by Wayne Ren-Cheng
At the Cherokee Buddhist Temple (Wat Buddhamanee Rattanaram) a couple of Sundays ago the topic was the Five Precepts. As part of that discussion Lorena talked about the ‘monkey mind’ except she used a different term, one that speaks more directly to a Western sensibility. She called it ‘puppy mind’. Wow. That metaphor made me smile then, and it still does. With some time to contemplate the concept of ‘puppy mind’ I’ve come to realize what a use of skillful means that is. Westerners have very little experience with monkeys while most have first-hand knowledge of puppies.
Puppies are all over the place, unable to focus on one thing as they try to take in all the world has to offer their senses. A puppy must learn to set aside sense input in order to follow commands. A mind must be trained for much the same reason. A mind must learn to set aside sense input in order to follow the Middle Path.
You first train a puppy not to relieve itself just anywhere and at anytime. In Buddhism you must train a mind to not just “go” any where at any time. A mind wants to go wherever it feels the most comfortable, which is not always the right place to go.
Like you train a puppy to sit and stay, a mind must be trained to sit and stay. A puppy must learn to set aside the presence of other dogs, strange and attractive smells, and compelling sounds. A mind must learn to set aside the presence of emotions, strange and attractive thoughts, and compelling distractions. You reward a puppy with a treat or a toy when it obeys those commands. A mind is rewarded with focus, calm and equanimity when it develops the ability to sit and stay.
Puppies will chew on anything. They don’t realize what is theirs and what isn’t; what is good for them and what isn’t. A puppy will happily chomp on a bar of chocolate that is going to make them sick but will struggle to avoid taking medicine that will make them better. A puppy does what makes it feel comfortable. The mind, without training will also chew on anything. It will chew on the past, it will chew on the future all in an attempt to avoid chewing on the present where focus is needed. A mind without training will fall back into negative habits because that is where it finds comfort. A mind without training will engage in habitual reactivities just because they are the easiest.
Habitual reactivities are those habits and dispositions that we automatically engage in whether or not they have resulted in unwholesome outcomes. A puppy does the same. So does an untrained mind.
A puppy has developed a habit of chewing on shoes. You sternly correct the puppy, “Bad puppy, bad puppy. You are not supposed to chew shoes. Bad dog.” You turn away and they go back to chewing the shoes. Frustrated you get them a dog toy. You offer them the toy in order to entice them away from the shoes. For a moment they chew on it but as soon as you turn away they go back to the shoes. Why? Does the puppy want to get yelled at and punished? The puppy habitually goes back to the shoes because they know right where to find them at the foot of the bed.
An untrained mind does much the same. Get a flat tire. Get angry. Burn dinner. Get angry. Get cut off in traffic. Get angry. It is raining outside. Get angry. Anger is the habitual reactivity a mind may engage. It doesn’t matter that anger doesn’t affect the tire. Anger doesn’t make dinner taste better. Flipping the bird in anger doesn’t cause the other driver to be more courteous. A trained mind realizes that fixing the tire needs to be done; sometimes dinner doesn’t turn out the way it should, some drivers aren’t mindful of others, and no one controls the weather.
Puppies are in a constant state of learning no matter how old they get. The saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is not truth. A mind has the ability to be in a constant state of learning no matter the age. New mind, old mind there is always the ability and the room to learn something new. Whether puppy or a mind it takes commitment and effort to teach it to sit and stay. It makes the puppy a better dog. It makes a mind better at dealing with human experiences.