Separate Work from Rest

Ajahn Chah

Separate Work from Rest

They offered me a bowl, but it was cracked and it had no lid. Then I remembered once as a child taking the water buffaloes out to graze and seeing other lads carving vines and weaving them into hats. So I asked for some rattan. I wove a disk and a rectangle and then joined them. I had my bowl-lid – the only thing was it looked like a sticky rice basket. On alms-round, it was a real eyesore. The villagers referred to me as the ‘big bowl monk.’ I just dismissed it. I tried again. I worked day and night on it.

It was the wrong kind of effort, fired by craving. At night time, I would light a torch and work alone in the forest. Weaving the strips backwards and forwards, I knocked against the end of the torch and drippings from it scalded my hand – I still have the scar to this day. I came to my senses: ‘What am I doing? I’m thinking about this in the wrong way. I’ve become a monk, and now I’m going without sleep just to get robes and a bowl. This is the wrong sort of effort.’

I put down the work. I sat and thought things through, and then I practised some walking meditation. But as I walked back and forth, my mind returned to the bowl-lid and I went back to the work, completely absorbed, until just before dawn. I was tired; I took a break and began to meditate. As I sat, the thought came again, ‘This is wrong.’ I started to drowse a little, and I saw a vision of a huge Buddha. He said, ‘Come here. I am going to give you a Dhamma talk.’ I went towards him and prostrated. He gave me a discourse about the requisites; he said that they are merely the accessories of the body and mind. I woke with a start, my body shaking. Even now I can still hear the sound of his voice in my ear.

I’d learned my lesson. I’d been blinded by desire, but now I stopped. I worked for a reasonable time and then rested, walked and practised sitting meditation. This was a really important point. Formerly, whatever work it might be, if it was still unfinished and I put it aside and went to meditate, my mind would still be attached to it; I couldn’t shake it off. However much I had tried to lever it out of my mind, it wouldn’t budge. So I took this as a mental training: a training in abandonment, in putting down.

Whatever I did, I determined not to finish it quickly. After working on the bowl-lid for a while, I would go and practise meditation; but whether I was walking or sitting, my mind would be wrapped up in the bowl-lid and wouldn’t concentrate on anything else. I saw how difficult it is for the mind to let go. It clings so tenaciously. But I gained another principle of contemplation: don’t hurry to get anything finished. Do a little and then put it down. Look at your mind. If it’s still going round and round with the unfinished work, then look at how that feels. That’s when it starts to be fun. Go to battle.

I was determined not to stop until I had trained my mind to the point that when I worked, I just worked; and when I stopped, I would be able to put the work down in my mind. I would make work and rest separate, discrete, so that there would be no suffering. But it was extremely difficult to train in that way.

Attachments are difficult to abandon, difficult to put down. The idea I’d had of getting things over and done with as soon as possible wasn’t exactly wrong; but from the point of view of Dhamma it’s not correct, because there’s nothing that you can know once and for all if your mind refuses to stop.

I came to reflect on feeling. How can you let go of pleasant and unpleasant feelings when they are still present? It’s the same as with the bowl-lid …

So this was the principle: don’t do anything with the thought of getting it finished. Put it down at regular intervals and go and practise walking meditation. As soon as my mind went back to worrying about the work, I’d tell it off, oppose it. I’d train myself, talk to myself alone in the forest. I just kept fighting! Afterwards, it was less of a burden. As I kept practising, I found it easier to separate work from rest.

After that, whether it was sewing robes or crocheting a bowl- cover or whatever I was doing, I trained myself. I could do it, or I could put it down. I got to know the cause of suffering – and that is how Dhamma arises. Subsequently, whether I was standing, walking, sitting or lying down I felt a radiance and enjoyment that lasted until, finally, the bowl-lid was finished…

This reflection by Ajahn Chah as recounted by Ajahn Jayasaro is from the book, Stillness Flowing, (pdf) pp.94-96.