The Monkeys and the Moon
(adapted from a Tibetan folktale)
In times long-past, there lived a band
Of monkeys in a forestland,
And as they rambled roundabout,
They saw (and seeing had no doubt)
The moon had fallen in a well,
Not realizing, truth to tell,
It merely was reflected there.
Their leader said, “Oh, friends, take care.
The world has lost its silver shield.”
He then to his small band appealed,
“Should not we rescue this kind light
That guides our wanderings in the night?”
And without any argument,
The monkeys chattered their assent.
And since they’d given strong espousal,
At once the monkeys went to council,
Thus to determine by debate
How they the moon could extricate.
At last some formed a likely plan.
“To liberate the moon, we can
Conjoin ourselves in one long train,
Our arms and tails a monkey chain.”
And so they climbed into a tree
Above the well to better see
And found a limb that seemed quite firm
And that they linked their bodies from.
With grasping hand, the first one hung
As to his tail the next one clung.
And in this way, each formed a link
Until the limb began to sink.
This movement made the water ripple
So that the moon began to stipple
Until its mottled image died.
The branch then broke at last. Inside
The well the primates fell. A few
Were hurt, but in that wild to-do
So many in the water perished
The troop of simians all but vanished.
A bodhisattva* – still, serene –
Beheld unfold the tragic scene,
And from his lips came forth a verse,
Not quite but something like a curse.
“As with the monkeys that believed
A mirrored moon they could retrieve,
When fools are by the foolish led
Destruction over them will tread.”
*A bodhisattva is one who can achieve Buddhahood but who delays it to help those who are still on the path to enlightenment.
Terry L. Norton is professor emeritus of literacy acquisition at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He is the author of Cherokee Myths and Legends: Thirty Tales Retold as well as academic articles on literacy and literature for children and young adults. His poetry has appeared in Ekphrastic Review, Kakalak Review, and The Society for Classical Poetry. His renditions of the first century Latin poet Phaedrus received second place in the 2020 translation competition sponsored by The Society.