To Know the Dhamma is to Know Your Monkeys!

Ajahn ChahHere is an short excerpt from a wonderful teaching called “Still, Flowing Water” by the great Thai Forest Tradition teacher Ajahn Chah.  As usual, the dharma talk shows Ajahn Chah’s great wit, his sense of humor, and the depth of his insight into human nature and the Buddhadhamma.

Do you know your “monkeys”?

“Some people complain, ‘I can’t meditate, I’m too restless. Whenever I sit down I think of this and that… I can’t do it. I’ve got too much bad kamma. I should use up my bad kamma first and then come back and try meditating.’  Sure, just try it. Try using up your bad kamma….

This is how people think. Why do they think like this? These so-called hindrances are the things we must study. Whenever we sit, the mind immediately goes running off. We follow it and try to bring it back and observe it once more… then it goes off again. This is what you’re supposed to be studying. Most people refuse to learn their lessons from nature… like a naughty schoolboy who refuses to do his homework. They don’t want to see the mind changing. How are you going to develop wisdom? We have to live with change like this. When we know that the mind is just this way, constantly changing… when we know that this is its nature, we will understand it. We have to know when the mind is thinking good and bad, changing all the time, we have to know these things. If we understand this point, then even while we are thinking we can be at peace.

Swinging MonkeyFor example, suppose at home you have a pet monkey. Monkeys don’t stay still for long, they like to jump around and grab onto things. That’s how monkeys are. Now you come to the monastery and see the monkey here. This monkey doesn’t stay still either, it jumps around just the same. But it doesn’t bother you, does it? Why doesn’t it bother you? Because you’ve raised a monkey before, you know what they’re like. If you know just one monkey, no matter how many provinces you go to, no matter how many monkeys you see, you won’t be bothered by them, will you? This is one who understands monkeys.

If we understand monkeys then we won’t become a monkey. If you don’t understand monkeys you may become a monkey yourself! Do you understand? When you see it reaching for this and that, you shout, ‘Hey!’  You get angry…’That damned monkey!’  This is one who doesn’t know monkeys. One who knows monkeys sees that the monkey at home and the monkey in the monastery are just the same. Why should you get annoyed by them? When you see what monkeys are like that’s enough, you can be at peace.

Changing MindPeace is like this. We must know sensations. Some sensations are pleasant, some are unpleasant, but that’s not important. That’s just their business. Just like the monkey, all monkeys are the same. We understand sensations as sometimes agreeable, sometimes not – that’s just their nature. We should understand them and know how to let them go. Sensations are uncertain. They are transient, imperfect and owner-less. Everything that we perceive is like this. When eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind receive sensations, we know them, just like knowing the monkey. Then we can be at peace.

When sensations arise, know them. Why do you run after them? Sensations are uncertain. One minute they are one way, the next minute another. They exist dependent on change. And all of us here exist dependent on change. The breath goes out, then it must come in. It must have this change. Try only breathing in, can you do that? Or try just breathing out without taking in another breath… can you do it? If there was no change like this how long could you live for? There must be both the in-breath and the out-breath. Sensations are the same. There must be these things. If there were no sensations you could develop no wisdom. If there is no wrong there can be no right. You must be right first before you can see what is wrong, and you must understand the wrong first to be right. This is how things are.

Buddha MindFor the really earnest student, the more sensations the better. But many meditators shrink away from sensations, they don’t want to deal with them. This is like the naughty schoolboy who won’t go to school, won’t listen to the teacher. These sensations are teaching us. When we know sensations then we are practicing Dhamma. The peace within sensations is just like understanding the monkey here. When you understand what monkeys are like you are no longer troubled by them.

The practice of Dhamma is like this. It’s not that the Dhamma is very far away, it’s right with us. The Dhamma isn’t about the angels on high or anything like that. It’s simply about us, about what we are doing right now. Observe yourself. Sometimes there is happiness, sometimes suffering, sometimes comfort, sometimes pain, sometimes love, sometimes hate… this is Dhamma. Do you see it? You should know this Dhamma; you have to read your experiences.”

Ajahn Chah “Still, Flowing Water”

Calm Waters


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

9 Responses to “To Know the Dhamma is to Know Your Monkeys!”

  1. Interesting, Steve. We were in a forest here in Bali reserved for the sacred monkeys. I made the mistake of buying a bunch of bananas and proceeded to be mericlessly assaulted by monkeys who jumped on my head, legs, and shoulders until every banana was consumed. Not surprisingly, I freaked out and only later learned from a guide that getting excited and upset by the monkeys only makes them attack you more fiercely.

    Namaste, old buddy. People are incredibly peaceful here. I think it comes from an acceptance of both dark and light–not seeing oneself as a combatant seeking extermination of evil forces. Anyway, that’s my hunch.


    • Hey brother! Wow, what an experience! I think just about anyone would have freaked out. Monkeys can be fierce, especially in troops. I suspect you are right about that peacefulness, which come from acceptance of our *whole* human being and then working with that to see where we get stuck, and suffer, and where we don’t. Everything, light and dark, is our practice.

      Gasshō, dear, dear friend! Thanks for stopping by.


  2. thank you steve, this is wonderful! this is exactly what i need. i was just complaining to my buddhist shrink the other day about how terrible my mind is, how disappointed and ashamed i get when i see it do petty things after years of practice. (not that many years of practice but i am impatient!) we are both ajahn chah disciples and this post is essentially what she was saying to me. he just puts it so well, so insightfully. a monkey is going to be a monkey. of course. i like the part at the end about learning to read your experiences. all of that is dhamma — Dhamma in the sense that it is teaching you, and dhamma in the sense that it is a thing, fourth foundation of mindfulness. i’m trying to learn that it’s okay to see and know my monkeys, that it doesn’t make me ‘bad.’ this is still a tough one for me but this teaching is perfect.

  3. What a wonderful reminder this is! It’s so easy to forget that sensation and mindlessness are our teachers, not our enemies.

  4. Thank you for another beautiful essay. Very helpful.

    On Fri, Mar 8, 2013 at 12:17 AM, Metta Refuge


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