Even as an abbot, Khun Mae does most of the work herself- literally everything from A to Z. Most of her foreign disciples, coming from land of outsourcing menial tasks may find it puzzling at first.
Cooking, sewing the robes, construction (carrying heavy stuff, mixing the cement, choosing and buying the materials), repairing broken furniture, cutting grass, clearing weeds from the river, climbing up to the ceiling, and once, repairing a blocked toilet. She never complained at any of the tasks. Day and night- after breakfast (sometimes she even skips it)- working sometimes till late a night.
In between, she would teach the Dhamma. Therefore perhaps the only time she is away from doing heavy work would be when she is in Malaysia or Singapore- but then, her schedule would be so full that she hardly got enough sleep.
She worked harder that most of us. Often, the nuns would be seen helping her out even though she seldom ask. And sometimes, days of hard work could go into waste, as shared in the following events:
In May 2009, we were attempting to built a stone bridge in order for people to be able to cross the river to reach The Cave. The stone bridge in question is not a concrete bridge. It basically involved pilling a stack of stones into a durable metal wire- and then building a bamboo bridge on top of it. This is because at first, a low bamboo bridge that the villagers had build had been washed up by the strong current in the river (which happens after heavy rain as the water gushes down from higher ground).
The attempt was truly back breaking. I don’t think I had worked so hard in my entire life carrying stones from the river and putting them into the wire enclosure. Of course Khun Mae never asked but on seeing her work, some of us cannot bear to just sit and watch. We worked for hours under the hot sun and walking to and fro against the river current. We set up the stone enclosure as the main ‘pillar’ on the bridge. Next was to get some villages to make the bamboo bridge on top of it.
The bridge lasted 3 months. When vassa (rains retreat which also means rainy season), one particular heavy rainy day brought a huge downpour that washed off all the efforts.
More recently in August 2010 when I was back in the cave, I was helping Khun Mae and the rest clear out some weeds in the middle of the river- we spent a few afternoon chopping of weeds, so that we can dig a nice pond because we know there is hot water there and we can use it for bathing. For hours, we worked under the hot sun and rain to complete our task- to clear the middle island in the river and dug 2 wells (dig into the soil and put stones barriers around it so that it acts as a natural filter for hot water to get in).
As it was the raining season, staying in the cave can be very cold at times- so hot water is a welcome relief to soothe painful muscles and joints. Well, actually Khun Mae was literally working non stop and dug the wells- using her bare hands.
We had the nice little well for about 3 days. One the night of the 3rd day, it rained very heavily. The next morning, the strong current came from the river buried all the rocks- and the wells were gone.
Priceless lessons by the river…
The average city dweller may view this as a complete waste of time, energy and effort. But behind doing all this lies the key to developing patience and resilience.
Why is that so is because like Khun Mae taught, we had to have to be mindful when we are on the task because it is physically very demanding. Even the hyperactive mind seemed to slow down because if we are not mindful, it’s hard to ‘live’ through such ordeal. Of course for Khun Mae it is no problem because she has been doing this for close to 20 years.
We give our heart and attention in our work.
And then what happens when all that effort practically gets wasted? Like the water that came to erase days of hard work? We learned to let go and move on…..
This is an example of lesson that is hard to internalize by just reading books. The realization comes through direct experience.
Initially I was just helping out because I felt sorry seeing Khun Mae working so hard everyday. I never realized the profound effect of this till I came back to city life and find that somehow, I have changed- I understood what it means to work towards something and even though it does not turn out, to let go.
For most of us who are born and bred in the city, we tend to be taught to be performance driven and to outsource menial or seemingly ‘meaningless’ work. In school, we are taught that success is through how many As we have, and when we work, our bonus is by how much we meet in KPI (key performance index) and how much of profit we drive in for our company (through honest means or otherwise). We worked very hard and cling to the end results.
What happens if things don’t turn out the way we expect? What happens when that promotion does not come along or someone snatched our ricebowl? We would get depressed, miserable and sometimes, the stress would have got to our health. The fast paced life made it hard to let go.
When I carried the stones in the river or clear the weeds completely drenched in the rain, I had no choice but to be as mindful as I could- else I think I would probably collapse from the physical assertion. And when things does not turn out, Khun Mae, who worked times harder than us and she was not the least perturbed and never complained at all. So who was I to complain? It was then I understood the real essence of what it means to let go. Finally, after so many years, I ‘got it’. It has made a huge difference in my life- in my relationship with others, and the demands of work no longer make me feel stressed.
Khun Mae taught that when we continually establish our mindfulness (either through breathing or recitation of Buddho Buddho), we would be more mindful the next time thoughts and intention arise. Just view these thoughts, emotions like you are looking at a passer by- don’t get attach to them. But she knew that merely by telling us, we understand on an intellectual and logical level but not ‘really’ understand. She knows that when we do the work, we would understand.