The Clogged Filter Teacher

As many of you may know, yesterday was Wesak (Vesak). This is the most important Buddhist holiday. Traditionally it is the day on which the Buddha was born, became enlightened, and died. I had planned to spend the day meditating, listening to Dharma talks, and so on, but as often happens, things did not quite go as planned.

I have a small, artificial pond in my backyard, and it has a waterfall feature attached to it. This comes with a pump and a filter, and the whole system requires regular attention. I had just finished my Wesak lunch when I noticed that the waterfall flow had slowed to a trickle. The pond system—which includes plants—has to be kept running, so I could not postpone attending to whatever the problem was.

I spent the next few hours working on the pond, waterfall, filter, and pump. It is messy work, and I literally smelled like pond scum (!). I finished up this morning, and everything seems to be in working order. And while that whole situation may sound like it was an annoyance, it was actually a very pleasant experience. I was in a very nice state of mind—probably because of my Wesak activities—so instead of mentally whining about it, I just did it. In a way it was the best Dharma lesson. Just stay in the moment. Do what life requires of you and do it with your full attention. Chop wood, carry water.

And… I have a story about that. Back in the 1980’s, the great Thai forest practitioner Ajahn Chah was becoming known in the West. This guy from Australia went to a lot of effort to go to Thailand and make his way to the remote jungles of northeastern Thailand where Ajahn Chah had his monastery. This is not a trivial trip. Northeast Thailand is some of the most remote jungle in the world. You have to work your way there on pony carts and the like. You don’t just catch a train.

Unfortunately, when he finally got there, he was a little dismayed to see that Ajahn Chah was surrounded by several hundred people. His chances of seeing Ajahn Chah seemed as remote as the jungle monastery. But rather than waste his entire time, he picked up a broom, and along with one of the monks he started sweeping the footpath. Sometime later he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Ajahn Chah. Ajahn had apparently seen him, and of course a Westerner would stand out in a crowd of Thais. Ajahn Chah said he had one piece of advice for the Australian. “Whatever you do in life,” he said, “Do it with all your heart.”

The Australian never forgot that. He said that his life instantly improved. His marriage got better. His relationships with his children got better. His job got better. And decades later he was still joyfully living his life with all of his heart.

The Dharma isn’t always about mind-blowing meditation experiences. Sometimes it’s just the simple stuff. Yesterday’s teacher was a clogged water filter. Instead of it “ruining my plans,” I simply had a new plan. It’s often not about what you do but how you do it.

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