Of course we are always wiser after the fact. It took me a long time to piece the lessons from that summer together. That’s how it was, being taught by the Master. The lessons came first. All too often the undeniable truth of them came later in some moment of dumbfounded clarity.
Like the time in l968 when the five of us were lined up for our last bows to the Master before we headed for Taiwan to become fully-ordained monks and nuns. We bowed in unison to him, but then the Master surprised us by having us bow to each other. He directed it, telling the latter four of us to bow to the monk first in our line. Then three of us bowed to the first two monks. We two nuns bowed to the three monks, and finally, I, being last in line, bowed to the four in front of me. The Master kept it light, smiling and giving instruction as we bowed. I remember distinctly him saying in passing, almost under his breath to me, “Last one is first one.” At the time, I connected the comment with the Master’s observations during meditation sessions about how we walked in a circle, so that no one was really first or last. And I thought it a nice lesson to carry with me.
It was some fifteen years later, when the other four whom I had bowed to on that day had, for whatever reasons, decided not to be monastics any more, that the comment took on another meaning—one I could never have grasped on the day it was spoken.
Anyway, the spring of this particular summer in the early ‘80’s was exquisite. Perfect weather prevailed with sunny days, slight breezes in the afternoons, a good rain every ten days or so, and cool moonlit nights. As I sat in my office in the building on the southeastern-most portion of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB) campus, listening to the chattering flow of the creek water as it raced over and between the smooth rocks, I decided to grow a garden. Nobody knew about my decision but me. Or so I thought at the time. In retrospect, I see that differently.
The first clue I should have picked up on came as I was gathering sticks and other debris, clearing the plot of ground I had chosen for the site of my garden. One of the nuns happened by. She was the guest prefect and, as part of that duty, was also the Master’s attendant in some ways. But I did not make that connection then. She struck up a gentle conversation that I assumed was just an expression of her own curiosity. “Are you starting a garden?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied confidently.
“Oh. Do we really need another garden?” she said softly, almost as if wondering aloud. “There are two large community gardens already started—and we are shorthanded,” she pointed out in the same soft tone.
I nodded, but kept on working and made no comment.
After a pause, she suggested—a little more pointedly, “You could help with those gardens, instead of starting yet another one.”
I remained silent and unresponsive, busy with my self-appointed task.
Finally she nodded and walked on, leaving me alone again.
I did not dwell on the conversation. It only came to me much later that she most likely had been sent by the Master to try to point out to me a better choice than the one I was making, without letting it sound like the Master’s idea.
A day or so later, I had borrowed the large tractor and plow from the office and was breaking ground with the first pass of the plow. Seated so high and in command of that heavy equipment, I am sure I felt more than a little proud. That self-satisfaction got marred quite soon, however, when the hard steel of the plow struck a snake, cruelly stripping the flesh off its back. I turned in my seat and saw it writhing in the morning sun—exposed, distraught, and most likely in agony. I broke out in a cold sweat.
But I kept going. On the second pass through the field, I flushed a frog that hopped right into the path of the plow and died instantly from the blow. My hands trembled as I down-shifted and tried to slow the course of that murderous machinery—manned by me. Nonetheless, I completed the job.
Soon after that, I repented of those two deaths, in the Buddhahall, before the Master and the great assembly. “A snake and a frog?” the Master repeated with a bit of dismay, followed by a rather reluctant and sad-sounding, “Oh.”
I had been trained to translate. It was my main job—or should have been. So few of the Buddhist sutras were in English back then and the Master wanted more of them published as soon as possible. I had my assignment and knew I should keep pace with my work, so that I could pass it on to the next committee of the Buddhist Text Translation Society in a timely fashion.
But my garden project turned out to be time-consuming, especially because it was not an ‘official’ garden. That means the other residents at CTTB took turns working in the community gardens, not the one I had made. I struggled to maintain my own garden, with only one elder nun, who spoke a dialect that no one on campus could really understand and so probably never figured out where the actual community gardens where, coming by to help me. Looking back, I realize she probably figured she was doing the right thing, as I had convinced myself I was. My pride grew as the garden flourished.
Because the days were filled with planting, thinning, weeding, fertilizing, watering, and later with harvesting, I began to feel pressure that lead me to try to work on translation at night.
After we finished the evening mantras, I would walk clear back to that southeastern building, flip on some lights to find my way to my office, and then burn the midnight oil. Lights out was at 10:30 p.m., but I often broke the curfew and stayed up working. Then one day the Master began to grumble publicly during one of his classes (which everyone on campus attended) about wasting electricity and showing off. He was talking about me! He professed that I was just trying to attract his attention, displaying from afar that I was such a diligent translator that I worked at night, too. And he complained about the lack of thrift—one person working in such a big building and turning on so many lights. His residence and classroom was in a building that had a direct line of vision to the building where I worked. The glare of the lights at night, he said, disturbed him. While the Master complained, my tenacious ego silently countered his complaints in my mind. “That’s an exaggeration! I only turn on the porch light until I get the office light on and then go back to turn the porch light off. I never thought about the Master seeing my lights when I went to translate at night. I was too busy working!” My ego made so much racket in my head that I totally missed the message in the Master’s tirade. Anyway, by the end of that class, the Master had declared the southeastern building ‘off limits’ at night. And my ego kept licking its wounds.
Summer passed quickly, and I raced to keep up with the demands of the ripening crops, the stubborn weeds, and the coming harvest. Translation suffered and my pride swelled as I began to gather the first greens. Just about then, that same nun came by. She walked more deliberately this time—not just passing by, but heading directly for me. “I have come to deliver a message from the Master,” she said firmly. I stood silent, waiting.
“He wants me to tell you that he will not eat a single vegetable from this garden.”
Ouch! Of course, I had been gathering those first sweet peas and tender greens with my teacher in mind. That was all she said. No smile. No encouraging word. Just that pointed message.
Not only that, but as harvest time became full-blown, the community kitchen was inundated with garden vegetables—more than could be comfortably eaten or preserved. In retrospect, I suspect the amount of extras probably equaled just about the amount I reaped from my selfish-centered plot.
It took time for me to assimilate it all, but afterwards I saw so clearly how my ego-based garden project had caused the Master to spend his valuable time and energy trying to teach me lessons that I should have known from the start.
1. Join the harmony of community work, do not create an ego-centered project.
2. Insisting on my own way caused me to create some serious karma.
3. Do the job I was trained to do and keep my commitments and meet the deadlines.
4. But while doing any job, do not show off or display a special style.
5. And painfully, the fruits of the ego are unworthy of nurturing the body and go counter to nurturing the spirit.
6. Finally, last but by no means least, sharing in community work generates a gentle rhythm and harmony and brings its own rewards, not the least of which is diminishing the tenacious ego.