The Craft of the Heart

Ajahn Viradhammo

The Craft of the Heart

One of the observations I have reflected on lately is that our life and spiritual practice are like a craft. Both for bhikkhus and lay people, it’s a bit like the guild system in the Middle Ages. In that system, a student would be apprenticed to a master, a goldsmith for example, or a glassblower, or a potter. The master’s duty was to train the apprentice in his craft. The apprentice’s duty was to live in obedience to the master, regarding him as a father. The apprenticeship usually lasted seven years, after which the apprentice had to create a mature piece of work that demonstrated his skills, for example a pot or a cabinet. If he passed the test, he could become a journeyman and go to other villages or cities and earn a livelihood with his craft. In time, if he became respected in his guild and in the community, then he himself could become a master and teach other apprentices.

This seven year apprenticeship is very similar to our training here as monastics: one year as an anagārika, one year as a sāmanera, and then five years as a navaka bhikkhu. And like the journeyman of the Middle Ages, the next five majjhima years are often spent trying out other monasteries and places or being on one’s own

Finally, it’s not uncommon for a monk of ten or fifteen years to begin to set up something on his own, just as Venerable Sudanto and others are doing at the Pacific Hermitage in Oregon.

In the early Renaissance years though, a new phenomenon arose in the European guild system. This was the notion of “the artist” - an individual who was uniquely gifted and could exhibit a novel personal touch in his work. There were people like Bernini, the famous goldsmith, who became famous for his unique designs.

If I remember correctly, he made a salt and pepper shaker for the king of France. It was a huge, elaborate affair depicting Neptune, god of the sea… This was no longer simple, solid guild work: it was the personal expression of a superstar, an artist.

In monasticism, we are craftspeople, not artists. The work we do is not spectacular. Notice how our monastic system works. It’s not about being a superstar. It’s about quietly plying one’s craft. It’s not about self-expression – like the early guilds. It’s more about communal adherence and support. It’s a very quiet thing. One’s own insights and understandings are not broadcast all over the world. Certainly, there are popular, charismatic teachers in the Sangha, but charisma can be pretty deluding, too. Dhamma can become a kind of spiritual entertainment. You start to say, “Well, that was a good talk,” or “Those jokes were great,” rather than reflecting on the teaching and applying it to our craft. We all like good talks and humor is good, but the point of it is not entertainment; it’s reflection and contemplation.

How do you learn something new? If you’ve never woven, or if you’ve never done any woodwork, where do you begin? You just have to kick it a bit or move it a bit. In that engagement, you begin to learn. If you’ve never meditated and they say watch your breath, your mind’s all over the place! Your knees hurt, but you pick it up and start to engage with it. In the engagement you begin to see, “”ah!” That’s insight, isn’t it? That’s what craft is about.” Perhaps you’re asked to throw a pot and you’ve never done it before. You can’t lift the clay or it keeps getting floppy. Eventually, you learn to apply an even pressure, and the clay starts to rise. This is a kind of insight, but the insight is visceral, something in your body, not just conceptual teaching. But then the next pot you do, of course, it flops. You keep trying until it becomes a part of you. This is how we bring it in, how we become skilled in our craft.

For the last eight and a half years I have been living with my elderly mom, who recently died. I was spending quite a long time in her condo. I had never taken care of an elderly person or lived in a condominium before. There was a lot of fumbling, but I began to see that I was learning the craft of caring. How do you really care for someone? The training that we get in taking care of each other, our seniors and sick monks, was tremendously helpful. Think about the beautiful choreography we monks live by.

When the junior brings the Ajahn a flask of hot water, he gets down on his knees and approaches gracefully. That kind of mindfulness of the body is part of our craft. Also the way we ask a question to a senior monk, we’ll put our hands in anjali. This kind of training carries us and brings us into the present moment. It’s a craft of body and speech, the way we communicate, the way we relate in community. That’s the interesting thing about community: it makes you and you make it. It carries you, but you carry it, too. All of us are trying the best we can to live in harmony, to live by the Vinaya. We create the community, but also the community creates us. There is a lovely interchange. In the craft we’re learning, what is the object? What is the pot or the cabinet we’re making? It is simply beings-who-don’t-suffer; but also it’s a community. It’s both. If the purpose of our monastic life is just the community, just the external, it wouldn’t work. But if it was just the internal we would be selfish, wouldn’t we?

All of these examples point to learning. How do we learn? While with my mom, I wanted to do something with my hands, living in her condo day after day, year after year. Since I couldn’t fit a workshop into the living room, I was looking for something appropriate for a small space. Eventually I discovered a craft called card weaving, or belt weaving. Card weaving is a very simple form of weaving that goes back a long time. At first, I only had books to go by, and found it very confusing – there was a lot of frustration and lost yarn! Yet through persistence and repeated application I began to be able to do card weaving. It was quite complex but I made some lovely stuff. When I began my little project, I just had squiggles of ink on paper, and I made my own weaving cards. All I could do was just begin, just try. In the beginning, the skill was in the book, explicit and external. Through training, though – failing, remaining available, trying again – that skill became a part of me, became implicit.

This is the way we learn something that we don’t yet understand – by trying something, even if it might be askew. By being watchful and available and trying, we begin to see the results. Natural, isn’t it? If there is an honesty there, and if there is a freshness of inquiry, then you’ll learn, “no, this doesn’t work,” or “yes, this does work.” Insight arises from that process of being watchful and available, of experimenting and trying: “Oh, look at that. That’s how that works.” Intellectual insight from books is a kind of understanding that manifests in the mind, but such insight isn’t enough, is it? In craft – let’s say I’m trying to make my belt – I might get the mental understanding of how to get the right kind of twist, but I have to repeat that. A number we hear a lot these days is 10,000 hours – a good craftsman needs 10,000 hours training to become a master. We have to bed it in until it becomes our own.

It’s the same with the craft of the heart. Here, we are trying to understand the negative aspects of our consciousness, our own fears and angers – all the emotions we have as human beings. We’re also trying to develop the paramitas (the spiritual perfections of generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving- kindness, and equanimity). If you think about developing the paramitas – patience, for instance – a teacher can tell you to be patient, but it isn’t that easy. It’s not that easy to understand what patience is and why it is important. If I come from a sense of “I should be patient!”, that’s not really engaging the problem. It’s not a reflective mindset, it’s a judgmental mindset. So rather than this type of willfulness, we try reading about patience and try seeing impatience. The understanding that comes from learning how impatience works in the mind and why patience is skillful and wholesome is the insight into the paramitas. Something like patience is not something you get by one tremendous insight. You have various insights into it, but then the craft is remembering and training. These incremental suggestions, doings and intentions, have tremendous power. They have the power to settle the mind, to make the mind very able to be with the vicissitudes of life.

You can apply this learning process to anything – family situations, even simply listening. You make mistakes. You try, try, and try and then finally think “Okay, I’ll look at it.” This engagement is the First Noble Truth of understanding suffering: “What is it? What does it feel like? How does it arise? What are the patterns? How does it feel in the body?” You see what wasn’t effective and what is. You practice again and again and you come to understand cause and effect. Over time you become a good parent, a good listener. This is true in all things. It’s a gentle practice, but it’s also very determined. Making effort, not from simple willfulness but from insight: this is the beauty of the practice and the beauty of the craft. The product, of course, is a beautiful community, beautiful human beings.

This is quite lovely, in a natural and quiet way, rather than in a spectacular way.

Collected from teachings by Ajahn Vīradhammo given at Abhayagiri in June, 2011