May 4, 2008

Monkeys and Coconuts: Zen Buddhist Non-Attachment

(Note: This was a 7 minute speech I gave to my Toastmasters club, from the advanced manual "Speaking to Inform", speech number 5, "The Abstract Idea". It turned out to be so well received, I decided to post it to ZenPizza.")

Monkeys and Coconuts

Monkeys can help us find peace.

Madame Toastmaster, and Fellow Toastmasters,

Buddhism, and in particular Zen Buddhism, is known as a religion of peace. Many don't consider it a religion at all, but rather a philosophy.

The philosophy of Zen Buddhism is, at its essence, a search for the reduction of suffering. If one is able to completely remove suffering, he has attained Nirvana, or Enlightenment.

One of the traveling companions on the path to enlightenment is non-attachment. This is what we'll be talking about today.

Image this morning, you walked out of your house, and your car was not in the driveway. Imagine another scenario where someone you know, or someone on TV, insulted something you liked, such as a sports team or a political party. Now imagine an argument or discussion you had, and you couldn't stop thinking about it for days afterwards.

In all of these scenarios, we're suffering. According to Zen Buddhism, the reason we are suffering is attachment.

In the first case, we are attached to things, in the second, we are attached to feelings, and the third, our opinions and wanting to be right.

The more we are attached, the more we suffer.

There is a Zen story that perfectly illustrates this point.

In SouthEast Asia, hunters have an ingenious way of trapping monkeys. They take a coconut, and carve a hole in the top, and take out the insides of the coconut. Then, they place a tasty, sweet morsel, such as a piece of fruit, inside the coconut. They take this coconut, and put it up in a tree in such a way that it cannot be dislodged. A monkey comes along, sees the tasty morsel, and reaches its hand in through the small hole. When he grabs the food, his hand turns into a fist, and he can't get his hand out of the coconut. The monkey is not willing to let go of the sweet thing, and the hunter catches him.

We are the monkeys, holding on to our stuff, our feelings, our opinions, and we can't let go of them. Even when we are stuck, and we have our fist lodged in a coconut, and we can SEE how much it's hurting us, we can't let go.

The solution to this problem, according to Zen Buddhism, is non-attachment.

How do we achieve non-attachment? The way a Zen Buddhist practices this is to meditate. It's why they meditate so much!

First, meditation brings us into the now. Now is the only time. Now is when things happen. The past and future are only constructs of our mind. When we are in the now, we can't have attachments. Attachments are in the past and the future. In the now, the past and future do not matter. When we are attached to the past, we feel guilt and sorrow, when we are attached to the future, we feel worry and fear. Being in the now keeps us from being attached to the past and future.

Secondly, Zen Buddhists believe that nothing in the universe is intrinsically "good" and "bad". Good and bad are judgements that the human mind places on things. By being in the now, we can remove our judgements of things. When we have no judgements, we have no attachments.

The Buddha said, "Never have anything to do with likes and dislikes. The absence of what one likes is painful, as is the presence of what one dislikes. Therefore, don't take a liking to anything."

So what does this mean? Is the Buddha teaching us to walk around as zen zombies, uncaring and indifferent to everything?

Ajahn Sumedho, author of "Teaching of a Buddhist Monk", shares a story about non-attachment and enjoying life.

(Note: I summarized his story for the speech. This is my summary, not a direct quote.)

There is a fire burning in front of us. It's beautiful. With red, yellow, white. And it's warm. We like it, so we reach out to hold it. And what happens? It burns us. We pull our hands away, because when we reached out to hold it, it burned us. Does this mean we hate the fire and want to put it out? No. Instead, we learned to sit back and enjoy its warmth from a distance, and enjoy its colors in front of us. We can appreciate and love the fire without holding on to it.

That is the Zen concept of non-attachement, and how we can live in our world, appreciate and love everything, yet not be attached to it all.

Now, becoming enlightened is a difficult task. Very few people have ever achieved that. And the odds of any of us in this room reaching true enlightenment is pretty low. However, maybe Buddha has a good point.

Maybe the road to peace is as simple as sitting still, letting go, being in the now, breathing....and thinking about fire, monkeys, and coconuts.

1 comment:

mchristie said...

Great speech. And thanks so much for the reminder about attachment. It's too easy to forget and just let it be part of our lives.