Taking It Back to the Mistake

Ajahn Viradhammo

Taking It Back to the Mistake

In your own Citta, I think it’s very important to notice attitudes towards work and how you respond to it. Quite often we’re asked to do things we’re not competent in or used to doing. There’s a learning curve we all go through in the Sangha. If you’ve never had to do welding and you end up doing welding or you’ve never been an abbot and you end up being an abbot, it becomes a real training in how you learn new skills.

One of the monks at Chithurst was a very good carpenter and cabinetmaker and, in general, an excellent worker. He once suggested that one of the best ways to learn a manual craft or a skill is to undo any mistakes you’ve made, rather than cover them up. When you’re first building something, you may experience some anxiety around spoiling the materials you’re working with. I’ve often experienced that. I didn’t want to spoil the materials yet rushed to get the job done, sometimes losing my mindfulness in the process and then making a mistake.

This carpenter said that his uncle was a good cabinet maker. When his uncle put something together, and he came to a stage where he realized there was a mistake in his work, he insisted that he take his work back to the stage where he’d made the mistake, correct it and then build it up again. I saw this monk do that several times. He would build something quite complicated like a staircase. While constructing it, if he saw a mistake, he always reversed the steps he’d made back to that mistake. My tendency was to keep going with the project and hope that no one would notice the mistake. I realized, as well, by watching him, that by going backwards to the mistake to see how to correct it, he tended not to make that mistake again. Not surprisingly, his work was very beautiful.

So, whether it’s sewing your robe or making a footpath, the forest tradition has a very high standard of workmanship. By watching Luang Por Liem make a beautiful broom, we can see a fabulous example of very mindful craftsmanship: his hands so attentive and very efficient. He obviously has the gift for it, yet also the training in mindfulness.

And with the tasks we’re asked do to while working with others, we develop the skill of patience. For example, you may have a skill or aptitude for a task and already know how to do it quickly. When you’re working with someone who may be clumsy and slow because that person doesn’t have that same training or aptitude, you need to develop patience with each other. We all learn differently and come to the monastery with different skill sets. So, we allow for some people to have better aptitudes for certain tasks. But whether we have a skill or not, it’s very rewarding to try to do things carefully and beautifully. Abhayagiri’s lodgings and buildings are very beautiful. Whether it’s the robe rail or the sleeping platform, it’s all very nicely done. So I can appreciate the workmanship here and the mindfulness it must have taken to complete these works.