The Monkey Mind – Chinese New Year of the Monkey 2016

The following homily was delivered on 9 February 2016 by Fr. Aristotle Dy, SJ during the institutional mass in celebration of the Lunar New Year.

At the last year of the monkey twelve years ago, I drew parallels between Xuanzang, the Chinese monk who goes in search of Buddhist scriptures guided by the Monkey King in the Chinese classic Journey to the West, and Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings. I reflected that in their respective journeys with a mission and the community that supported them, they provide us with narratives that help us make sense of our own journeys in life.

Since the last monkey year in 2004, I have done graduate studies in Buddhism, so for this year’s reflection on the year of the monkey, I take my inspiration from the Buddha. In the fifth century before the Christian era, he was concerned about the problem of suffering in the world and discovered that much, if not all, of it is caused by problems in the human mind. We desire or grasp things and when we don’t get them, we become unhappy and begin to suffer.  Such is the human condition.  To be liberated from greed, hatred, and delusion, one must practice an eight-fold path that includes the pursuit of wisdom, ethical conduct, and mind work. Enlightenment or nirvana is to attain this liberation of the mind.

The Buddha says that the human mind is like a monkey– “Having left a former (object), they attach themselves to another. Dominated by craving, they do not go beyond attachment. They reject and seize, like a monkey letting go of a branch to take hold of another” (Sutta Nipata 4.4).

In several other texts the Buddha expounds on the mind, or human consciousness, always being filled with multiple concerns and thoughts. We keep relishing or regretting the past, and fretting about the unknown future. We entertain fear more than we care to admit, and this explains the popularity of various practices to ward off evil and attract only good vibes at the dawn of each new year. We crave for things, people, and experiences, not realizing that they cannot ultimately satisfy.

Our thoughts and concerns, therefore, are like monkeys swinging from one branch to another, screeching and chattering. Just imagine the cacophony, and you will desire silence.

Silence and meditation are the pathways to liberation of the mind, and this is where Buddhism has many meeting points with Christian spiritual traditions. Throughout my study of Buddhist meditation, I kept recalling the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, specially the Examen of Consciousness that aims to make one aware of one’s feelings and desires, so as to be free from them. To put it quite simply, both Buddhist meditation and Ignatian prayer aim for liberation of the mind/soul.

Of course, as with all analogies, the similarities give rise to differences too. Ignatian prayer is ultimately directed at following Jesus Christ and making oneself available for mission in God’s Kingdom, while Buddhism has no such parallel.  In fact, the Buddha did not talk about God or any divine beings. His was simply a path to liberation of the mind. What his followers did with his teachings over 2,500 years is another, much longer story.

For this year of the monkey, then, we might do well to recognize and name all the monkeys that reside in our minds.  Let us bring them to awareness and just let them be, then bring ourselves to live in the present moment, a.k.a. practicing mindfulness.  The present moment is where we can live fully, and where God wants to meet us.  Let us tame the monkeys, and invite them to sit still, so we can live mindfully.

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