Whether it’s sewing robes or making a footpath, the Forest Tradition has a high standard of workmanship. But 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 Saṅgha. If we’ve never had to do welding and we end up assigned a welding job, or if we’ve never been an abbot and we end up being an abbot, it becomes a real training in how we learn new skills.
One of the monks at Chithurst Monastery 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 skill is to undo any mistakes we’ve made, rather than covering them up. I saw him do that several times. He would be building something quite complicated like a staircase and if he saw a mistake, he would reverse his steps until he’d gone back to the place where the mistake was made, and then he’d correct it.
My tendency had been to keep going after making a mistake, and hope that no one would notice it. Watching this monk work, I also noticed that once he had retraced his steps backward to correct some mistake he’d made, he tended not to make that same mistake in the future. Not surprisingly, his work was very beautiful.
Once I watched Luang Por Liem make a beautiful broom. It was a fabulous example of very mindful craftsmanship, his hands were so attentive and efficient. Luang Por obviously has the gift for it, but that gift has been greatly enhanced by his many years of training in mindfulness.
When our task involves working with others, it’s a perfect opportunity to develop the beautiful skill of patience. For example, we may have a skill or aptitude for the task and already know how to do it quickly, but we’re working with someone who is a bit clumsy and slow because he or she doesn’t have that same training or aptitude. In that situation, we need to practice patience with each other.
Whether or not we already have the skills required to tackle a certain project we’ve been assigned, it’s always rewarding to do things carefully and beautifully, as best we can. Abhayagiri’s lodgings and buildings are quite beautiful. Whether it’s the robe rail or the sleeping platform, they are all nicely done. I can appreciate everything it must have taken to complete these lovely works—the mindfulness and workmanship, the patience, and the willingness to learn.
This reflection by Ajahn Viradhammo is from the book, Beginning Our Day, Volume 2, (pdf) pp.127-128.