Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? - Selections
FROM PART I: PERFECTION AND GUILT
Two Bad Bricks
After we purchased the land for our monastery in 1983 we were broke. We were in debt. There were no buildings on the land, not even a shed. Those first few weeks we slept not on beds but on old doors we had bought cheaply from the salvage yard; we raised them on bricks at each corner to lift them off the ground. (There were no mattresses, of course—we were forest monks.)
The abbot had the best door, the flat one. My door was ribbed with a sizeable hole in the center where the doorknob would have been. I joked that now I wouldn’t need to get out of bed to go to the toilet! The cold truth was, however, that the wind would come up through that hole. I didn’t sleep much those nights.
We were poor monks who needed buildings. We couldn’t afford to employ a builder—the materials were expensive enough. So I had to learn how to build: how to prepare the foundations, lay concrete and bricks, erect the roof, put in the plumbing—the whole lot. I had been a theoretical physicist and high-school teacher in lay life, not used to working with my hands. After a few years, I became quite skilled at building, even calling my crew the BBC (“Buddhist Building Company”). But when I started it was very difficult.
It may look easy to lay a brick: a dollop of mortar underneath, a little tap here, a little tap there. But when I began laying bricks, I’d tap one corner down to make it level and another corner would go up. So I’d tap that corner down then the brick would move out of line. After I’d nudged it back into line, the first corner would be too high again. Hey, you try it!
Being a monk, I had patience and as much time as I needed. I made sure every single brick was perfect, no matter how long it took. Eventually, I completed my first brick wall and stood back to admire it. It was only then that I noticed—oh no!—I’d missed two bricks. All the other bricks were nicely in line, but these two were inclined at an angle. They looked terrible. They spoiled the whole wall. They ruined it.
By then, the cement mortar was too hard for the bricks to be taken out, so I asked the abbot if I could knock the wall down and start over again—or, even better, perhaps blow it up. I’d made a mess of it and I was very embarrassed. The abbot said no, the wall had to stay.
When I showed our first visitors around our fledgling monastery, I always tried to avoid taking them past my brick wall. I hated anyone seeing it. Then one day, some three or four months after I finished it, I was walking with a visitor and he saw the wall.
“That’s a nice wall,” he casually remarked.
“Sir,” I replied in surprise, “have you left your glasses in your car? Are you visually impaired? Can’t you see those two bad bricks which spoil the whole wall?”
What he said next changed my whole view of that wall, of myself, and of many other aspects of life. He said, “Yes. I can see those two bad bricks. But I can see the 998 good bricks as well.”
I was stunned. For the first time in over three months, I could see other bricks in that wall apart from the two mistakes. Above, below, to the left and to the right of the bad bricks were good bricks, perfect bricks. Moreover, the perfect bricks were many, many more than the two bad bricks. Before, my eyes would focus exclusively on my two mistakes; I was blind to everything else. That was why I couldn’t bear looking at that wall, or having others see it. That was why I wanted to destroy it. Now that I could see the good bricks, the wall didn’t look so bad after all. It was, as the visitor had said, “a nice brick wall.” It’s still there now, twenty years later, but I’ve forgotten exactly where those bad bricks are. I literally cannot see those mistakes any more.
How many people end a relationship or get divorced because all they can see in their partner are “two bad bricks”? How many of us become depressed or even contemplate suicide, because all we can see in ourselves are “two bad bricks.” In truth, there are many, many more good bricks, perfect bricks—above, below, to the left and to the right of the faults—but at times we just can’t see them. Instead, every time we look, our eyes focus exclusively on the mistakes. The mistakes are all we see, they’re all we think are there— and so we want to destroy them. And sometimes, sadly, we do destroy a “very nice wall.”
We’ve all got our two bad bricks, but the perfect bricks in each one of us are much, much more than the mistakes. Once we see this, things aren’t so bad. Not only can we live at peace with ourselves, inclusive of our faults, but we can also enjoy living with a partner. This is bad news for divorce lawyers, but good news for you.
I have told this anecdote many times. After one occasion, a builder came up to me and told me a professional secret. “We builders always make mistakes,” he said, “But we tell our clients that it is ‘an original feature’ with no other house in the neighborhood like it. And then we charge them a couple of thousand dollars extra!”
So the “unique features” in your house probably started out as mistakes. In the same way, what you might take to be mistakes in yourself, in your partner, or in life in general, can become “unique features,” enriching your time here—once you stop focusing on them exclusively.
The Temple Garden
Buddhist temples in japan are renowned for their gardens. Many years ago, there was one temple that was said to have the most beautiful garden of all. Travelers would come from all over the country just to admire its exquisite arrangement, so rich in simplicity.
An old monk once came to visit. He arrived very early, just after dawn. He wanted to discover why this garden was considered the most inspiring, so he concealed himself behind a large bush with a good view of the rest of the garden.
He saw a young gardening monk emerge from the temple carrying two wicker baskets. For the next three hours, he watched the young monk carefully pick up every leaf and twig that had fallen from the spreading plum tree in the center of the garden. As he picked up each leaf and twig, the young monk would turn it over in his soft hand, examine it, ponder over it; and if it was to his liking he would delicately place it in one of the baskets. If it wasn’t to be of use to him, he would drop it in the second basket, the rubbish basket. Having collected and thought over every leaf and twig, having emptied the rubbish basket on the pile at the rear of the temple, he paused to take tea and compose his mind for the next crucial stage.
The young monk spent another three hours, mindfully, carefully, skillfully, placing each leaf and twig just in the right place in the garden. If he wasn’t satisfied with the position of a twig, he would turn it slightly or move it forwards a little until, with a light smile of satisfaction, he would move on to the next leaf, choosing just the right shape and color for its place in the garden. His attention to detail was unparalleled. His mastery over the arrangement of color and shape was superb. His understanding of natural beauty was sublime. When he was finished, the garden looked immaculate.
Then the old monk stepped out from behind his bush. Wearing a broken-toothed smile, he congratulated the young gardening monk, “Well done! Well done indeed, Venerable! I’ve been observing you all morning. Your diligence is worthy of the highest of praise. And your garden… Well! Your garden is almost perfect.” The young monk’s face went white. His body stiffened as if he had been stung by a scorpion. His smile of self-satisfaction slipped from his face and tumbled into the great chasm of the void. In
Japan, you can never be sure of old grinning monks!
“What d…do…you mean?” he stuttered through his fear. “What do y…you mean, almost perfect?” and he prostrated himself at the old monk’s feet. “Oh master! Oh teacher! Please release your compassion on me. You have surely been sent by the Buddha to show me how to make my garden really perfect. Teach me, Oh Wise One! Show me the way!”
“Do you really want me to show you?” asked the old monk, his ancient face creasing with mischief.
“Oh yes. Please do. Oh please master!”
So the old monk strode into the center of the garden. He put his old but still strong arms around the leafy plum tree. Then with the laugh of a saint, he shook the hell out of that poor tree! Leaves, twigs, and bark fell everywhere, and still the old monk shook that tree. When no more leaves would fall, he stopped.
The young monk was horrified. The garden was ruined. The whole morning’s work was wasted. He wanted to kill the old monk. But the old monk merely looked around him admiring his work. Then with a smile that melts anger, he said gently to the young monk, “Now your garden is really perfect.”
What’s Done is Finished
The monsoon in Thailand is from July to October. During this period, the monks stop traveling, put aside all work projects, and devote themselves to study and meditation. The period is called Vassa, the Rains Retreat.
In the south of Thailand some years ago, a famous abbot was building a new hall in his forest monastery. When the Rains Retreat came, he stopped all work and sent the builders home. This was the time for quiet in his monastery.
A few days later a visitor came, saw the half-constructed building and asked the abbot when his hall would be finished. Without hesitation, the old monk said, “The hall is finished.”
“What do you mean, ‘The hall is finished’?” the visitor replied, taken aback. “It hasn’t got a roof. There are no doors or windows. There are pieces of wood and cement bags all over the place. Are you going to leave it like that? Are you mad? What do you mean, ‘The hall is finished’?”
The old abbot smiled and gently replied, “What’s done is finished,” and then he went away to meditate.
That is the only way to have a retreat or to take a break. Otherwise our work is never finished.
The Idiot’s Guide to Peace of Mind
I told the previous story to a large audience one Friday evening in Perth. On the following Sunday, an angry parent came to tell me off. He had attended that talk together with his teenage son. On Saturday evening, his son wanted to go out with his friends. The father asked him, “Have you finished your homework yet, son?” His son replied, “As Ajahn Brahm taught us at the temple last night, Dad, what’s done is finished! See ya.”
The following week I told another story.
Most people in Australia have a garden with their house, but only a few know how to find peace in their garden. For the rest, the garden is just another place for work. So I encourage those with a garden to nurture its beauty by working a while and nurture their hearts by just sitting peacefully in the garden, enjoying nature’s gifts.
The first gardener thinks this a jolly good idea. So they decide to get all the little jobs out of the way first, and then they will allow themselves a few moments of peace in their garden. After all, the lawn does need mowing, the flowers could do with a good watering, the leaves need raking, the bushes need pruning, the path needs sweeping… Of course, it takes up all of their free time just to get a fraction of those “little jobs” out of the way. Their work is never finished, so they never get to have a few minutes of peace. (Have you ever noticed that in our culture, the only people who “rest in peace” are found in the cemetery?)
The second gardener thinks they are much smarter than the first. They put away the rakes and the watering cans and sit out in the garden reading a magazine—probably with big, glossy pictures of nature. But that’s enjoying your magazine, not finding peace in your garden.
The third gardener puts away all the gardening tools, all the magazines, newspapers, and radios, and just sits in the peace of their garden—for about two seconds! Then they start thinking: “That lawn really needs mowing. And those bushes should be pruned soon. If I don’t water those flowers within a few days they may die. And maybe a nice gardenia would go well in that corner. Yes! With one of those ornamental birdbaths in front. I could pick one up at the nursery…” That is enjoying thinking and planning. Again, there is no peace of mind there.
Now the fourth gardener, the wise one, considers, “I’ve worked long enough, now is the time to enjoy the fruit of my work, to listen for the peace. So even though the lawn needs mowing and the leaves need raking and blah! blah! blah!—not now.” This way, we find the wisdom to enjoy the garden even though it’s not perfect.
Perhaps there’s an old Japanese monk hiding behind one of the bushes ready to jump out and tell us that our messy old garden really is perfect. Indeed, if we look at the work we have already done instead of focusing on the work that remains, we might understand that what’s done has been finished. But if we focus exclusively on the faults, on the things that need to be fixed, as in the case of my brick wall in my monastery, we will never know peace.
The wise gardener enjoys their fifteen minutes of peace in the perfect imperfection of nature, not thinking, not planning, and not feeling guilty. We all deserve to get away and have some peace; and others deserve the peace of us getting out of their way! Then, after getting our crucial, life-saving fifteen minutes of peace “out of its way,” we carry on with our gardening duties.
When we understand how to find such peace in our garden, we will know how to find peace anytime, anywhere. Especially, we will know how to find peace in the garden of our heart, even though at times we might think that it’s such a mess, with so much to be done.
FROM PART II: LOVE AND COMMITMENT
When I was around the age of thirteen, my father took me aside and told me something that would change my life. The two of us were alone in his beaten-up old car, on a side street of one of the poorer suburbs of London. He turned to me and said this: “Son, whatever you do in your life, know this. The door of my house will always be open to you.”
I was only a young teenager at the time. I didn’t really understand what he meant, but I knew it was something important, so I remembered it. My father would be dead three years later.
When I became a monk in northeast Thailand, I thought over those words of my dad. Our home at that time was a small government subsidized apartment in a poor part of London—not much of a house to open a door into. But then I realized this was not what my dad really meant. What was lying within my father’s words, like a jewel wrapped in a cloth, was the most articulate expression of love that I know: “Son, whatever you do in your life, know this. The door of my heart will always be open to you.”
My father was offering unconditional love. No strings attached. I was his son and that was enough. It was beautiful. It was real. He meant it.
It takes courage and wisdom to say those words to another, to open the door of your heart to somebody else, with no “ifs.” Some people might fear that if they do this, others would take advantage of them—but that’s not how it works, not in my experience. When you are given that sort of love from another, it’s like receiving the most precious of gifts. You treasure it, keep it close to your heart, lest it be lost. Even though at the time I only partially understood my dad’s meaning, even so I wouldn’t dare hurt such a man. If you give those words to someone close to you, if you really mean them, if they come from your heart, then that person will reach upwards, never down, to meet your love.
Opening the Door of Your Heart
Several centuries ago, seven monks were in a cave in a jungle somewhere in Asia, meditating on the type of unconditional love I described in the previous story. There was the head monk, his brother, and his best friend. The fourth was the head monk’s enemy: they just could not get along. The fifth monk in the group was a very old monk, so advanced in years that he was expected to die at any time. The sixth monk was sick—so ill in fact that he too could die at any time. And the last monk, the seventh, was the useless monk. He always snored when he was supposed to be meditating; he couldn’t remember his chanting, and if he did he would chant off-key. He couldn’t even keep his robes on properly. But the others tolerated him and thanked him for teaching them patience.
One day a gang of bandits discovered the cave. It was so remote, so well hidden, that they wanted to take it over as their own base, so they decided to kill all the monks. The head monk, fortunately, was a very persuasive speaker. He managed—don’t ask me how— to persuade the gang of bandits to let all the monks go, except one, who would be killed as a warning to the other monks not to let anyone know the location of the cave. That was the best deal the head monk could wrangle from the bandits.
The head monk was left alone for a few minutes to make the awful decision of who should be sacrificed so that the others could go free.
When I tell this story in public, I pause here to ask my audience, “Well, who do you think the head monk chose?” Such questions stop some of my audience from going to sleep during my talk, and it wakes up the others who are already asleep. I remind them that there was the head monk, the brother, the best friend, the enemy, the old monk and the sick monk (both close to death), and the useless monk. Who do you think he chose?
Some then suggest the enemy. “No,” I say.
The useless monk always gets a mention—how uncharitable we are! Once I have had my bit of fun, I reveal the answer: the head monk was unable to choose.
His love for his brother was exactly the same, no more and no less, than his love for his best friend—which was exactly the same as his love for his enemy, for the old monk, the sick monk, and even for the dear old useless monk. He had perfected the meaning of unconditional love. He too was expressing to his fellow monks “The door of my heart will always be open to you, whatever you do, whoever you are.”
The door of the head monk’s heart was wide open to all, with unconditional, non-discriminating, free-flowing love. And most poignantly, his love for others was equal to his love for himself. The door of his heart was open to himself as well. That’s why he couldn’t choose between himself and others.
I remind the Judeo-Christians in my audience that their books say to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Not more than yourself and not less than yourself, but equal to yourself. It means to regard others as one would regard oneself, and oneself as one regards others.
Why is it that most in my audience thought that the head monk would choose himself to die? Why is it, in our culture, that we are always sacrificing ourselves for others and this is held to be good? Why is it that we are more demanding, more critical, and more punishing of ourselves than of anyone else? It is for one and the same reason: we have not yet learned how to love ourselves.
If you find it difficult to say to another, “The door of my heart is open to you, whatever you do,” then that difficulty is trifling compared with the difficulty you will face in saying to yourself, “Me, the one I’ve been so close to for as long as I can remember, myself—the door of my heart is open to me as well, to all of me no matter what I have done. Come in.”
That’s what I mean by loving ourselves: it’s called forgiveness. It is stepping free from the prison of guilt; it is being at peace with oneself. And if you do find the courage to say those words to yourself, honestly, in the privacy of your inner world, then you will rise up to meet sublime love. One day, we all have to say to ourselves those words, or ones similar, with honesty, without playing games. When we do, it is as if a part of ourselves that had been rejected, living outside in the cold for so long, has now come home. We feel unified, whole, and free to be happy. Only when we love ourselves in such a way can we know what it means to really love another, no more and no less.
And please remember you do not have to be perfect, without fault, to give yourself such love. If you wait for perfection, it never arrives. We must open the door of our heart to ourselves, whatever we have done. Once inside, then we are perfect.
People often ask me what happened to those seven monks when the head monk told the bandits that he was unable to choose.
The story, as I heard it many years ago, didn’t say: it stopped where I have finished. But I know what happened next; I figured out what must have ensued. When the head monk explained to the bandits why he couldn’t choose between himself and another, and described the meaning of love and forgiveness as I have just done for you, then all the bandits were so impressed and inspired that not only did they let the monks live, but they became monks themselves!
FROM PART III: FEAR AND PAIN
Freedom from Fear
If guilt is looking at the brick wall of our past and seeing only the two bad bricks we’ve laid, then fear is staring at the brick wall of our future and seeing only what might go wrong. When we are blinded by fear, we just can’t see the rest of the wall that’s made up of what might go perfectly well. Fear, then, is overcome by seeing the whole of the wall, as in the following story from a recent teaching visit to Singapore.
My series of four public talks had been arranged many months before, the large and expensive 2,500-seat auditorium at Singapore’s Suntec City had been booked, and the posters were displayed on the bus stops. Then came the crisis of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). When I arrived in Singapore the schools were all closed, apartment blocks were quarantined and the government was advising its people not to attend any public gatherings. Fear was vast at that time. I was asked, “Should we cancel?”
That very morning, the front page of the daily newspaper warned in large black figures that ninety-nine Singaporeans were now confirmed with SARS. I asked what the current population of Singapore was. It was approximately four million. “So,” I remarked, “that means that 3,999,901 Singaporeans haven’t got SARS. Let’s go ahead!”
“But what if someone gets SARS?” fear said.
“But what if they don’t?” said wisdom. And wisdom had probability on its side.
So the talks went ahead. Fifteen hundred people came on the first night, and the numbers steadily increased to a full house on the final night. Around eight thousand people attended those talks. They learned to go against irrational fear, and that would strengthen their courage in the future. They enjoyed the talks and left happy, which meant that their virus-fighting immune system had been enhanced. And, as I emphasized at the end of each talk, because they laughed at my funny stories, they have exercised their lungs and thus strengthened their respiratory systems as well! And indeed not one person from those audiences got SARS.
The possibilities for the future are infinite. When we focus on the unfortunate possibilities, that’s called fear. When we remember the other possibilities, which are usually more likely, that’s called freedom from fear.
Predicting the Future
Many people would like to know the future. Some are too impatient to wait for it to happen, so they seek out the services of oracles and fortune-tellers. I have a warning for you on oracles: never trust a poor fortune-teller!
Meditating monks are regarded as excellent fortune-tellers, but they usually don’t cooperate easily.
One day a long-serving lay disciple of Ajahn Chah asked the great master to predict his future. Ajahn Chah refused: good monks don’t tell fortunes. But the disciple was determined. He reminded Ajahn Chah of how many times he had offered him alms food, how many donations he had given to his monastery, and how he had chauffeured Ajahn Chah in his own car at his own expense, to the neglect of his own work and family. Ajahn Chah saw that the man was determined to get his fortune told, so he said that for once he would make an exception to the no–fortunetelling rule. “Give me your hand. Let me see your palm.”
The disciple was thrilled. Ajahn Chah had never read palms for any other disciple. This was special. Moreover, Ajahn Chah was regarded as a saint, with great psychic powers. Whatever Ajahn Chah said would happen surely would happen. Ajahn Chah traced the lines on the disciple’s palm with his own index finger. Every so often, he would say to himself, “Ooh. That’s interesting” or “Well, well, well” or “Amazing.” The poor disciple was in a frenzy of anticipation.
When Ajahn Chah was finished, he let go of the disciple’s hand and said to him, “Disciple, this is how your future will turn out.”
“Yes, yes,” said the disciple quickly.
“And I am never wrong,” added Ajahn Chah.
“I know, I know. Well. What’s my future going to be?” the disciple uttered in ultimate excitement.
“Your future will be uncertain,” said Ajahn Chah. And he wasn’t wrong!
Money is hard to accumulate, but easy to lose— and the easiest way to lose it is by gambling. All gamblers are losers, eventually. Still, people like to predict the future so that they can make a lot of money by gambling. I tell the following two stories to show them how dangerous it is to predict the future, even when we have signs.
A friend awoke one morning from one of those dreams that was so vivid it seemed real. He had dreamt that five angels had given him five big jars of gold worth a fortune. When he opened his eyes, there were no angels in his bedroom and, alas, no pots of gold. But it was a very strange dream.
When he went into the kitchen, he saw that his wife had made him five boiled eggs with five pieces of toast for his breakfast. At the top of the morning newspaper he noticed the date, the fifth of May (the fifth month). Something odd was surely going on. He turned to the back pages of the newspaper, to the horseracing pages. He was stunned to see that at a racetrack called Ascot (five letters), in race number five, horse number five was called…Five Angels! The dream was clearly an omen.
He took the afternoon off work. He drew five thousand dollars out of his bank account. He went to the race track, to the fifth bookmaker and made his bet: five thousand dollars on horse number five, race number five, Five Angels, to win. The dream couldn’t be wrong. The lucky number five couldn’t be wrong! And indeed the dream wasn’t wrong.
The horse came in fifth
The second story occurred in Singapore a few years ago. An Australian man married a nice Chinese woman from Singapore. Once, while they were visiting family in Singapore, his brothers-in-law were going to the horseracing track for the afternoon and invited him to come along too. He agreed. But before they visited the racetrack, they insisted on stopping off at a renowned Buddhist temple to light some joss sticks and pray for good luck. When they arrived at the small temple, they found it was in a mess. So they got some brooms, a mop, and some water and cleaned it all up. Then they lit their joss sticks, asked for good luck, and went off to the track.
They all lost heavily.
That night, the Australian had a dream of a horserace. When he awoke, he clearly remembered the name of the winning horse. When he saw in the Straits Times that there was, indeed, a horse by that name running in a race that afternoon, he rang his brothers-inlaw to tell them the good news. They refused to believe that a Chinese spirit guarding a Singaporean temple would tell a white man the name of a winning horse, so they disregarded his dream. He went to the track. He put a large bet on that horse. The horse won.
Chinese temple spirits must like Australians. His brothers-in-law were fuming.
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© Ajahn Brahm, Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? (Wisdom Publications, 2005)
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