“We all have monkey minds.”

Dan Nussbaum wrote to me:

Hello Bodhipaksa. I really admire how calmly you deal with these

Here’s one from a blogger who puts a thought, her own or someone
else’s, into the Buddha’s mouth:

“We all have monkey minds,” Buddha said.

Monkey mind, I read, is a Chinese coinage. I think that the Buddha
uses the second person plural here in itself is enough to expose the
quote. There isn’t any scripture where the Buddha does that, is there?

I’d never seen this as a quote attributed to the Buddha, although that doesn’t mean much, since I’m always coming across new Fake Buddha Quotes. I almost hesitate to review this quote because it’s not in wide circulation, I prefer to deal with those quotes that are. But the topic interests me, and if this particular quote does take off we’ll have its origin documented here.

It’s “Zen Mama” Betsy Henry who I think created this quote, giving us one of those rare moments when we can pinpoint the birth (on April 10, 2012) of a Fake Buddha Quote:

I recently read that Buddha imagined the human mind was filled with drunken monkeys who jumped around and were constantly chattering. “We all have monkey minds,” Buddha said. All these monkeys want our attention and steal our energy.

Henry seems to be drawing heavily from a Huffington Post article by BJ Gallagher, who uses the same expression, but who (quite properly) doesn’t put the words in quotation marks. Gallagher had written:

Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention.

I think what Gallagher did is fine — simply paraphrasing what the Buddha said. But Zen Mama steps over the line by turning this into a direct quotation.

But did the Buddha talk about “monkey mind”? I’d be interested to know Dan’s source about the Chinese origin of this saying, but the Buddha did indeed use the metaphor of the mind being like a monkey in several places, and with varying meanings.

In Dhammapada verse 334, he said: “The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life.”

Samyutta Nikaya 12.61 has “Just as a monkey, swinging through a forest wilderness, grabs a branch. Letting go of it, it grabs another branch. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. In the same way, what’s called ‘mind,’ ‘intellect,’ or ‘consciousness’ by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another.”

Sutta Nipata 4.4 has “Having left a former (object) they attach themselves to another, dominated by craving they do not go beyond attachment. They reject and seize, like a monkey letting go of a branch to take hold of another.”

And in Therigatha 19, Talaputa quotes the Buddha: “Said He who speaks the best, Best among mankind,
man-taming trainer, Physician Great indeed: ‘Unsteady, likened to a monkey is the mind, extremely hard to check when not rid of lust.’”

So it’s a metaphor he’s recorded as using. The phrase “monkey mind” isn’t found in the suttas, to the best of my knowledge, although according to my Pali dictionary the term kapicitta — “having a monkey’s mind” (meaning capricious, or fickle) — is found in the Jatakas.

It’s great that Dan spotted the use of the first person plural. This is very rare. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that he never used “we,” but it’s certainly rare, and he seems only to have used “we” when suggesting what other people should think or say, as in “Thus, friends, you should train yourselves: ‘Being Dhamma-devotee monks, we will speak in praise of jhana monks.’”

He used phrases like “All tremble at violence; all fear death” when referring to some widespread condition, rather than “we.” I know of at least one place when he used “you and I.”

11 thoughts on ““We all have monkey minds.””

  1. This “precept” is much older than 2012, I think you should amend your text. I found a description of “the drunken monkey’s reasons why not” in a book by Barbara Brennan, “Hands of Light” , 1988, or possibly the followup “Light emerging” 1993. I have written to her through her school in order to further trace this. If you have the budget, you can find these books used on amazon for about $4 plus shipping.

    1. I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make, Greg. According to Google Books, Brennan’s “Hands of Light” doesn’t even contain the phrase “monkey mind.”

      1. Sorry if this sounds rude, my intent is to be blunt and tactless. This is also directed at the website. There is so much misinformation and pure BS on the web that it boggles the mind. Sometimes against my better judgment I am compelled to respond. The point is that this whole topic and website are absurd, explained further down. You said “According to ‘google books’ “? Seriously? Google? A tiny summary of the books’ topics? I have the f***ing books. I don’t need no stinking google books. (sorry, mangling a quote from “treasure of the Sierra Madre”) I read them cover to cover when I bought them 20 years ago, I almost had them memorized, alas, no more, they are now gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. The EXACT title of the chapter, a page and a half, is “the drunken monkey’s reasons why not”. It does not say ANYWHERE “we all have monkey minds”, to the best of my recall, nor did I claim that it did. but I’m sure it said as much in so many words, it was the whole point of the chapter, to convey the idea of the drunken monkey, the illogic. For our benefit. The untamed misbehaving mind. Sometimes it throws shit, like real monkeys. Or bullshit/monkey shit, same shit, different day. The whole point of the monkey metaphor is to convey the concept of mental discipline and focus, to quiet the endless chatter of the mind ( like monkeys, and this place) .. Oh well, never mind. I had the notion that readers would like to see some accuracy in this blog. I presumed that the followers here were genuinely interested in Buddhism. ????? Let me stop and state that I am not an expert nor an actual Buddhist but I admire and aspire to the philosophy (except when I’m making comments, haha, not very zen) . I admit as much, but I know a bit, and I know where and to whom to go for my reliable info, mostly my devout Buddhist friends in Thailand, cross referenced by as many reliable websites as I can. I have gone to many temples with those friends. Being familiar with the topic of the drunken monkey, this caught my eye while I was refreshing myself on the topic, as it has been a longstanding joke between me and my hindu doctor. I have better things to do than waste time on a fruitless debate. Intelligent people can be ignorant, ignorant not as an insult, but a condition of being uninformed and not aware of it, though they may not like to think so. Forgive me if I seek to inform. Then there is wisdom, another whole ball of wax. That comes from seeking, the quiet mind, objective awareness, harmony, experience, reflection. Carry on and have fun in your arguments, pursuit of enlightenment(?), and the hunt for fake quotes. Prove/disprove quotes? By Buddha himself? If you want to prove/disprove ANY quote attributed to Buddha (except in the case of obvious and provable fabrication in the modern world, like nobody ever said “play it again Sam” in Casablanca, you can watch the movie) you have to start with his language and then translate. Ever try to translate an Asian language? And nobody knows for sure what language he spoke, good luck with that, but very likely Pali, the sacred language of Buddhism or Magadhi. And you would have to know the ancient form and dialect of those languages. Impossible. Good example, you can turn to the Bible and argue over Christ’s exact words spoken in Aramaic. There are infinite debates over Christ’s exact words. You cannot find a phrase translator online for those languages. Even if you knew which dialect, they do not translate exactly. You have to paraphrase. You wanna learn about Buddhism? The languages? Go to a Buddhist country, participate in the ceremonies, talk to a real Buddhist, a real monk, the oldest one you can find, you know, people who are not fake and will politely humor your quest for proof or disproof of “fake buddha quotes”. There are monks who have faithfully passed on the words of Buddha for hundreds of years as best they can, who are a bit more reliable than Wikipedia, ya think? (BTW does anyone here know Buddha’s given name? Siddhārtha Gautama?) I’ve been to Thailand 3 times, my best friend there is a former Buddhist nun, and I plan to move there as soon as I can get my ass out of this shallow Donald Trump / Jerry Springer zombie nation. But what do I know? :-/

        1. You seem to have a lot of time on your hands, Greg :)

          Not being so generously endowed with time, let me just say again, the whole point of this article is to debunk that the Buddha said “We all have monkey minds.” The books you cited are irrelevant to that.

          1. Well., wasting my time is right, this is a club for like minded sanctimonious pseudo intellectuals who are here to argue ad infinitum , demonstrate their superiority, and little else, denying legitimacy to anyone outside of this cute little clique. I am an outside observer with a viewpoint and impression. Nothing more and nothing less. Not an expert, didn’t claim to be, I’m not in the contest that you want me to be in. My ego is not involved. I don’t care what anyone thinks or says, nor do I care about answers or comments directed at me. Paraphrasing the concept at the heart of the question, you’re all a bunch of drunken monkeys flinging shit. End of conversation.

  2. OK, I did some initial research. I don’t think you’ve done the best job of researching this. I have found so many references to the “monkey mind” or “mind monkey” that I must conclude that either you are too lazy to thoroughly research this, or you are cherry picking from only that which supports your website’s conclusions. It appears that you are the one who is fake with regard to this topic. Have you gone here? http://wisdomquarterly.blogspot.com/2014/07/monkey-mind-in-meditation.html ? Do you dismiss the Huffington Post’s feature of
    BJ Gallagher, Best-selling author, speaker, and human relations expert, whose book “Being Buddha At Work” describing the monkey mind has a foreword by none other than the Dalai Lama? Here?: http://zennist.typepad.com/zenfiles/2015/01/the-monkey-mind.html ? Here?: http://wisdomquarterly.blogspot.com/2014/07/monkey-mind-in-meditation.html ? This one gives some type of references, perhaps to sutras: http://sdhammika.blogspot.com/2012/09/buddhist-monkey-buisness.html . Buddhism has many paths and overlaps. For example in Thailand Buddhism overlaps Hinduism, and figures of Shiva, Ganesh, and Buddha occupy the same shrines, and tribute, incense burning, and “merit” are made before each figure. I have been there, and joined a Thai woman, a former buddhist nun, for the ceremonies. For what it’s worth, and you may have already seen, I am posting these excerpts from wiki “mind monkey” for now, the footnotes are available to you and your readers. There are references to connections with Taoism and neo confusianism:

    Mind monkey or monkey mind, from Chinese xinyuan and Sino-Japanese shin’en 心猿 [lit. “heart-/mind-monkey”], is a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable”. In addition to Buddhist writings, including Chan or Zen, Consciousness-only, Pure Land, and Shingon, this “mind-monkey” psychological metaphor was adopted in Taoism, Neo-Confucianism, poetry, drama, and literature. “Mind-monkey” occurs in two reversible four-character idioms with yima or iba 意馬 [lit. “thought-/will-horse”], most frequently used in Chinese xinyuanyima 心猿意馬 and Japanese ibashin’en 意馬心猿. The “Monkey King” Sun Wukong in the Journey to the West personifies the mind-monkey. Note that much of the following summarizes Carr (1993). Linguistic and cultural background[edit]
    “Mind-monkey” 心猿 is an exemplary animal metaphor. Some figures of speech are cross-linguistically common, verging upon linguistic universals; many languages use “monkey” or “ape” words to mean “mimic”, for instance, Italian scimmiottare “to mock; to mimic” < scimmia "monkey; ape", Japanese sarumane 猿真似 [lit. "monkey imitation"] "copycat; superficial imitation", and English monkey see, monkey do or to ape). Other animal metaphors have culture-specific meanings; compare English chickenhearted "cowardly; timid'; easily frightened" and Chinese jixin 雞心 [lit. "chicken heart"] "heart-shaped; cordate".

    The four morphological elements of Chinese xinyuanyima or Japanese shin'en'iba are xin or shin 心 "heart; mind", yi or i 意 "thought", yuan or en 猿 "monkey", and ma or ba 馬 "horse"'.

    1. This article is about whether the quote “We all have monkey minds” is something the Buddha said. You appear to be under the impression it’s about something else. I’m afraid that whether some “human relations expert” (or anyone else) has used the expression “monkey mind” isn’t remotely relevant!

      1. Did I already speak to you? Well, I wrote both responses separately, my mind is too tired to sort both of them out again, so you can mentally edit this. I mean no disrespect just in case I sound annoyed. I’m having a stress week. Answer is:

        Oh, shit, (slapping my forehead) NOW I get it. It’s a trick question, right? Of COURSE he never said “we all have monkey minds” because ENGLISH didn’t exist back then. HAW HAW HAW HAW!!! Apparently we all DO have monkey minds. yeah, you guys too. You can quote ME on that next time, and you have it in writing. OK, My comments were directed at the operator of this site, I may have misspoken to anyone other than he, apologies for that. What makes this absurd is that if you’re looking to confirm the specific exact quote “we all have monkey minds” or attribute ANY specific quote to Buddha himself, you have to translate from either of the two likely languages that he spoke, Pali or magadhi, two south asian/Indian languages. Pali is considered the sacred language of Buddhism and pehaps most likely. Asian languages generally tend to not translate exactly to English, as I have found with the Thai language. I found no functional phrase translator page online for either Pali or Magadhi. Of course not. So the whole premise of this thread is absurd, because you can’t actually translate word for word ANYTHING you might think Buddha said. As I said in another post, you can TRY to follow a phrase to a modern originator, but then you might not know if the path really ends there. Some troublemaker like me might pop up and deflate the whole thing with a bit of common sense. The site administrator tried to claim, wrongly or impossible to prove, that the “exact” phrase was coined in 2012, whereas the entire drunken monkey metaphor can be proven to have been around for many hundreds of years to when English and most modern languages didn’t exist. I don’t have those texts, they’re probably carved on a piece of stone in Ayutthaya or somewhere. You can’t effectively prove or disprove a particular grammatical version of any phrase in those languages and dialects. You can convey the general idea intended by the monkey metaphor, but you can no more prove or disprove the exact words than you can prove what a monkey is saying in its language. So I think you’re all a bunch of drunken Monkeys. Ha, how did you like that one?

        1. Thanks for the somewhat confused lecture about Pali. I actually studied Pali at university, so the answer to one of your questions is “Yes, I have done translation from an Asian language.”

          Anyway, you wrote, “It’s a trick question, right? Of COURSE he never said “we all have monkey minds” because ENGLISH didn’t exist back then. HAW HAW HAW HAW!!!”

          Very droll, but not at all relevant. Did Voltaire say “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Well, no, because he spoke French! Ha ha! Of course in asking the question I posed, what we’re actually asking is, “Did Voltaire say anything that could be translated as ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'” (The answer is “mais, non,” by the way.)

          Is there anything in the Pali scriptures that can be accurately translated as “We all have monkey minds.” No, there isn’t.

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