Pesky Woodpeckers

Ajahn Amaro • August 2008

When we put up a building, we think it’s our building, our Dhamma Hall, or our kuṭi, but no one informs the geckos, the lizards, and the other creatures in the forest. They think it’s their place too. The woodpeckers were around long before humans showed up in this valley. This is the season when woodpeckers start to gather acorns and drill holes in the buildings, making little cupboards to stash acorns in. When people come along and put up a building, to a woodpecker, it’s just a very odd-shaped oak tree. Before our beautiful new office building was even completed, the woodpeckers drilled a nice sequence of holes in this wonderful cedar trim all the way around the building. To a woodpecker, the trim is just a very nice, flat surface for stashing acorns with no bark or branches to work around. We think, Pesky woodpeckers; they shouldn’t be ruining our building. But in reality, we’ve put up this attractive opportunity in their zone, and getting upset and irritated about it is simply proliferation—a story we’ve added on. As Luang Por Sumedho would often ask, “Who is being foolish?” Is it us or the woodpecker? In Thailand the rafters in the Dhamma Hall are great territory for wandering geckos. If a monk gets annoyed because he chooses to sit under the rafters and the geckos defecate on him, whose problem is that?

Our habit is to look at the world from a self-centered perspective: My preferences. My priorities. We look at our body in that same way: My body has a right to be totally mobile, completely comfortable, pain free, and in an environment with the most desirable temperature at all times. When that view gets intruded upon—when there’s an infection, when the body is afflicted with a poison-oak rash, or when it is too hot or too cold—then we become reactive and that same self-righteousness arises: This is an intrusion upon my space, my time, my convenience. I haven’t got time for this; it shouldn’t be like this. If we believe those perceptions, then we endlessly create more dukkha for ourselves—this sense of dis-ease and dissatisfaction—because it’s just the voice of self view, isn’t it?

We don’t tend to look at our body as a food source, but it is. It’s a collection of organic matter. I never really understood this until I was living in Thailand. At first I was resentful of mosquitoes coming in and feeding on me, but at some point I realized that the body is a large, pungent magnet, like a big supermarket sign advertising a food source where the doors are always open. We don’t think of ourselves like that. We think, These darn mosquitoes are annoying me! These flies are landing on me! But if we see that this body is simply a pile of heat-producing organic matter with interesting fumes, it makes sense that it would draw insects to it. If we shift the perspective a little, and drop that sense of self view, then we can similarly drop the burden of resentment, the feeling that life is being unfair.

That’s the essence of the Middle Way—shifting from a self-centered view to the view that our bodies, the material world around us, and our minds are all natural systems—not “me,” not “mine.” And when we make that shift, when we adopt a view centered on Dhamma rather than on the illusion of an independent self, then the world changes quite dramatically.

So we can take care of buildings at the monastery, protect the body from insects, while at the same time not create stress or irritation or the sense of burden that comes with self view. If we understand that everything is part of the natural order, then “invasion” from the outside is impossible, because everything occupies the same territory; it’s all of the same order. With this understanding, the heart relates to it all in a radically different way.