The South Indian Monkey Trap

Monkeys are a menace in many parts of India.1 The South Indian monkey trap is a simple device for capturing a monkey. It consists of a coconut hollowed out from one end and chained to a stake in the ground. Some sweet rice is placed inside the coconut. The hole in the coconut is big enough for a monkey to put its hand in and grab the rice, but too small for it to remove its fist with the sweet rice.

Robert Pirsig used the South Indian monkey trap to illustrate the concept of value rigidity in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Curiously, there is no physical barrier preventing a monkey from escaping this trap; there is only a mental barrier. Monkeys have been known to grab the rice and try to withdraw their fists in vain until their captors arrive. Monkeys’ inability to reevaluate rice in the context of the trap costs them their freedom.

People too have their own ‘sweet rice’ that prevents them from achieving true freedom. They find their thoughts and actions constrained by mental barriers of their own creation. Such imaginary constraints often lead to poor decisions.

To achieve freedom, then, we must recognize our mental barriers, be fully aware of value rigidity that may creep into our thought process, and consciously choose our values, thoughts, words, and actions everyday.2


  1. This does not necessarily represent my personal opinion of monkeys.
  2. The title of this blog refers to the Klein bottle, a surface with no distinct ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. A genie inhabiting such a ‘bottle’ would be a free spirit, which is something I aspire to become through introspection and conscious choice.

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