In this podcast episode, I will talk about the Buddhist story of Sticky Hair Monster and the prince who tried to battle him. This story points to the battle that often takes place in our minds against our own thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Koan Discussed: Joshu’s Mu
Koan Shared: Bodhidharma’s Beard
Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is Episode Number 138, I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m going to talk about Sticky Hair Monster and the battle against our thoughts and emotions. Keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, you can use what you learn to be a better whatever you already are. If you’re new to the podcast, episodes one through five are a good place to start to get an intro to all of the key concepts, ideas, and teachings, or you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on start here.
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Now let’s get started with the podcast episode. In the last podcast episode, the Zen koan I shared is called Joshu’s Mu and I want to share a couple of thoughts about this. The koan itself goes like this. “Joshu was a famous Chinese Zen master who lived in Joshu, the province from which he took his name. One day, a troubled monk approached him intending to ask the master for guidance. A dog walked by. The monk asked Joshu, “Has that dog a Buddha nature or not?” The monk had barely completed his question when Joshu shouted, “Mu.”
I want to share some thoughts. And these thoughts come from the book Zen Koans, and this is a book written by Gyomay Kubose. Of all the koans, Joshu’s Mu is the most famous. It’s extremely popular with Zen masters who frequently assign it to novices. If the student tends properly to business, Mu comes to resemble a hot iron ball stuck in his throat. He can either swallow it nor spit it out. The importance of Joshu’s Mu is it’s succinct, one syllable revelation of Buddhism.
A little background here, and again, all of these thoughts are coming from the book Zen Koans by Gyomay Kubose. He says, “Mu is the negative symbol in Chinese meaning not, or no thing. Mu is also a basic concept in oriental philosophy. There is a relative Mu and an absolute Mu. The relative Mu in Chinese characters is the opposite of U, the letter U which means is the absolute Mu of Zen Buddhism transcends is, and is not.”
In order to understand this koan it is necessary to be aware of this distinction. When the monk asked Joshu, “Has that dog a Buddha nature or not?” He was asking not only from the standpoint of his own troubled mind, but from the basic Buddhist teaching that all beings have Buddha nature. Joshu realized this, his Mu as an answer was a blow aimed at breaking or untying the monk’s attachment to that teaching. The essence of Buddha’s teaching is non-attachment.
All human troubles and sufferings without exception are due to attachment, even attachment to the idea of non-attachment is attachment. Joshu wanted the monk to transcend the relative world, transcend the teachings, transcend Mu, transcend Buddhism and gain the free and independent world of enlightenment. Satori or enlightenment is this new dimension or perspective in life. Ordinary human life is always attached to the relative, the is and the is not, good and bad, right and wrong.
But life itself is constantly changing. The condition of society changes, right and wrong often changes, every situation is different according to time and place. Static concepts are not appropriate to life. Thus Mu is crucial, it offers no surface upon which the intellect can fasten. The word Mu must be experienced as the world of Mu.
Those are the thoughts from the book Zen Koans by Gyomay Kubose regarding the specific koan, Joshu’s Mu. And I wanted to share this koan because as the book mentions it’s one of the most popular, perhaps the most famous of the koans. But to have a little bit of background you need to understand the answer. Essentially what’s happening here is you have a teacher who’s being asked a question by a student, by a novice monk. And the question is so out of place because the Buddhist teaching of Buddha nature is that all beings have Buddha nature.
It’s like someone coming along and asking a very obvious question which he should know the answer to. According to the teaching that all beings have Buddha nature, the answer to the question does a dog have Buddha nature is obviously yes. But Joshu knew that he was asking this question that should be obvious. Instead of giving the obvious answer he gave the answer that the monk was not expecting by shouting, “Mu,” or, “No,” or, “No thing.” And in the tradition of koans and in the tradition of Zen, this is the shock and all approach. The shock and awe is that that’s not what I was expecting.
Here you have this novice monk asking a question, getting an answer that he’s not expecting and it leaves him confused. And that’s the exact state that koans and oftentimes Zen in general want to leave you in because it’s trying to break you free of the conceptualizations that you’re making in your own mind. If I know the obvious answer is yes and I’m immediately hearing shouting that the answer is no, what that does is it leaves me thinking, “Wait a second. But I thought…” I’m guessing that that’s exactly what the monk did right away. He was like, “Wait, but, but,” and trying to recall, “But this teaching says this.”
And that’s exactly what the master would want, is to leave you very confused for a moment because in that confusion you transcend the world of is, or isn’t. To me it’s almost a way of saying, “Let’s entertain the question again. Was that even an appropriate question, was it a relevant question? Because if it’s not, what benefit does it give you if I were to answer the question for you?” And I think that’s what the master is hoping to do here. He’s not answering the question… Well, he is answering the question with what you’re not expecting which is the only thing you can do to make someone really start to think.
And I would suppose that maybe this monk with time could walk away and realize, “Okay, well, that was dumb to ask him that because his answer doesn’t matter. What if the answer is no? What if the answer is yes. Well, what does that say about you and your Buddha nature?” I think that’s along the lines that this koan was trying to go about. At least that’s how it makes sense to me.
I like to think of this one and apply it to my day to day life. The answers that we often seek to find about life are, you could almost say it’s silly questions. And I’ve experienced this firsthand, right? Going through a faith crisis and then becoming a seeker and looking for another worldview that might make more sense. When you’re on that path of seeking and you’re looking for answers to life’s big questions, Buddhism comes along and it does this, it gives you the answer Mu which is to say, you’re not going to get the answer that you wanted and in not having the answer that you wanted you’re only left with one option, let’s entertain the question. Where did the question come from? Does that question even matter? What would happen if you did answer question, then what?
And I think that’s what this koan does, it immediately brings you back to, “Wait, let me think about that question a little bit more.” That is the koan, Joshu’s Mu. Hopefully this is a koan that made you think and you’ll remember this and future instances where questions come to mind. You can assign a little bit more value to the question and a little bit less value to the answer and that to me is Buddhism in a nutshell. It’s all about the questions not so much about the answers.
Okay, with that said, I do want to share a couple of thoughts about a story, an old Buddhist story and I’m going to call this Sticky Hair Monster. I think the original story is called Prince Five-Weapons. And I might be wrong but I think this comes from the Jataka… Stories or tales, I can’t remember. I came across it a long time ago. But I came across it again in a book called Buddha at Bedtime.
In the book, let me make sure… Yeah, Buddha at Bedtime, it has a lot of little stories and I’ve been reading these stories for years now to my kids at night. I went through a phase where every night we would read one, it’s been a while since I’ve read one. But one of the stories that really stuck to me is the story of Sticky Hair, Sticky Hair Monster. And it’s become a fun story that I revisit and play the game often with my youngest daughter who’s four.
And we play this game and I’m Sticky Monster and she’s trying to escape from Sticky Monster. But I think there’s a really valuable lesson in the story. I want to share this story with you. And this comes directly from the book Buddha at Bedtime. And the story goes like this. “It was a beautiful sunny afternoon when a boat carrying Prince Hector came from overseas into the harbor. And before the young prince left the vessel, the captain warned him, ‘Your Highness, while you have been away training to be a warrior, an evil monster called Sticky Hair has come to live in the forest. So I advise you not to take that route to the palace. Instead go the long way home around the mountains.’
“‘Thank you for your advice,’ replied Hector. ‘But I’ll be fine, I want to get home before sunset and I have all my weapons if I need them.’ ‘After all,’ he thought, ‘I’m a trained warrior. I’m not afraid of a silly old monster.’ And the young prince strode boldly on into the woods. Just as Prince Hector was beginning to think that the monster didn’t exist, he reached a clearing in the forest and there stood the most gigantic, ugly creature he had ever seen.
“The monster was as big as a house and completely covered in matted hair. He looked like a living, breathing, but very horrible haystack. The creature had a huge head and he stared at the prince with eyes as big as dinner plates. Two big orange tusks stuck out of his enormous mouth and his teeth were green and revolting. His belly was big and round like a beach ball and covered in large pale orange spots.
“‘Grrr,’ roared Sticky Hair, ‘What do you think you are doing in my wood little man? You look like a tasty morsel and I’m going to eat you for dinner. ‘I’m not afraid of you, you horrible old monster,’ replied Hector. ‘I’m a warrior. I can easily defeat you with my sword, I dare you to fight me.’ Swiftly as the wind, the prince leapt forward and thrust his sword at the monster. But to his surprise, it just stuck to the creature sticky hair.
“The prince left his sword there, quickly rolled out of the way, got to his feet and grabbed his bow. He shot arrow after arrow at the monster but like the sword each one just became tangled in his sticky hair. The prince was astonished. ‘Ha-ha-ha,’ boomed, Sticky Hair. ‘You’re a very funny little man, you’ll never beat me.’ Then he shook himself from his ugly head down to his big smelly toes and all the prince’s arrows dropped down to the ground.
“Hector now had only his club left for protection, so he swung it at Sticky Hair with all his might. But it too became caught in the monster’s hair and was pulled from the prince’s strong grip. ‘I’m not defeated yet,’ he shouted. ‘My weapons may be useless but I’m young and strong and I’ll fight you with my fists.’ He cried as he ran and leapt on the monster and got firmly stuck. Even now as Prince Hector dangled from the creature’s sticky hair, he continued to act fearlessly, so much so that the monster started to wonder exactly what gave him such courage. ‘Why are you not afraid of me little man? I could gobble you up in a snap and a crack,’ he threatened fiercely.
“Still hanging from the monster’s tangled hair, Hector was busy thinking about what to do next. All of a sudden it came to him. He realized that he would have to use his brains to outwit the creature instead of his weapons. He shouted up to Sticky Hair, “I’ll tell you why I’m not afraid of you. My skin is coated in poison so if you eat me you’ll die. I dare you to eat me.’ Sticky Hair didn’t believe Hector at first, but the more the prince insisted, the more worried the monster became. ‘I’d like to eat him but I can’t risk getting poisoned,’ he muttered.
“Reluctantly, he pulled the prince from his matted coat and set him on the ground unharmed. ‘Well, fearless little man, you’ve convinced me. You’re telling the truth and I don’t want to die so I suppose I’ll have to let you go,’ he said grudgingly. Hector was delighted. Not only had he outwitted the monster and saved his own life but he had also learned an important lesson, that the most powerful defense had been inside him all along, his own intelligence, not his strength and not his weapons.
“Looking up into the monster’s big eyes, the young prince said, ‘I’m very grateful to you Sticky Hair, not just for releasing me but also for teaching me that I don’t have to fight to be brave, strong and clever. Would you like to know my secret? If you promise not to eat me I’ll tell you as a reward for sparing my life.’ Surprised Sticky Hair agreed. Although the monster had never been defeated until that day, he had always been frightened of people. In fact, he had only attacked people to stop them from attacking him. But now the creature was eager to learn to be fearless like Hector, so he let the young prince become his teacher and friend.
“And the strangest thing happened. The more Sticky Hair learned how to use his brain, the less he felt the need to harm others. Using his intelligence brought the creature great happiness and gradually he was transformed from a scary, lonely monster into a friendly forest giant. Prince Hector let all the local people know that the monster had completely changed, and gradually they became his trusted friends, bringing him food and living with him in peace and harmony. And the new eager-to-please Sticky Hair repaid their kindness by protecting them and guiding travelers safely through the forest.”
And then the book goes on to say, “Sometimes it feels like there’s no option but to fight our way out of the difficult situation. A wise person knows that it’s their intelligence not their physical strength that will help them to win in the end.” That’s the version from the children’s book, Buddha at Bedtime. The original story the way it’s been shared and passed down, the story of Prince Five-Weapons is essentially stating that of all the weapons you can possess, the one that is more powerful than all the others is the mind. And that’s the old story of how Prince Five-Weapons didn’t kill Sticky Hair, but instead taught him the ways of peace and enlightenment.
And there are other little minor variations of the story. All in all, the story of Sticky Monster for me has been a fun way to convey this concept to my kids that the moral of the story is that often the only way to win a fight is by not fighting, it’s by using your brain, your intelligence. And to me this somewhat echoes a little bit from the last podcast, the episode, the idea of nothing being something oftentimes by doing nothing we are doing something.
I think that in our culture, we’re generally of the mindset of conquering, of overcoming and sometimes we approach Buddhism in this very same way. It’s like we’re going to overcome the ego and we’re going to conquer our selfishness or conquer our negative attributes. My thoughts and feelings and emotions that I don’t like I’m going to force them out and away from me, I’m going to win over them. And when we do that we’re setting ourselves up for the same mistake that the prince and Sticky Monster had, which is Sticky Monster can’t be beat.
You can approach Sticky Monster with all the weapons you have and the result is going to be the same, they’re going to get stuck and it doesn’t do anything to this big monster. The harder that you try, the harder that you fight, it doesn’t do anything. You’re still going to fail. But what happens when we approach the situation from rather than overcoming with the attitude of trying to understand and trying to be friend? And this reminds me of the quote, Pema Chodron says, “Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better, it’s about befriending who we already are.”
And I encounter this quite a bit in my interactions with podcast listeners and supporters who reach out and want to discuss specific situations or circumstances that they’re going through in their lives. And I encounter this concept quite a bit with anger, for example, where somebody is experiencing a set of circumstances, causes and conditions that they’re experiencing anger in their life. And often they’re angry at the fact that they’re angry. Or if you’re upset, you might be upset that you’re not at peace. And it’s just this interesting place to be because the only real piece that we can have comes when we’re at peace with the fact that we’re not at peace.
And the reason that works is because life is always changing. Again, like the Tetris game analogy, there’s a new piece on the horizon. And every time the new piece shows up it’s a whole new game, you’re always playing the new game. And that’s exactly how life works. Life is always changing, you’re always dealing with something new. Today it might be the loss of a job, or the loss of a loved one, or the flat tire on the road, or the coworker that is annoying you. Or you might be dealing with a really good job and you’re happy with this. Or you’re dealing with a worldwide pandemic or whatever it is, right? It’s always changing.
And the fact that it’s always changing means you always get to revisit this and say, “Okay, now how do I play the game?” And you can literally do this minute by minute because every minute life has changed and all it takes is awareness to see that. When we’re angry at the fact that we’re angry, we’re compounding the situation. Anger is natural and if I’m experiencing anger and I’m okay with the fact that I’m experiencing anger, then there’s no problem.
Sure, I’m angry but there’s no problem with being angry so life is good. I’m at peace. And before I know it the causes and conditions of the anger might be gone and then anger is gone and I’m okay that I’m not angry. Again, I’m a peace, I’m at peace when I’m angry, I’m at peace when I’m not angry. And that to me is at the heart of what this story of Sticky Monster is trying to get at. The twist, I think in the story is that we are Sticky Monster or Sticky Monster is us, right?
I think Robert Wright talks about this in his book Why Buddhism is True. He talks about the modules of the mind. And the concept of the modules of the mind is the understanding that I have many different aspects of me that make me me. There’s the me that is in the role of a parent, of a dad, of a brother, of a son, of a podcaster. Of all the things that I do that make me me, these are the various modules of the mind. And within these modules there are the thoughts and the feelings and the emotions and the memories.
These are what in Buddhism we would call the five skandhas, the different things that make you, you, and yet you’re not any of them. But when I understand that about myself, if I realized that I’m experiencing anger, it’s something that I’m experiencing but I’m also the observer of the experience. And I’m also the one that feels, “I like this or I don’t like this.”
And all of that’s okay if I just observe it. And what it leaves me with is this important understanding that just like with Sticky Monster, the monster is the monster, I can’t change the fact that it’s ugly, that it stinks, that it’s hair is sticky or all the things that are unpleasant about it. But what I can change is when I understand that this thing isn’t going away and I can’t fight it away I’m left with one option, I can befriend and try to understand it. And all of this happens by using the weapon of the mind not the traditional weapons that you would think of as weapons. And that’s what happens in that story.
To me the moral of the story is that I am the prince but I am also Sticky Monster. Certain parts of my mind when I’m experiencing anger, there it is, that’s the big Sticky Monster. I’m angry and I don’t that I’m angry. Well, there I am, I’m fighting the thing that I cannot win now. But if I’m okay that I’m angry now I’m at peace again. And there’s the two things, there’s the prince and the Sticky Monster. There’s the observer of the anger I’m experiencing and there’s the anger I’m experiencing.
And those are the two things they can sit there side-by-side, perfectly at peace and content because there’s nothing wrong with being angry. There’s nothing wrong with sitting next to the monster. It’s fighting the monster that creates the problem and I think it’s the same with our thoughts and feelings and emotions. It’s fighting my emotions, being angry that I’m angry that aggravates the problem.
That’s the key takeaway for me with this specific lesson with the story of Sticky Hair, Sticky Hair Monster. And I’ve been working on this story for months now with, like I said, with my own kids and we play this game called Sticky Monster and I’m Sticky Monster and they’re all trying to fight me. Well, they can never beat me and I always trap them and then I hold them. And they’ve learned that the trick is they have to start asking me questions, “Where are you from Sticky Monster? How old are you Sticky Monster? How do you feel today?”
And as they talk to me, then I start answering their questions and I loosen the grip. And then at the end of the game we’re sitting next to each other and they keep talking to me and that’s when they can slowly… They have to slowly walk away. But in the game that we play if they try to run or they try to escape me, or they try to fight me they don’t win. I’m hoping that with time this little game and this little story will transition into a deep understanding of the nature of life with them and the relationship they have with their own thoughts and feelings and emotions.
And I think that’s the final thought that I would want to share here, is that we’re not trying to change our thoughts and feelings and emotions as we’re experiencing them, all we’re trying to do is change the relationship we have with our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as we experience them. Because to me that’s the key, that’s it, that’s the difference of running and fighting Sticky Monster and just exerting all your energy, that’s pointless because you’re never going to win versus sitting and talking to Sticky Monster using your mind and understanding and befriending. And again, to me the twist is the recognition that I’m actually both. I’m the prince and I’m Sticky Monster and I’ve been fighting myself this whole time, which makes the fight that much more ridiculous when I think about it that way.
That’s all I have to share about that concept of Sticky Monster and the relationship we have to our thoughts and feelings and emotions. Before ending this podcast episode I want to leave you with another Zen koan to think about. And this is one that I think I’ve mentioned before, I can’t remember. I’m reaching that stage where I can’t remember what things I’ve said before and what things I haven’t, but I guess it never hurts to mention things more than once. The Zen koan I’d like to leave with you at the end of this podcast episode to think about is called No Beard. And it goes like this. “Wakuan complained when he saw a picture of bearded Bodhidharma. ‘Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?'” And that’s it, that’s the end of that koan. All right, I’ll share my thoughts on that one in the next podcast episode. As always thank you for listening, until next time.