The Lesser Discourse on the Hole in the Ceiling

Ajahn Jotipālo • November 2012

In the earlier days, the Dhamma Hall was not quite as nice as it is now. One day Ajahn Amaro was giving a talk when it was raining really hard, just as it was this morning. As he was speaking, water started to leak from the ceiling and drip down right in front of where I’m sitting now—in pretty much the same place as the current leak we are having. Ajahn simply kept on giving the talk. It wasn’t as if nothing was happening, but the new leak became part of the talk’s theme of unexpectedness and uncertainty. I think we titled the talk “The Greater Discourse on the Hole in the Ceiling.” The title alone made it memorable.

A little drip like that may look like a minor issue, but if there’s a little drip inside, there’s a hole someplace on the outside. Maybe there’s a hole underneath a shingle and the water is getting in and flowing down into the rafters. The hole could be anywhere—it could be twenty feet away from where the water is dripping into the hall. That water is coming down and it’s taking the path of least resistance. Maybe it hits a two-by-four and goes a different direction, then twenty feet later it hits another two-by-four. Meanwhile, inside the room here, the leak looks like it might be from a little hole in the ceiling that we could fix by putting a piece of tape over it. But a proper fix can be quite complicated, and if it’s not taken care of quickly, then it’s possible that all the water up there could saturate the drywall ceiling boards and the whole ceiling could collapse. So even what looks like a little drip can be quite serious.

This is often the case with a seemingly little issue like that. We can always put a towel on the floor and ignore the drip, or use a bucket temporarily as we’ve done right now. But the wise thing to do is investigate what’s wrong and come up with an appropriate plan to fix it. That could mean finding its root cause and fixing it ourselves, or calling in a professional to help.

The same is true in living the holy life, in our meditation practice, and in developing Dhamma. There might be something on the surface, manifesting in our behavior or attitudes—something that we notice but others don’t. Or maybe other people notice something about us, but we don’t notice it ourselves. It could be minor. But if there is some troublesome issue that is the underlying cause, it can fester and grow. It can create many difficulties and problems for us and for other people. These things do need addressing. When something arises that requires our attention, we first acknowledge it as being an issue, and then investigate the extent of the problem it presents.

In some cases, we might not be able to fully see the problem or its cause, or we may suspect the problem is bigger than what we can fix ourselves. So with our Dhamma practice, when we have an inkling of that, it’s important to enlist others for help—maybe a teacher who can look at the problem and help us work with it, undermine its cause, and eventually master it. That is how we can prevent a little leak in our practice from causing a large amount of suffering.

We can remember this talk as “The Lesser Discourse on the Hole in the Ceiling.”