Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Work at Abhayagiri

This is my last post regarding my 2-week trip to Abhayagiri where I'll talk a little about what doing work at the monastery was like.

One morning I was working with Tan Pesalo to stain a large tinder box which would be used to store scrap wood to burn during the cold season. While we making preparations to stain, he stopped and reminded me that while it was our a job to stain the tinder box, our real purpose was to be mindful while we were doing it.

Mindfulness is one of those words that's used a lot these days. You see it a lot now in the popular culture, and being "mindful" is considered a very good thing. Sometimes it gets expressed as awareness or being present.

From my experience, mindfulness, in the context of the Buddha's teachings, is a very dynamic quality that encompasses a lot more than just being aware or present. From the suttas (recorded words), the Buddha and his followers spoke about right mindfulness and wrong mindfulness, the former being is conducive to the teachings and the latter going against it. One of key aspects of mindfulness, from my experience, is that its a mental skill of keeping to what we set out to do. There's also an aspect of keeping in mind where we're going or what we're looking to cultivate or let go of.

So there's a immediate job of staining the tinder box. But there's also keeping in mind the far more important things, like keeping our precepts (training rules) and getting along with others in the community. This gives things a very different flavor with how things are often done (or at least encouraged) in my worldly life.

Regular jobs, for me at least, can often take on a very different bottom line. For example, completing the project on schedule can take precedence over everything else. In doing so, with keeping this priority at the top of the list, I can end up doing like say or do insensitive or hurtful towards others, compromise my own health and take on really negative emotional states like rage or depression when things don't go the way we think they should go. While often a work environment can encourage these mal-adaptive bottom lines, I have, more often than not, found that they come into fruition from my own directives.

So even though I am far from an office setting, these habits came raging through while in the middle of a quiet forest setting. "I like using this type of stain!" "It has to be applied in this way!" "We should use this amount of it!" "I should be doing that!" "He should be doing that!" Oh, why is he doing it that way? That doesn't make any sense!"

Of course, because of a different kind of momentum, the momentum of being at a monastery, of making the commitments I did, and even help from friends like Tan Pesalo who make really explicit reminders. Yes, there was also another train moving in a different direction, and sometimes I hopped on it. Is doing things that way really that important? What happens when the most important thing in life staining the tinder box on time? What happens when we do the best we can while maintaining an atmosphere of good will and harmony?

And so, that's what a lot of my work was like at Abhayagiri.


  1. Hi, John-
    This came to my inbox today and I thought of you...

    1. Thanks Bob! That article was very relevant for me.