Thursday, 5 May 2011


Thieves, Scorpions, Frogs 
and the Nature of the Mind

Today, my house was broken into and things were stolen. I saw who did it. There were three of them and they were just to the left of my door when I came home. I saw their faces. Two of them were young and one was older, I especially liked the older one's face when I first saw him. I thought he had a sort of nobility to him. I had no idea that he was going to go after my things. It seemed he had a look of disinterest, but, I was fooled.  
I had been dropped off at my house in a three wheeled taxi after purchasing some articles in town. I got out and unloaded a desk off the top of the taxi that I was going to use as my writing desk. I set it on the ground outside the door to my house and then went to open the door to let myself in. As soon 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 the door and pushed it open, then, as I turned my back on the door to pick up the desk,  he ran past me and into the house. He was so quick and quiet that I did not even see him go by. Then, by the time I had 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 the verandah of my roof. I thought that 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. As 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 very 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.

The experience happened all of a sudden. There was that quality of an 'accident' about it. ‘Shit happens’ just like that. You are walking along and all of sudden you step in it, or it hits you, or your car is stolen or somebody holds you up and robs you. The whole thing, especially the number of the monkeys- three, reminded me of a story that Sri Ramakrishna told about three thieves. It goes like this:
A man is retuning from the market, walking through the jungle, when he is suddenly set upon by three robbers. The first robber says, “Lets kill him”. The second robber says, “No, lets just steal his things, tie him up and leave him here”. They all decide to follow this advice and they take his things, tie him up and leave him alive  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 further from you. Here is what I have stolen back. I am sorry about what we have done to you.” 
The poor man who had just been released was beside himself with joy. He thanked the third robber profusely and wanted to show his appreciation. He said to the thief, “Dear sir, please come to my home which is nearby so that 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 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. 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 thief. It robs us of our Divine nature. Because it is a thief, it cannot come home with us. 
Ramakrishna always made the point that the confusion of Sattva with God or Divinity is a very important distinction. 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 rectified, spiritual life will turn into an attempt to gain purity or Sattva and the transcendence and surrender of all and everything altogether, is changed into a 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 may look good, it is a nicer part of town, but, it is not God Realization.
In the Indian tradition, transcendence or surrender of everything is the ‘cause’ of true Sattva while the attempt to gain purity, hardens one in bondage to it and thus leads inevitably into suffering. Of course, it is a unique 'type' of suffering. The 'chains' are made out of gold, not steel or lead, but, they are chains and bind just as surely, none the less. 
As the story points out, sattva or purity is a thief and cannot come home with us. All sorts of trouble and confusion result from not seeing this. The most serious suffering is that people, or most specifically, spiritual seekers, 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, that 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 fail, as one cannot force their way to God and that is the source of their anger.
As for the monkeys, they represent the gunas perfectly. They were just there. They seemed innocent enough, sitting there 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’. Like so many things, it also comes out of India. . .
One of the ways they trap monkeys here, is they take a hollowed out, dried up, whole coconut. They drill a hole of about 3/8” in one side of the coconut and then they drill a hole of about 1-1/4” directly opposite on the other side of the coconut. Then, a six foot rope is taken in which a large knot is made at one end of the rope. 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 hits the inside of the small hole in the coconut. Then, the rope is tied to a tree  and the coconut is now effectively anchored to the tree. 

Then the coconut is 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. When the monkey tries to withdraw his hand from the coconut he cannot do it, as his fist now makes his hand too big to fit back through the hole. He screams, jumps about and bashes 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. Just like a monkey, we will not let go or surrender what we want and are subsequently trapped by our own desiring. Usually, we complain, protest and scream instead of unclenching our fist and letting go.
Now, let me get back to the actual monkeys at my house:
The monkey had taken the apples off a shelf. They had been left there by my cook who also purchases my food. The apples were sitting right next to some recording equipment and my camera. I was greatly concerned that the monkeys would now steal expensive electronic equipment or shoes or tools or anything else I had left around inside or outside. I had been hoping to sleep up on my roof and I now saw that area as an open territory that I now 'shared' with the monkeys. I asked my Indian friends if the monkeys would steal a computer or camera or anything like that. They said, ‘No, they only want food’. That put me at ease. But, then again, they had not warned me about the monkeys in the first place. They had seen them when the taxi first pulled up, so, taking this all into consideration, what I now heard was, ‘Sort of, kind of, not really’. What happened next will let you know how right this, ‘sort of, kind of not really’, was. 
I had brought back from town that same day, 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 morning and evening with a wonderful view of the holy mountain Arunachala and not be bothered by mosquitoes. 

Mosquito Net on Roof with bed and chair inside

I also wanted to sleep there 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 that had been previously erected by the owners to provide relief from the sun. After my netting was placed with the help of several friends, I went down to rest in my room for the afternoon. 
A few hours later, I heard noise coming from up on the roof above my head. I thought that 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 they were doing. 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 Disneyland for them. 
Most of the monkeys were running across the top of the net, but, there was a baby monkey trapped inside in the space of the net. All the monkeys took off when I came up except for the baby monkey who was trapped and immediately started screaming. Remaining with the baby, on the outside of the net, was the eldest and largest of the monkeys, the exact same one who had taken my apples. 
I quickly took in the situation and went immediately to the net to lift it up so that the baby could get out. As soon as I started to do this, the older monkey charged, 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. 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 for a moment, but, he only backed off a little. 
I saw what was going on. He thought I was threatening his little one. 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 it 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. This time, even though he was growling and hissing at me,  I tried to be more calm and calming. I again told him that I wanted to free his baby and that I did not want to hurt him. But, he was unaffected 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 screaming in terror. Perhaps, he had seen something similar before and it did not turn out for the good. It was a standoff. I could not lift the large net without being attacked by the elder monkey. The scared baby continued to run up and down the net inside squealing in fear.
I knew what I needed-technology. I went back downstairs and into my house where I had a three foot long bamboo stick. Then, I went back up the stairs with it. The large elder 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 up. I did this several more times as I came up the stairs, which definitely backed him off. Once I got up on the roof, I smacked the stick once again on the ground for good measure, backed him up even more and then 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 any gratitude offered from either of them, they ran off.
Before I set up and started to make my mosquito-free paradise up there, the monkeys were not interested in being on the roof. I don’t think they went there to ‘mess with me’ in any way. They are just monkeys and that is what monkeys do.  
As they say in Ayurveda, “A thing and the nature of a thing are eternal”. Based on this working 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, from body type to genetics, all to determine their qualities.  This way, a person can understand 'differences', where before he saw none and intelligently use those differences and qualities in the way they eat, live and work, and therefore create balance (sattva or sama) or health. 
The knowledge of these different qualities is put to use, based on the principle that ‘like increases like and opposites decrease each other’. In Ayurveda, health is thought to be a state of balance or ‘Sama’.  Disease is a state of imbalance. Having been an Ayurvedic practitioner for the last 8 years, I have seen again and again that without good judgement or discrimination of what to eat and how to balance themselves, people are at the mercy of their environment, trapped like the baby monkey within the net of ever changing circumstances, unable to get out. Furthermore, they often become resistant to the wisdom of available help like the elder monkey. 

The Charak Samhita, one of the three ‘Bibles’ of Ayurveda, puts forth the relationship between the quality of the elements in a persons body at any time and the type of symptoms that person will express. It says, “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 and arguing then you will have a good idea of what type of symptoms that person is going to have physiologically- they have a lot of the fire element. Water is wet and flows downward. Fire is hot and burns upwards. It is reddish. It 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, there are subtle different underlying conditions for each disease or 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 persons arthritis. One person might have too much air or ether, one person might have too much fire. Each person, depending on many factors including their elemental make-up, needs different things or qualities to become balanced. That is why it is said, that Ayurveda does not treat symptoms, it treats or balances the whole person. 
There is an Indian story of a frog and a scorpion: 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 had 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 that and reasoned it up one side and down another and it all made sense to him and he 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 towards the other shore. All was going well until they got to the middle of the river when the scorpion all of a sudden stung the frog. The frog quickly found himself becoming paralyzed and unable to swim and now both the scorpion and frog were about to die. “How could you sting me when you had told me that you would not do such a thing”? “I cannot help it. It is my nature to sting”  said the Scorpion. 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”.
When 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- 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 judgement, to know how to act and 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 unintelligent, unconsciously prejudiced or unable to tell the truth even if it hit them in the face. The possibilities are endless, but, just like any frog, we need to know about scorpions. Here in South India they do not advise that a person approach and pet a poisonous snake like a cobra. That is a 'judgement' they make of the character of snakes and people. 
There are a lot of animals here in India that are not seen in America. Where I lived in Northern California, I did not feel 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 unthreatened. 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. That story and a few tales about snakes from the Indian tradition I will write about in a later post.
In the meantime, “Trust in Allah and tie your camel”.  I will keep my door locked when I turn away,  even if only for a moment. I learned something: Monkeys and the monkey mind can be very, very quick, too quick for thought. It is their nature. It is my nature as well.

Peter Malakoff
Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India
Old Manali, Himachal Pradesh
e-mail: petermalakoff@gmail.com

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