Jan 17 2019

Hakuin – The monkey is reaching

Published by at 10:32 am under Poetry

The monkey is reaching
by Hakuin

English version by Norman Waddell

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.

— from Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin, by Norman Waddell

/ Image by NinjaRisu /

Hakuin paints for us an elaborate picture. First, we have the moon. It is reflected in water. A monkey hangs from a branch above the water, and it yearns for the moon that it sees reflected in the water. The monkey continually reaches into the water to grasp the moon, but the prize eludes his grip. He has constructed for us a Zen allegorical image.

Who is the monkey? Well, we are. Or, more specifically, it is the busy, grasping mind — the monkey mind. It is that chattering, erratic aspect of the awareness that we most often identify with.

The moon, as I have often pointed out, is a common representation in Zen poetry of enlightened awareness.

So the monkey, the mind, is seeking enlightenment, though it fails to understand what it is really grasping at. It just notices something shiny, and desires to possess it. The mind is not truly reaching for enlightenment; instead it grasps at a mere reflection of that light in the water below it.

What is this water? It can be understood as the world of manifest reality. It reflects the light of enlightenment. In fact, that is the world’s purpose. But while it appears to be real, it is fleeting, changing, ultimately intangible.

The monkey mind never tires of grasping at what shines and shimmers in reflection. This is partly because, in addition to the moon, the monkey sees itself reflected as well — and it loves its own face.

Hakuin laughs and gives us the solution: The monkey mind must let go of the branch it clings to and “disappear into the deep pool” of reality. The monkey’s fall represents the insight that the way is not attained through effort but through supreme yielding. When the mind stops grasping at reflections and, instead, fades into stillness, only then does the whole world shine “with dazzling pureness.” In other words, the mind can never possess enlightenment; it can only lose itself within it. When it finally yields itself, then enlightenment is discovered everywhere.

Have a beautiful day!

Recommended Books: Hakuin

Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record: Zen Comments by Hakuin and Tenkei The Zen Koan

Hakuin, Hakuin poetry, Buddhist poetry Hakuin

Japan (1686 – 1768) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

The Zen master Hakuin Ekaku, sometimes called Hakuin Zenji, was born Sugiyama Iwajiro in a small Japanese coastal village at the foot of Mt. Fuji.

When he was seven years old, Hakuin heard the reciting of a Buddhist sutra that described the terrors of hell. This so frightened the boy that he resolved to become a monk, in order to avoid such torments.

Though his parents opposed his decision, Hakuin took monastic vows at the age of 15.

He studied the Buddhist scriptures intensely, but was deeply shaken by reading of the painful death of a famous Chinese Chan master. The young Hakuin lost his faith in the Buddhist path for a while, hiding himself in the study of literature.

But, at the age of 22, he had his first experience of satori or enlightenment when he heard a sentence from a Buddhist scripture being recited.

After that, he dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the full realization of Nirvana, unshakable peace.

At this time, Zen Buddhism had become the court religion and, in its preeminence, lost much its inner spiritual vitality. Hakuin is credited with saving the tradition from its decline virtually single-handedly, returning Zen to its rich spiritual essence.

He organized koan training (authoring the famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) and re-emphasized the zazen practice of sitting meditation.

Hakuin’s reforms were highly effective, as seen by the profound impact Zen has in the world of spiritual practice today.

More poetry by Hakuin

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Hakuin – The monkey is reaching”

  1. Olga T.on 17 Jan 2019 at 11:15 am

    Some are still trying to climb that tree…
    Not that there is anything wrong with it,
    ‘Cause without the monkey and the tree,
    There is no alternate reality…..

  2. Christineon 17 Jan 2019 at 6:17 pm

    Love this phrase… “the way is not attained through effort, but by supreme yielding.” Am working on it 🙂

  3. Elaon 17 Jan 2019 at 6:19 pm

    Monkeys are reaching

    There was a time here on this earth
    In the beginning of the world cycle
    When everyone was divine
    That period was called heaven
    Each one had a long life
    There was not a single accidental death
    Each one used to leave the body at their own will
    when it was time to take another new body
    Their bodies, souls and nature was too pure
    There were no bodily or mind diseases
    There were no hospitals, jails, courts or religions
    There was One life style of purity, the only path of purity
    As was the king so were the subjects all divine

    After taking many births
    we the souls became impure
    We slowly came down
    We acquired vices
    Though our faces are of human beings
    Yet our attitude is certainly of monkeys

    God has shown us a very easy method
    To become pure again
    Just by being soul conscious and remembrance.

    As long as we practice this method
    We remain away from the vices
    But it is not so easy to constantly
    Remain soul conscious because
    For half the world cycle we had been
    Only body conscious as we forgot soul
    Now at present again we are trying
    To follow this simple and difficult path of
    Soul consciousness which is the
    Only way of purity
    And get enlightened again.

    This poem of Hakuin is very true, I understand that

    water is this sansar
    Reflection of the moon in the water is the
    impossible purity in this world
    Monkey is our unstable and unstoppable mind
    Branch is the body consciousness (ego) which
    if we let go then only we would become pure

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