
them a great obstacle.
The good news is that the lay person can make a great deal of
progress right where he is, in his present situation. The Suttas
abound with accounts of lay women and men who rose to great spiritual
heights, even attained Nibbana. And all the while they managed
households, raised families, earned livings, took care of personal
affairs, and operated businesses. To the casual observer they were
living very ordinary, normal lives. And this is no less true today.
The Dhamma is unique, a complete training system, unmatched and
unsurpassed by any other. It is not difficult to follow. One starts
precisely where one is and proceeds at one's own proper pace. At the
very least, adherence to Buddhist ethics will greatly simplify life,
bring peace of mind, and allow one to live a blameless existence. It
will also assure a wholesome rebirth in which one may again have the
opportunity to continue making progress towards liberation from
Samsara, should one fall short of liberation in this life.
The Dhamma is fully as potent now as it ever was. And once we make
up our minds to apply its principles to our lives, we shall see that
all that needs to be done is well within our capabilities, even in
today's hostile, whirlwind world.
* * *
IN SEARCH OF HAPPINESS
All of us seek, each in his or her own way, that strangely elusive
state called happiness, but very few of us can describe or define just
what we think will give us that happiness. Most of us are looking for
something, but we don't quite know what. At best we may have only some
vague, nebulous hunches. Not very much to go on! It is as if we have
undertaken a journey without a clear idea of where we are going, or
how we are to get there. Is it any wonder that we repeatedly fail in
spite of all our efforts?
All things change, and our notions of happiness are no exception.
It is clear that, if it is formed at all, the concept of happiness is
extremely subjective and personal, open not only to wide individual
interpretation, but to the vagaries of social, cultural, and even
economic conditioning as well.
In simpler, bygone days, it appears that happiness was generally
taken to be a tranquil, anxiety-free state of contentment brought
about by the fulfillment of certain conditions necessary for survival.
One who was properly sheltered, adequately clothed, well fed, free
from serious illness and pain, and was not in danger of harm from
enemies, was deemed to be happy. For what more could one ask? Fragile
though it was, such a basic state of security was deemed to be a
blessing, and grounds for great happiness.
In our time, however, it seems that happiness is more than ever
held to be somehow linked with the experience of //pleasure//, and
with "//getting// and //having// things." Some seek it in the direct
agitation and gratification of the senses. Others, in the accumulation
of material objects, and in the attainment of fame, status, power, and
wealth. And many think it lies in the rather hazy concept of "being
free," which today has taken on the extreme connotation of freedom
from discipline, morals, social conventions, and even good taste! (In
other times this was known as //license//.)
Unhappiness (suffering, or //dukkha//) is much easier to define,
possibly because we experience so much more of it. But either way,
whether we are scrutinizing happiness or suffering, we are dealing
with unstable, impermanent states of mind and impermanent external
conditions being in accord, or at odds, with what we want and expect.
As soon as we no longer have things going our way, happiness wanes and
some degree of unhappiness or suffering arises. It may be trivial or
severe, but it is nonetheless suffering. Suffering is simply wanting,
endless wanting. It is dissatisfaction with things being the way they
The Buddha identifies wanting (desiring, craving, //tanha//) as the
basis of all our suffering, and in the same breath he adds that it is
the causative factor of rebirth. The Buddha points out that there is
//no lasting, inherent pleasure or happiness to be derived from having
satisfied a desire//. Any desire. The pleasure occurs only during the
peak moment of releasing the frustration, the anticipation, the
tension of the wanting itself. Once the desired object is secured,
once the discomfort of wanting has been relieved, gratification
dwindles to an afterglow, and soon ceases. As soon as the novelty
wears off, our attention rather quickly moves to the next item that
catches our eye. It is a never-ending process.
Furthermore, the Buddha also points out that //no object or
situation can ever, in and of itself, be a source of pleasure or
displeasure//. Rather, these are constructs of the mind. In our minds
we form certain expectations, the way we want specific things,
situations, and persons to be. As long as these expectations happen to
be met, we experience a degree of satisfaction. When they are not met,
we experience displeasure, disappointment, anger, and other
unwholesome mind-states in direct proportion to our frustration.
We cannot crave that which we already have, only that which is
still out of our reach. We can have an attachment to what is already
ours, but that is also a desire, a wanting for the future to be a
certain way. We want a guarantee that the object of our attachment
will continue to give us pleasure, that it will remain in our
possession, and that it will not change, break, or otherwise fail to
live up to our expectations. We still want something that is out of
reach: a firm guarantee that future circumstances will not alter.
We deceive ourselves and each other into believing that happiness
is just one more step away, almost within our reach. If only we could
get rid of this, if only we could have that, if only we could change
the other, //then// for sure we would be really and truly happy
forever! We spend our lives "if-onlying," reaching and grasping, yet
we never manage to get hold of happiness. It always seems to slip
through our fingers. That is the story of our lives, life after life,
birth after birth.
Yes, this constant reaching and grasping for "just one more thing,"
this is the craving, the //tanha// about which the Buddha warns us.
This is the glue that binds us so firmly to the Wheel of Samsara, this
grim Merry-Go-Round of Misery that drags us endlessly from birth to
rebirth, from death to death again, and from suffering to more
suffering, relieved here and there by short-lived sparks of
gratification or pleasure.
Ironically, the more we grasp at this thing called happiness, the
more we chase after it, the more certain it is that it will escape us.
We have misinterpreted, misunderstood both the cause and the nature of
happiness, and then we have compounded the error by looking for the
happiness in the wrong place, in the world, rather than within the
mind! Our efforts are doomed to failure from the very first.
Happiness lies not in the ability to satisfy our every desire, but
rather in the ability to //refrain// from reacting compulsively to
every craving and prodding of the mind. It is the ability to observe
the mind dispassionately, to allow anything to manifest without our
"buying into it," without becoming enslaved by it.
There is little that can be done about what occurs to us through
external circumstances. That is old, conditioned stuff,
//kammavipaka// surfacing. We need do nothing, except to observe
carefully its arising and its passing away. We do, however, need to be
very careful about how we react to it. That reaction, that mental,
emotional, and volitional response, creates our conditioning for the
The clear awareness of our feelings toward the arisen object or
thought, unaccompanied by an automatic, self-interested, reflex
reaction based in greed or aversion, begins to weaken the kammic bonds
that hold us to samsaric misery. And practiced regularly, it provides
insight into the workings of nature and of the mind. This insight,
this understanding of the impermanence, ultimate unsatisfactoriness,
and selfless nature of all conditioned phenomena (//anicca//,
//dukkha//, //anatta//), quickly breaks the kammic chains and leads to
liberation from Samsara. It is the very core of the Buddha's Teaching.
* * * * * * * *
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Petr Karel Ontl was born into a Bohemian-American family in Prague,
Czechoslovakia, in 1942, and emigrated to the United States in 1949. A
certified foreign language teacher, he has worked in the fields of
teaching, photography, care for the elderly, and translation. He has
been a Theravada Buddhist for the past twenty years and is affiliated
with the Bhavana Society in High View, West Virginia.
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TITLE OF WORK: Of Mindsets and Monkeypots (Bodhi Leaves #131)
AUTHOR: Petr Karel Ontl
AUTHOR'S ADDRESS: c/o Buddhist Publication Society
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DATE OF PUBLICATION: 1993
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