Monkey and Moon
A monkey trying to capture the moon’s reflection in water is a theme that comes up repeatedly in Zen paintings. The origins of the image stems from a Buddhist story of monkeys attempting to catch what they see inside a well - which is a reflection of the full moon. As the monkeys continue to reach into the water, but unable to grasp the prize, eventually In the midst of this attempt, the branch from which they hang upon breaks.
The Zen Buddhist concept is that simple minds often mistake the reflection of the moon for the moon itself. The monkeys represent unenlightened minds, as well as the busy mind, wanting to grasp without awareness. Knowing nothing of the existence of the real moon, the story and illustration serves as a warning against such misunderstanding, and to remind us to take time to reflect and be mindful.
Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769), a prominent Zen Buddhist figure, explains how the monkey mind must let go. The monkey’s fall represents entering into the deep pool of reality, and that insight is not reached through effort, but through supreme yielding. When our minds stop from grasping at reflections and reaches a stillness, only then does the whole world shine with dazzling pureness. There are various versions of the story, as there are various paintings and prints of this motif.
Monkey and Moon by Kano Tsunenobu (c.1700)