The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.
This is such a fascinating teaching poem. But what is really being said?
Hakuin paints for us an elaborate picture. First, we have the moon. It is reflected in water. A monkey hangs from a branch above the water, and it yearns for the moon that it sees reflected in the water. The monkey continually reaches into the water to grasp the moon, but the prize eludes his grip.
Who is the monkey? Well, we are. Or, more specifically, it is the busy, grasping mind. It is that chattering, gibbering aspect of the awareness that we most often identify with.
The moon, is a common representation in Zen poetry of enlightened awareness, ripened or full awareness.
So the monkey, the mind, is seeking enlightenment, though it fails to understand what it is really grasping at. It just notices something shiny, and it desires to possess it. It is not truly reaching for enlightenment; instead it grasps at a mere reflection of that light in the water below it.
What is this water? It can be understood as the world of manifest reality. It reflects the light of enlightenment. In fact, that is its purpose. But while it appears to be real, it is found to be fleeting, changing, ultimately intangible.
The monkey mind never tires of grasping at what shines and shimmers in reflection. This is partly because, in addition to the moon, the monkey sees itself reflected as well — and it loves its own face.
Hakuin laughs and gives us the solution: The monkey mind must let go and “disappear into the deep pool” of reality. The monkey’s fall represents the insight that the way is not attained through effort but through supreme yielding. When the mind stops grasping at reflections, when it fades into stillness, only then does the whole world shine “with dazzling pureness.” In other words, the mind can never grasp enlightenment. When it finally gives up and gets out of the way, then enlightenment is discovered to have already come about.