Thieves, Scorpions, Frogs
Nature of the Mind
Today, my house was broken into and things were stolen. I saw who did it. There were three of them just to the left of my door when I came home. I saw their faces. Two were young and one was older. I especially liked the older one's face when I first saw him. He had a sort of nobility to him and I had no idea that he was going to go after my things. It actually seemed he had a look of disinterest, but, I had been purposefully fooled.
I had been dropped off at my house in a three-wheeled rickshaw after purchasing some things in town. I got out and unloaded a desk off the top of the taxi that I was going to use for writing. I set it on the ground outside my door and went to open the door to let myself in. As I went back to pick up the desk and carry it in, they went for it; really, only the older one went for it.
I had unlocked my front door and pushed it open, then, as I turned my back to pick up my desk, he ran past me into the house. He was so quick and quiet that I did not even see him go by. By the time I turned back around with the desk in hand, I saw him exiting my house with a bag of something in his hands. I dropped the desk and yelled at him, but, he only ran faster. He was amazingly quick. I took off after him as he ran up the stairs onto my roof. I thought I could trap him up there and force him to give up what he had taken. The younger two had been scared and ran off in another direction. When we got to the top of the stairs, I confronted him, he was still holding the bag. We looked at each other, eye to eye, then, before I could do anything else, he leaped off the edge of my house across the wide open space to the house next door which was a good twelve feet. I would not even try to duplicate that jump. He got away.
The thieves were monkeys and the oldest one had stolen a bag of apples, fresh from the market. He took it right off the shelf inside the door. His speed was amazing. He was bold and extremely good at just ‘taking everything’ as it comes. He went into my house through the only entrance, so, he must of been prepared that he might have to go out the same way. He knew that I was out there. He gave it not a thought, he was just ‘winging it.’ I believe they do that all the time and are extremely good at it. In a space of mere seconds, he found food, a bag with four apples, grabbed it and was out the door.
It happened all of a sudden. There was that quality of an 'accident' about it. ‘Shit happens’ like that. You are walking along and all of sudden you step in it, fall down, or it hits you, or your car is stolen or somebody holds you up and robs you. The whole thing, especially the number of monkeys; there were three, reminded me of a story that Sri Ramakrishna told about three thieves. It goes like this:
The Three Robbers
A man is returning from the market, carrying his things and walking through the jungle and he is set upon by three robbers. The first robber says, “Let's kill him”. The second robber says, “No, let's just steal his things, tie him up and leave him here”. They decide to follow this advice so they take his things, tie him up and leave him alive and bound in the jungle. After a while, the third thief returns. He unties the poor man and says to him, “I am not going to hurt you. Let me set you free. I will not steal anything else from you and here is what I have stolen back. I am sorry about what we have done to you.”
The man who had just been released was beside himself with joy. He thanked his liberator profusely and wanted to show his appreciation. He said to the thief, “Dear sir, please come to my home which is nearby so I can give you some food or drink and properly thank you for your kindness”. The robber replied, “Thank you sir, but I cannot take you up on your offer. I am only a thief, a robber and I cannot come to your home with you”.
Ramakrishna said, that in this story, the 'three thieves' or 'robbers' represent the three Gunas or qualities of life itself. These Gunas represent the subtle elemental forces that are inherent in differing proportions in absolutely every aspect of life. The first thief or robber, who wants to kill the man, portrays the quality of Tamas which represents dullness or inertia. When predominant or in control, Tamas will tend to deaden or even to kill a person. The second thief who suggests leaving the man alive but bound represents the quality or Guna of Rajas or desire. This quality leaves a man alive, but bound and ultimately takes away all of his 'possessions.' The third Guna or quality is Sattva or purity; it sets a person free from the bonds of Rajas and Tamas, but it is still a robber or a thief. Sattva too robs us of our Divine nature. Because it is a thief, it cannot come home with us.
Ramakrishna always made the point that to confuse Sattva with God or Divinity is a very big thing. Sattva is a result of God Communion or Realization, it is not the cause of it. If this confusion of cause and effect is not clarified, spiritual life turns into an attempt to gain purity or Sattva and the transcendence and surrender of all and everything is changed into the manipulative attempt by the ego to be pure and sattvic. It is like saying that living in the richest part of town is ‘True happiness’ and everybody should strive to live there. We all know that it is not the case and that not all rich people are happy. Ramakrishna was pointing out a similar thing relative to Sattva or purity . . . it looks good, it is a nicer part of town, but, it is not God-Realization and to treat it as such is to confuse oneself and others and prolongs suffering.
In the Indian tradition, transcendence or surrender of everything is the root or ‘cause’ of true Sattva while the attempt to gain purity via even righteous acts, although thought to be better than Tamas or Rajas, hardens one in bondage and leads inevitably to suffering. Of course, Sattva is a unique 'type' of suffering. The 'chains' are made of gold, not steel or lead, but, they are chains and bind just as surely nonetheless.
As this story points out, sattva or purity is a thief and cannot come home with us and all sorts of trouble and confusion result from not seeing this. The most serious aspect of this suffering is that people, or more specifically, spiritual seekers, may waste their life in a fruitless attempt of putting the cart before the horse, putting purity before surrender, attempting to get to God-Realization via purity, trying to break into heaven through willful action.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi once said, this was why people who practice Hatha Yoga in India (he meant people who took up Hatha Yoga as a means to realize God) are known to have a lot of anger. They have tried to force (one of the meanings of the word 'hatha' is ‘force’) their way to peace and God. Of course, they ultimately fail, as one cannot force his way to God and the denial of their desire is the cause of their anger.
As for the monkeys, they represent the gunas perfectly. They were just there. They seem innocent enough, sitting outside my door when I first came home. They gave no signs of malice or intent to steal. But, their minds were fixed one pointedly on getting something, anything. As soon as the door was opened, they went for it, come what may. It is their 'nature.'
Many of us have heard the term, ‘monkey mind’ and like so many things, it is a term that comes out of India . . .
One of the ways they trap monkeys here, is to take a hollowed out, dried up, whole coconut. You drill a hole of about 3/8” in one side of the coconut and then drill a hole of about 1-1/4” directly opposite on the other side of the coconut. Then, you pass a six foot rope in which a large knot is made at one end of it. The unknotted end is passed through the large hole going into the coconut and then pulled out through the small hole on the other side of the coconut. It is pulled all the way through until the knot on the end of the rope catches on the inside of the small hole in the coconut. Then, the rope is tied to a tree anchoring the coconut to the tree.
The coconut is then placed on the ground and some food is placed inside the hollowed out shell. At this point the humans go away. After a while, a monkey comes up, sees the coconut, smells the food inside and reaches his hand in through the hole and grabs the food making a fist of what he has taken. When the monkey tries to withdraw his hand from the coconut he cannot do it, as his fist makes his hand too big to fit back through the hole. He screams, jumps about, smashing and bashing the coconut on the ground, but he cannot escape. The coconut is tied to the tree and the monkey will not let go of the food which he is holding in his fist;
this is what is called ‘Monkey mind’.
It is the tendency of all beings to try and get what they want, to obtain pleasure by means of our emotions, mind and senses and once we get it, just like a monkey, we will not let go or surrender what we have and are subsequently trapped by our own desiring. Usually, like the monkey, we complain, protest and scream instead of unclenching our fist and letting go.
Now, let me return to the monkeys at my house:
The older monkey had taken the apples off a shelf. They had been left there by my cook who purchases my food. The apples were sitting right next to some recording equipment and my camera. I was greatly concerned that the monkeys could of stolen expensive electronic equipment or shoes or tools or anything else I had left around inside or outside. Furthermore, I had been hoping to sleep up on my roof and I now saw that area as open territory that I 'shared' with the monkeys. I asked my Tamil friends if the monkeys would ever steal a computer or camera or anything like that. They said, ‘No, the monkey only wants food’. That put me at ease. But, then again, these same friends had not warned me about the monkeys in the first place. They had seen them when the taxi pulled up, so, taking this all into consideration, what I now heard went something like this: ‘Sort of, kind of, not really,’ and what happened next will let you know how right this, ‘sort of, kind of not really,’ actually was.
That same day I had brought back from town a large mosquito net, about 10’ by 12’. I wanted to put it up on the roof so that I could sit there and meditate in the early morning and evening with a wonderful view of the holy mountain Arunachala and not be bothered by mosquitoes which would swarm at those hours.
Mosquito net set up on my roof
I wanted to sleep on the roof when the house got too hot and the electricity was off and the fans did not work, which happened a lot. I had the netting made by tailors in town and set it up, tying it to the bamboo thatched roof previously erected by the owners to provide relief from the sun. I set up the netting with the help of several friends and went down to rest in my room through the heat of the afternoon.
A few hours later, I heard noise on the roof above my head. I thought my friends who helped me erect the net had come back to place large rocks around the outside edges of the net to keep it from blowing in the wind. I got up, washed my face and went up the stairs to see what was going on . . . I found about 12 monkeys using the mosquito net as a playground. They were running across the top of it and climbing the walls. It was an wonderful playland for them.
Most of the monkeys were running across the top of the net but there was a baby monkey trapped inside in the enclosure of the net. All the monkeys took off when I arrived except for the baby monkey who was trapped and who immediately started screaming in fear. Remaining with the baby, but on the outside of the net, was the eldest and largest male monkey, the exact same one who had taken my apples!
I took in the situation and went immediately to the net to lift it up so that the baby could get out. As I started to do this, the older monkey charged me, aggressively baring his teeth and threatening me. I turned directly towards him, spread my arms wide, bent down and thrust my head towards him shouting, ‘Hey! back off!’. I was miming his aggression. He stopped and we both looked each other in the eyes. He continued to growl and hiss at me. I raised my arms, spread my fingers and backed him off, but only for a moment and only a little.
I knew what was going on; he thought I was threatening his little one and I had sympathy with his feeling. But if he did not allow me to lift the net, the little one could not get out. I said clearly, in English and I know that monkeys do not speak English but I wanted to make an image with my voice and express that image to him, that ‘I wanted to help the baby and did not want to hurt him’, but, as soon as I turned to lift the net, he charged at me again. Again, I backed him off, but this time, even though he was growling and hissing at me, I tried to be more calm and assuring. I told him that I wanted to free his baby and I did not want to hurt him. But, he was unconvinced by anything I said. He only saw the young baby trapped in a net and a large male human was approaching the baby . . . he saw the baby who could not get out screaming in terror. Perhaps, the old male had seen something similar before and it did not turn out good. It was a classic standoff: I could not lift the net without being attacked by the elder monkey and the baby monkey could not escape. The scared youngster continued to run up and down the net inside squealing in fear.
I knew what I needed . . . technology. I went back downstairs to my house where I had a three-foot long bamboo stick. Then, taking the stick with me, I went back up the stairs. The large elder monkey came to the top of the steps and hissed and threatened me. When he did so, I smacked the stick down on the steps with great force making a large and powerful sound and he immediately backed off. I did this several more times as I came up the stairs, which easily backed him up. When I got up on the roof, I smacked the stick again on the ground for good measure, backed him up even more and then holding the stick up in the air, I lifted the net to let the baby monkey out. Now that I had the stick, the elder did not make a move against me, but, only hissed at me from a distance. The baby ran out and without either of them offering me any gratitude, they ran off.
Before I set out to make my mosquito-free paradise up on the roof, the monkeys were not interested in being there and I don’t think they went there to ‘mess with me’ in any way.
They are just monkeys and that is what monkeys do.
'A thing and the nature of a thing are eternal'
They say in Ayurveda, “A thing and the nature of a thing are eternal”. Based on this principle, Ayurveda goes on to distinguish, judge and evaluate all things, from food to herbs, to season, from time of day to stage of life and from body type to genetics. they do this 'judging' to determine the qualities of all things. By doing this, a person can understand 'differences', where before he or she saw none and then they can intelligently use those observed differences and qualities to create balance (sattva or sama) or health, in the way they eat, live and work.
The knowledge of different qualities is put to use based on the principle that ‘like increases like and opposites decrease each other’. In Ayurveda, health is defined as a state of balance or ‘Sama,’ and disease is a state of imbalance. Having been an Ayurvedic practitioner for the last 12 years, I have seen again and again how without good judgment or discrimination of what to eat and how to balance themselves in the midst of the ever-changing qualities of life, people are at the mercy of their environment, trapped like the baby monkey within the net of ever-changing circumstances; and without understanding they are unable to get out and just like the elder monkey they often become resistant to the wisdom of available help.
Ayurveda is a medical system that does not just deal with a disease, but with health or balance and because one person's balance is different from another's, one person's arthritis might need a completely different approach to bring about balance than another person's arthritis. One person might have too much air or ether like Audrey Hepburn or one person might have too much earth and water like Oprah Winfrey. Each of them, depending on factors including their elemental make-up, where they live, what they do, what they eat or have been eating, what season it is, what time of day, what period of life they are in, needs different things and different qualities to become balanced. That is why it is said, that Ayurveda does not treat symptoms, it treats or balances the whole person, Ayurveda seeks first and foremost to balance the person not merely treat the disease symptoms.
The Charak Samhita, one of the three, so-called, ‘Bibles’ of Ayurveda and thousands of years old, puts forth the relationship between the quality of the elements in a persons body at any time and the symptoms that person will express: “The nature of the thing, shows itself in the nature of the symptoms”. This means if you see a person with a red face, reddish eyes, red hair, drinking alcohol, angry and arguing then you will have a good idea of what type of symptoms that person is going to have physiologically . . . because they have a lot of the fire element. Usually, certain organ systems are usually affected and in certain ways. Water is wet and flows downward. Fire is hot and burns upwards. Fire is often reddish and is in abundance in fermented things from spices to alcohol. A person with a lot of the fire element will express different symptoms than a person with a lot of the water element, even though the Western name for the disease may be the same; and, there are subtle different underlying conditions for each person in any disease (their particular elemental or doshic imbalance) and thus differing 'things' or elements are needed in each of these 'cases,' to bring about balance.
One person's arthritis might need a completely different approach than another person's arthritis. One person might have too much air or ether, like Audrey Hepburn, while another might have too much fire (like Meryl Streep or earth and water like Oprah Winfrey. The working principles (dynamics) of the elements are a language that allows us to understand and intelligently change our health and our lives. Thus the proper treatment for each person depends on a variety of factors such as a person's elemental make-up, time of life, season of the year, type of work, genetic inheritance, time of day and daily activities to become balanced or healthy. This is why it is said that Ayurveda does not merely treat symptoms, it treats the person and it does so with every element and quality that surrounds that person.
I have already mentioned how, “A thing and the nature of a thing are eternal.” Well, the Indian culture has a story about that:
The Scorpion and the Frog
Once there was a scorpion who came to a river and wanted to get over to the other side. He saw a frog sitting there in the water and he said to the frog, “Excuse me sir, but would you be so kind as to take me across the river on your back. I cannot swim and you can. I would be most obliged.”
The Frog heard what the scorpion said and replied, “Mr. Scorpion, I would ordinarily be very happy to help anyone across the river, but, when I see you with that big stinger you carry on your back I am most afraid that you will sting me”. The Scorpion replied, “Mr. Froggy, surely you can understand that I would not do such a thing. If I stung you when we were out on the river, then we both would drown. If only for my own sake, I would never do that.”
The Frog thought about what the scorpion has said and reasoned it up one side and down the other. He decided it all made sense to him and he naturally wanted to be of service so he swam up to the shore of the river and invited Mr. Scorpion to climb on his back. The Scorpion did so and the frog kicked out toward the other shore. All was going quite well until they got to the middle of the river when the scorpion all of a sudden stung the frog. The frog found himself becoming paralyzed and unable to swim and now both the scorpion and frog were about to die. The frog cried out, “How could you sting me when you had told me that you would not do such a thing”? The scorpion replied, “I cannot help it. It is my nature to sting.” They both drowned.
It is essential to know things for what they are. It is sometimes obvious and often subtle. Veda Vyasa, the great sage of ancient India and compiler of the Vedas and author of the Mahabharata said, “Sometimes virtue appears as sin and sometimes sin appears as virtue. Only the wise know the difference.”
Often I hear someone say ‘We should not judge.” I am astonished at how this ‘point of view’ ever found its way into our culture. It is an amazing piece of poor thinking, much like telling a child to go out and play on the freeway. We need to judge. We need to be wise. We need to be able to evaluate. We need to know what is good and what is bad, what to support and what not to. We need good judgment, to know how to act, who to trust and who not to. We need to know if someone is full of shit and acting out, or if they are lying, or whether they are telling the truth, or whether the truth that they are telling is not ‘true’ because they are hypocritical, unintelligent, unconsciously prejudiced and unable to tell the truth even if it hit them in the face. The possibilities are endless and just like any frog, we need to know about scorpions. Here in South India they do not advise that you approach and pet a poisonous snake like a cobra. That is a 'judgment' they make of the character of snakes and people.
There are a lot of animals here in India, not seen in America. Where I lived in Northern California, I was never threatened by animals in any way, except maybe the occasional dog or the sting of a bee. In America, man is pretty firmly in control, on top of the heap and relatively unthreatened by wild animals. In India, that is not the case to the same degree. All the windows in the houses are barred to keep monkeys out. There are poisonous centipedes which inflict a very painful bite. Fifty feet from my front door there is a hole in the ground in which there lives a very large black cobra about 12 feet long. There are stories and a few tales about such animals from the Indian tradition that I will write about in a later post.
In the meantime, as they say in the middle east, “Trust in Allah and tie your camel”. I will keep my door locked if I turn away, even if only for a moment . . . and, I learned something: Monkeys and the monkey mind are very quick, too quick for thought. It is their nature . . . but as a human being, and unlike a monkey, even though I tend to follow my own nature which is at the mercy of the three thieves I have spoken of above, I have the opportunity as a human being to recognize the nature of all nature, the nature of Reality, which is another way of talking about God or the Divine and to realize or become one with Reality or the nature of all life is an opportunity, rarely taken, that is given to mankind; but that is a story for a later time.
"There is neither one God or many Gods, there is only God"
– Adi Da Samraj