Dec 15, 2021
Jenny Hall

Verses from The Dhammapada 35

If we are constantly distracted by past events, or looking for the next thing to satisfy our futures, we can never really savour the present moment in all its richness. When we enter the eternal ‘now,’ true peace is found.


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It is good to train the wandering mind. A mind under control brings happiness.

This verse points to the third link in the Twelve Linked Chain of Dependent Arising: consciousness.

Consciousness is depicted on the Wheel of Life as a monkey climbing up and down a tree. Through ignorance (1st link), we act intentionally (2nd link). These actions give rise to consciousness. 

In one of John Galsworthy’s novels, he describes a painting of a white monkey with haunting, brown eyes. It is looking longingly into the distance. In its paw is a half-eaten orange. Oblivious to the fruit already in its paw, it hankers for the next piece. The ground is littered with discarded peels from numerous other oranges. 

Like the monkey in the painting we are rarely at peace. The moment is never really tasted. We have barely finished one thing before we are thinking of the next. Constantly distracted, we fail to notice the consequences of our actions. 

In the supermarket we can be so fixated on filling the trolley with the next items that we bump into others. We ignore the elderly shopper struggling to reach the tin on the top shelf. At the check-out we are preoccupied with how quickly we can get the car out of the crowded car park so we fail to respond to the cashier’s friendly overtures. Like the monkey looking into the distance, we are focused on the future or past. We are rarely present.

One day the monks Tanzan and Ekido were travelling along a muddy road. When they came to a river, they met a beautiful girl wearing a delicate silk kimono. She was having great difficulty crossing the water without spoiling her clothes. Seeing her dilemma, Tanzan immediately came to her rescue. He picked her up, carried her across and gently put her down on the other side. The two monks continued their journey. Ekido didn’t utter a word until they arrived at a lodging temple. Then he could restrain himself no longer. “How could you do such a thing?” he demanded. “You know very well we’re not allowed to approach females, especially young, beautiful ones. Why on earth did you do it?” Tanzan replied, “I left the girl on the road. Are you still carrying her?”

Like Ekido, when we replay past happenings we muddy consciousness. These musings create the delusion that I am a permanent entity. We fashion each moment of experience into solid objects. We don’t see that the sound of the barking dog comes and goes. We cling to the idea of the barking and say, “I have a problem.” We hold onto it and try to solve it. Even what we regard as a problem alters depending on the changing situation and our mood. Loud music pounding through our walls may be judged as unbearable. When relaxing in a restaurant, the same music is appreciated as part of the ambience.

In Buddhism the phrase “to train the wandering mind” is best translated as “to empty the heart”. We become aware of the monkey mind when we first sit zazen. We are usually amazed how many thoughts and emotions arise. This discovery fuels further thoughts and emotions. Since these make up me, I cannot control them, but they continually separate me from reality. As we flit from thought to thought, the world is divided into this and that. Time is divided into yesterday, today and tomorrow. To heal this division all we can do is give ourselves wholeheartedly over and over again into whatever is being done. 

To help us, our teachers advise us to allow a short pause between actions. They also remind us to constantly check our posture. Meeting each new situation as a friend we face it and reverently incline towards it. We don’t turn our eyes away, like the monkey ignoring the orange in its paw. When we give ourselves completely, then choice-less awareness opens. The heart is emptied. We become one with the cushion, the washing up, the dog barking, the smell of the neighbour’s cooking. There is a vast spaciousness in which everything arises and passes away.

A journalist visited a prison recently. On the same day his child was starting her first day at school. He phoned his wife to remind her to tell their little girl not to announce to her new teacher and her class that ‘’Daddy’s in prison.” He thought it would make an amusing anecdote. When he walked through the prison gates, he saw that there were about forty men inside. All were about his age. They probably hadn’t seen their own children for a long time. Compassion opened his heart and he refrained from sharing the story with them. In this way the empty heart responds to the needs of the moment. Shunryu Suzuki said: 

“When you have something in your consciousness, you don’t have perfect composure. When there is no thought we see and feel reality.”

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