The Way of the Monkey or the Way of the Kitten

In India there are two images used to characterize the “two principal religious attitudes” found among human beings. One is the “way of the kitten”; the other is the “way of the monkey.” When a kitten cries, its mother takes it by the scruff and carries it to safety. In contrast, watch a troop of monkeys, and you’ll see that the babies riding on their mothers’ backs are hanging on by themselves. With this in mind,

the first is [the religious attitude] of the person who prays, “O Lord, O Lord, come save me!” and the second is that of one who, without such prayers or cries, goes to work on himself.

I came across this charming distinction in Joseph Campbell’s book, Myths to Live By. He uses it to introduce the Zen attitude toward life, which is the way of the monkey with a vengeance, inasmuch as their way is to work on oneself and cultivate the power that lies within. Other forms of Buddhism (the Jodo and Shinsu sects of Japan, for example) seek enlightenment by calling upon a transcendent power to grant release from rebirth.

While Campbell calls these “religious attitudes,” they seem to me to get at something deeper and more universal than religion. They illustrate a basic division among soul types. When we are seeking something or in a crisis of some sort, some of us instinctively look to ourselves, while others instinctively look outside themselves.

Of course, such grand distinctions are ultimately too simple to have much real explanatory power. Having said that, I suspect that most readers will immediately recognize whether their way is more that of the kitten or that of the monkey.

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