Monkeys in Fancy Robes


It seems that the world is just getting crazier by the day, with people angrier, more frustrated and ten times busier than at any time in history. You don’t have to resort to hyperbole when you describe the chaotic state of our planet, these days. It truly has become a three-ring circus of chaos, with entire countries "closed for business" until further notice, financial markets plummeting faster than a base-jumper without a chute, and panicked housewives spending two weeks’ salary to buy cases of Purel on E-Bay. Politicians waver between hints about the need to impose drastic quarantines and light-hearted banter about how 80% of those who catch CoVid-19 “self-resolve” (I assume that means your symptoms never become noticeable). And the other 20%? Well . . . most of those are elderly or have compromised immune systems. You know . . . weak people. No biggie.

After a day of absorbing the incessant noise of the Talking Heads on TV, masticating each new wrinkle to the story in an effort to extract the maximum flavor, I finally could take no more. So I turned off all electronic devices and sat down in front of the wood stove to do some wood-carving. As so often happens when I start off with no subject in mind, and search the wood for a pattern, the pent-up pile of perplexity stewed in my subconscious, and delivered up this delightful Rorschach result. I suddenly realized that I was carving a motif from a unique scroll known as the Choju Giga (lit: “Caricatures of Animal-People”), painted by a famous Buddhist priest named Toba Sojo (Priest Toba).  The motif is often referred to as “Monkeys in Vestments” or “Monkeys in Fancy Robes.” For 21st Century purposes, though let’s just refer to it as “Monkeys in Suits.”

           Still a work in progress …

As soon as I recognized what I was extracting from the uncarved block, the coin dropped, and I understood what my subconscious was hinting at. All the frenzied activity and counterproductive panic that is sweeping the globe simply illustrates our predicament, as fragile biological individuals in a changing (and often dangerous) environment. We try to shield ourselves from the truth as much as possible, but the unmistakable truth is that We are ALL going to Die!

No ... seriously ... We ARE! And there is nothing at all that we can do to prevent this. Every single person on the planet is ultimately doomed. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean we are all going to die of Coronavirus. In fact at the moment, your chances of being killed by Coronavirus are still roughly on a par with your chances of dying from hepatitis or uterine cancer. While it is a very good idea to wash your hands after touching metal, wood or plastic surfaces in public buildings/transport, there is still a 15x higher probability that a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or other natural disaster will get you (and that's just the global average; here in Japan you have to add another decimal point). Other things that are ten times more likely include dying in a terrorist incident, or dying of syphilis. Now if you’re really, really serious about avoiding possible causes of death, I’d like to have a word with you about this thing called the automobile. I tell you, man, it’s going to cause a BLOODBATH.

That is to say … nothing has really changed. Mother Nature has indeed reminded us that unrestricted international travel by air, in the massive volumes that our modern society allows, is not a particularly safe or sustainable thing. Humans have been lucky, up to now, compared with a lot of other species. Our “global society” has already taken a massive toll on other species, as diseases, disease vectors and harmful non-native species hitchhike their way around the globe on our planes, boats, trains and automobiles. Ask the American elm tree or the European Red Squirrel how globalization has affected them.

It was only a question of time before some pandemic came along and exploited the generous offer of free transportation to any point on the globe. Between 1918 and 1920, the so-called "Spanish Flu" killed somewhere between 20 and 50 million people worldwide. Epidemiologists estimate that the virus managed to infect about 27% of the world's population. That was in the days when it took up to a week for a ship to make the journey from Europe to America, and nobody had yet attempted the journey by air. How much more dangerous is the risk, when an infected person can make a similar trip in just a few hours?

But the more important lesson that we should learn from this recent outbreak of a deadly disease should be the fact that this self-absorbed little ego-self is an irrational and sometimes even comical thing – freaking out about minor threats while ignoring or even idolizing some of the most dangerous killers it will ever encounter (things like guns, cars and cigarettes). Most of the time we do not behave like “logical, rational, sapient creatures”, but rather, we run around like dumb animals. In most cases, our frenzied actions just make things worse for ourselves, rather than better. We do have access to a calm, rational, level-headed Self, as well as the emotional one. Unfortunately, the emotional and impulsive voice usually gets the upper hand. This is the basis for the concept of “Monkeys in Suits.”


Toba Sojo was born into one of the rival warrior families in Japan’s Gempei War (his father was Minamoto no Takakuni), and using his family connections, he eventually rose to become the head of the influential Tendai sect of Buddhism. This put him in many of the Emperor’s court councils, and gave him a front-row seat to everything that the political/military class was doing. Toba took up this post at a time when the entire country was convulsed by war, political machination and intrigue. At some point fairly early in the conflict, Priest Toba had seen more than his conscience could bear, and he stepped down from the priesthood, retiring to the mountains to contemplate the madness of human society. The historical record only tells us that he remained in the hills, yet maintained a few contacts in Kyoto (the capital) to inform him of recent events.

The rest of the story is derived from fictionalized (though historically based) accounts, but it does include one indisputable fact: about this time, Priest Toba painted at least two magnificent scrolls depicting various animals engaging in human-like behavior. There are four Choju Giga scrolls altogether, but most art experts agree that only the oldest two were painted by Priest Toba himself. The Choju Giga has been described as “the world’s first manga”, though it is far more than just a comic strip. There is clearly a message – both a social message and a spiritual one. Indeed, in the depth and directness of its insight, it encapsulates the Zen philosophy which was just beginning to penetrate Japan at that time.

According to the “Heike Monogatari” and other semi-historical accounts, Priest Toba was in an inner turmoil, seeing just how corrupt, selfish and irresponsible people had become, yet realizing that there was little he could do to change or influence their behavior. As he meditated in the hills, Toba began to see all the fighting and manipulating and interpersonal jousting as the behavior of humanimals – people who had “forgotten their Buddha nature”. He realized that attachment to this world (and the ego) was attachment to a non-spiritual form of living (that is to say, an animal life).  So long as they continued to identify with their little ego-self, and its selfish, petty interests, the people he had known and loved would always be just “Monkeys in Suits.”

This was a powerful enlightening experience, and Priest Toba immediately set to work on his masterpiece, hoping that the scroll would give people a satirical look in the mirror. If they could just catch a glimpse of themselves as “Monkeys in Suits”, it might possibly get them to Wake Up. At a minimum, the criticism-couched-in-humour might get some of the more important people in the country to adopt more “humane” behavior.

The tone of the scroll is also Zenlike (or perhaps Taoist) in its compassionate realism. It pokes fun at the various characters, caught up in their mundane daily lives, but it doesn’t try to lecture, preach, or demean the people it depicts. The artist has a deep feeling of sympathy and compassion for his subjects, who have become totally caught up in the costumes, the finery, the posturing and the competition. They are so focused on maintaining their appearance and their proper role that they have forgotten who they really are . . . or shall we say, WHAT they really are.

The “Monkeys in Suits” motif is one that we really need to examine closely, as a metaphor for the human condition. This is particularly true because it is so close to literal accuracy. From a biologist’s standpoint, a human is really nothing more than a well-groomed (and balding) monkey. The only thing that really sets us apart as unique (or at least uniquely gifted) among primates is the massive cerebrum needed to contain an ego-self. I suppose that is overstating the case slightly – research shows that some gorillas and chimps have a sense of themselves, as do dolphins and some whales. But biology does apparently set limits. The individual brain needs to contain some threshold amount of consciousness to reach SELF-awareness. Our self-awareness is what makes us "civilized." This takes us back to the original point. In a very real, literal way, we are all “Monkeys in Suits.”

But that is just the surface layer of meaning. The concept that Priest Toba was pointing out goes much deeper – to the core of what we are and what we call the “Self”. The human ego – the thing you generally refer to, when you say “I” – is an entirely ephemeral and artificial construct. Elsewhere on this site we have discussed the difference between the True Self (the centre of awareness which is beyond all words and definitions) and the little ego-self. But apart from the Blogpost linked in the previous sentence, and perhaps this one, we have not really spent much time examining the nature of the ego-self or discussing its origins. Although the True Self is imperishable and unalterable, the little self that we usually refer to as “I” is as temporary and as easily discarded as a suit of clothes.

Think about it for a minute. The person who most of your family and friends know as _(your name)_ has a past history, a set of typical behaviours and interests, certain emotional tendencies and philosophical presumptions. But none of those things represents the REAL you. In fact, almost everything about that individual – as seen from a third-party perspective – is a made-up story with no real basis in fact.

A few simple examples will suffice to prove this point. Do you have any visible scars on your body? How did you get them? … and more importantly, what story do you tell people when you describe how you got those scars? Is the story 100% true? Or have you embellished details to make it sound “cool”er than it actually is? Even if you do not have some melodramatic story about an accident or an old scar, you surely must have a CV, resume, or summary of your career. Ask yourself this: if you decided to rewrite your CV to make it TOTALLY accurate in every detail, would the story be any different from what you have currently written?

I suspect that any human being can think of at least a dozen stories that you routinely tell new acquaintances, in order to present them with some picture of “who you are.” We all do. Some of these stories are based on things you do not fully recall -- stories that your parents told you (which makes them not only biased, but also second-hand, and probably incomplete). Your parents certainly had a lot of influence in shaping the person you are today. The memories of events that involved them, as well as the image of you that THEY drew in their stories, occupy a central position in the fabric of your monkey suit. There are lots of other threads, involving lots of other people. When each strand, seam and patch are stitched together, what you have is the person you see on the other side of the mirror.

The suit that other people see, when they think of you, is a lot simpler. It also is easy to tailor and alter depending on how close you want your relationship to be. The other person will see the "Guy in the Mirror" for themselves, but since they missed the whole double-digit-years of life history, you will provide the details with stories about yourself. These stories tend to exaggerate and emphasize certain things about yourself that you WISH were true. In many cases the stories may be entirely fabricated … but again, they contain clues about the self-image that you CHOOSE to present to other people. On closer examination, the qualities you describe are often just as “fabricated” as the story itself. Nevertheless, it sounds true because it depicts the person who you want to be.

This collection of stories told over the course of your lifetime . . .  to others as well as to yourself . . . is not what you really are. It is just a suit of symbolic, verbal clothing which you put on to make you look a particular way. I dont intend that as a put-down. The clothing you currently have on is a suit that you have been tailoring for yourself over the course of a lifetime. It is very important to you. It fits comfortably enough, since you have grown accustomed to wearing it. But there are times when it seems too big, too small, feels outdated, or chafes and itches. 

No matter how slick and impressive your suit might appear, in the final analysis it is just a costume. It isn’t the REAL you. The thing that most of your friends and acquaintances call _[your name]_ is nothing more than a monkey in a suit. The REAL Self can change clothing whenever it decides to do so. In fact, some say that it can even change monkeys (though if true, that would clearly be a more time-consuming process).

On the other hand, these stories you tell about yourself are more than merely an avatar picture that you present to the world; in many ways they control who you are, and dictate your behavior in a given situation. You act in ways consistent with your self-image, as well as the image you want to present to others. This “clothing” is very important to you. When it comes to attachment, there is nothing in the world so precious to you. Most people would give up money, status and even friendships or relationships rather than give up the image they have of themselves.

This is a critical point to remember. So much of human existence revolves around the nature of the suit that each person happens to be wearing. When somebody criticizes our appearance, or the actions that are dictated by the suit we are wearing, we feel threatened … insulted … scandalized. How dare they!

Naturally, we respond with anger and antagonism, often attacking the suit that the OTHER person is wearing (considering how fake and self-contradictory most egos are, they always make an easy target). That triggers the other person to elevate the conflict further. And so on, and so on . . . . .

The suit includes things like race, gender, appearance, language, religion, political views – just about every source of conflict and prejudice man has invented. So much human misery, self-doubt, conflict and pain arises from the simple fact that we are too emotionally entangled with the suit our monkey is wearing, and refuse to even consider changing clothes (even when it becomes obvious that a few simple alterations would eliminate the source of the conflict altogether).

In actual fact, we can change clothes any time we choose to do so. All it takes is a bit of time and mental effort. We simply have to examine the stories we tell ourselves … about ourselves … and change them to something less restrictive, less selfish and less driven by “what other people will think.” As long as we remain a part of human society, we have to wear SOMETHING. This is a truth that all religions and philosophies agree upon. In fact, Christianity describes the process of creating an ego with the exact same metaphor. The “original sin” of Adam and Eve came when they looked at their Selves and realized they were naked. The pure awareness of the true Self was all they had, and it is hard to make your way through the day-to-day world unless you have SOME reference point from which to decide what is good, what is bad, what is productive and what is destructive.

So they clothed themselves with an ego and … the rest is history.

But if one decides that one does not like the suit they are currently wearing, all one has to do to change it is to abandon the old stories and start telling new ones. For example, I did not have a frightening encounter with (dogs/heights/darkness/clowns/etc.) when I was a child. On the contrary. I had a dog that loved me. I climbed steep mountains and walked the tightrope. I played in the forest at midnight with an entire clowncar full of clowns. Therefore I am no longer a prisoner of those fears. I can take them off and throw them away, donning a new suit that doesn’t have such problems or shortcomings.

Those who want to be completely released from the Maya of this world will have to cast off EVERY shred of ego, and stand naked in pure consciousness. This is what happens to us all, at death. In life, we may catch glimpses of it, but few are able to keep the ego quiet for any sustained period of time. As long as we intend to inhabit This world, we must have some cognitive structure to support the ego -- some narrative that tells both ourselves and others who we are.

But here is the key:
If we decide to change the story – to admit that the person we have been pretending to be is not the person that we truly want to be, and resolve from this day forward to be a mensch … a sage … a hero – then it is entirely within our power to weave a new set of clothes. It is really quite simple. Watch:

“I am not a drinker. I don’t like the taste. Even a few sips of beer make me feel like throwing up. And I get the worst hangover I can ever remember [visualizing one hellish morning] every single time I drink. Why would I even think of buying a bottle of bourbon? What a silly thought. Besides, I enjoy spending money on books and presents for my partner-spouse. Come to think of it, I wanted to get that new novel by Whatsizname. I’m in the wrong store. Off to the bookstore we go …..”

Sure, recovering alcoholics and drug addicts have a different sort of monkey that they have to fight off, until the story starts to sound true. But speaking as someone who has been through the process, if you can just find a way to burn the clothes that got you into the addiction, and put on a set of “clean” clothes, the risk of relapse is greatly reduced.

Once a person has succeeded in changing their suit for the first time, the truth of this “Monkeys in Suits” motif will become even more obvious, and each subsequent effort to change clothes will become that much easier. The goal, of course, is to learn how to exist without any clothes at all – as pure, undecorated awareness. But that is a goal we can only glimpse briefly, in this life. So long as we remain a part of this material world, we have to wear something. But since we are free to choose any suit we want, all we need to do in order to improve our lives is to spend a little bit more time and effort picking out our clothes. Our prophets and sages have understood the truth underlying this metaphor for centuries. You can find the same terminology used in religions and philosophies down through the ages:

We do this knowing that it is high time to awake out of sleep; for our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is spent. The day is at hand. Therefore, let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.  Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, lewdness and lust, or strife and envy. Rather, let us clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.

What Is a Bodhisattva? It is just an ordinary person who acts like a true adult. A Bodhisattva is a soul that takes up a human body, and then lives his or her life in a way that helps propel all of humanity in the direction of Buddhahood. You and I, indeed all humans, have fulfilled one half of the definition already. Thus, anyone who devotes all their attention to wearing the way of life that Buddha lived, is a Bodhisattva.

If we want to fix the problems of our increasingly fractured and frustrating society, the best place to start is with ourselves. It is hard to cure a disease if you are infected, yourself. The greed, waste, selfishness and jealousy that underlie social problems like prejudice, poverty, inequity and war are rooted in our own egotisms. As Julius Caesar noted “The fault lies not in our stars, dear Brutus, but in our Selves.

We need to go back and start telling some of the stories that people used to tell themselves. Old clothes often prove to be more durable, and the truly old fashions never go out of style. As I noted in the “End of History & the Last Mensch” Blogpost, hardly anyone in this modern society of ours strives to be Heroic, in the original Greek sense. There simply are not enough mensches around.  That may be one of the reasons why our human society is so sick, right now, in both a literal and a figurative sense.

While Coronavirus is certainly a short-term problem that we all need to address in the here and now, I have to admit to feeling a certain detachment from the matter, even though it probably affects my own daily life as much as the reader’s. The thing is, everyone’s sudden preoccupation with THIS global crisis is distracting them from a far more serious, and more intractable problem. We have overrun the planet and exhausted its ability to support us, and now . . . . . It’s Karma Payback time.

The next few decades are likely to be very rough for the human species. So much has to change, and if CoVid -19 has come as a wake-up call to people, the only question is whether or not it has come too late. Human selfishness and greed have reached an untenable level, which would create existential threats to our civilization even if we had NOT surpassed the carrying capacity of the planet. And we have. Science tells us that the planet can only support about 1/10th of our current population. We managed to blow past this limit, thanks to a vast reservoir of stored-up energy (fossil fuels). But that bank account will not last forever. In fact, each time we draw upon it, we leave less in the bank for our children and grandchildren.  We not only have to reduce our numbers and cut back on what we consume; we also need to understand that we are all passengers on the same lifeboat. Unless we start cooperating, sharing and putting the needs of our entire planet ahead of individual needs . . . . .

… it is probably best not to even complete that sentence. You can easily guess how it ends.

I think one problem that the modern age presents us with is that kids are not forced to confront these issues while they still have the capacity to learn. In a simpler time, kids always were presented with the “selfishness” dilemma while they were still young and impressionable:

I’m sorry, but there aren’t enough toys for every kid to have one of their own. There isn’t enough meat and bread for every kid to have their own quadruple-decker bacon-cheese Whopper. There isnt enough money and oil and clean water to go around. You just have to learn to share. It doesn’t matter if the kid is a liberal or a conservative when they are hit with this lesson; it doesn’t matter if they accept it quickly, or if they throw wild temper-tantrums for a month. Biology, ecology, sociology and good parenting all tell us the same thing: eventually, you either learn the lesson, or you die off.

The challenge, then, is not whether we can force the concept of sharing and cooperation down the throats of people who are prone to selfishness and temper tantrums. We can leave it up to Mother Nature to do that. Call me cynical, but I view the threat of global disaster, pandemics and widespread famine, severe climate change and so on as good news. It shows that Mom is getting serious. She isn’t going to put up with the spoiled brat behaviour much longer. Eventually, we will either learn the necessary lessons, or we will perish.

The challenge, then, is not to force the issue. Rather, we need to keep the focus on ourselves. We need to find ways to cooperate, share, and create a more holistic, cooperative and spiritually rewarding paradigm, even if it only exists in a few communities, or a few households. We need to provide examples for those who have finally accepted the need to change. Something to hold up as a model. Something we can point to and say: "See? This is how it COULD be done.”

For starters, we need to start changing the stories we tell ourselves. We need to look for a new set of clothes.