When I was in my teens my class took a weeklong field trip by bus from Singapore to the mountainous countryside of northern Malaysia. Imagine our excitement at being on this adventure with our classmates. We boys were in a particularly boisterous mood, outdoing one another to impress the girls. Being mischievous and rather bold, I was one of the ringleaders of the trouble we were always getting into. We snuck out of our rooms after curfew and disappeared as soon as our teachers’ heads were turned. Our chaperones had to constantly chase after and threaten us.
Toward the end of the trip we took a tour to see how the Malaysians of the region hunted monkeys. We traveled by coach to an upland forest. Screaming bands of monkeys swung through the trees. We watched as the hunters dug holes in coconuts that were just big enough for the monkeys to insert their paws. The hunters dug and loosened the flesh inside the holes so the meat was fragrant and juicy. Then they put the prepared coconuts on the ground and hid. It didn’t take long for the monkeys to investigate. They thrust their paws inside the coconuts and grabbed the flesh. The hunters sprang from their hiding places. The monkeys screamed and headed back for the shelter of the trees. But their paws, full of coconut meat, were too large to draw back out through the holes, and with coconuts attached to their paws, they couldn’t climb. The hunters chased them down, netting them and throwing them into cages. Some were probably used for food—monkey brain is considered a delicacy in Malaysia. Others were trained as coconut pickers. Some went to zoos.
As young boys we laughed at the stupidity of the monkeys as they ran around with coconuts stuck to their paws, unable to escape into the shelter of the trees. We thought they were very foolish, very dense. Why couldn’t they just let go of the coconut meat and climb to freedom? We made a great show of inventing insults about the monkeys to impress the girls. I was one of the perpetrators of this behavior. I was already studying Buddhism and internally questioned myself. Why did I make fun of the monkeys? What was driving me? Why did I feel the need to impress my peers and feel superior to the monkeys?
Behind my jeering façade, I pitied the monkeys and was ashamed at the way I egged on my friends. The monkeys screamed in terror. The hunters sprinted after them, hurling their nets. We boys laughed and laughed. This incident stuck with me as I engaged more deeply with Buddhism. How similar we are to those monkeys! Why can’t we just let go? We trap ourselves by our grasping and craving. Why are we so greedy?
Songnian wasn’t being stingy when he scolded me about his water bill. We should only use what we need, even if that is an insignificant amount of water. Making ink taught me to use just enough strength when I rubbed, not too much or too little. Just enough. And yet we always want more, more, more!
In order to free itself, the monkey needs to relax. To stop grasping. The same is true for us. Just relax when you see the coconut. Don’t be affected or distracted. Let it be. Remind yourself not to be like the monkey. Learn to relax. Whatever happens, relax. Stop grasping. Open your hand.