Lessons The Master Taught the Summer I Grew a Garden
Bhikshuni Heng Chih
Vajra Bodhi Sea, June 2005, pp. 28 – 31
Vajra Bodhi Sea, June 2005, pp. 28 – 31
course we are always wiser after the fact. It took me a long time to piece the
lessons from that summer together. That's how it was, being taught by the
Master. The lessons came first. All too often the undeniable truth of them
came later in some moment of dumbfounded clarity.
the time in 1968 when the five of us were lined up for our last bows to the
Master before we headed for
was some fifteen years later, when the other four whom I had bowed to on that
day had, for whatever reasons, decided not to be monastics any more, that the
comment took on another meaning one I could never have grasped on the day it
the spring of this particular summer in the early '80's was exquisite. Perfect
weather prevailed with sunny days, slight breezes in the afternoons, a good
rain every ten days or so, and cool moonlit nights. As I sat in my office in
the building on the southeastern-most portion of the City of Ten Thousand
Buddhas (CTTB) campus, listening to the chattering flow of the creek water as
it raced over and between the smooth rocks, I decided to grow a garden. Nobody
knew about my decision but me. Or so I thought at the time. In retrospect, I
see that differently.
first clue I should have picked up on came as I was gathering sticks and other
debris, clearing the plot of ground I had chosen for the site of my garden.
One of the nuns happened by. She was the guest prefect and, as part of that
duty, was also the Master's attendant in some ways. But I did not make that
connection then. She struck up a gentle conversation that I assumed was just
an expression of her own curiosity. "Are you starting a garden?" she
I replied confidently.
Do we really need another garden?" she said softly, almost as if
wondering aloud. "There are two large community gardens already started
and we are shorthanded," she pointed out in the same soft tone.
nodded, but kept on working and made no comment.
a pause, she suggested a little more pointedly, "You could help with
those gardens, instead of starting yet another one."
remained silent and unresponsive, busy with my self-appointed task.
she nodded and walked on, leaving me alone again.
did not dwell on the conversation. It only came to me much later that she most
likely had been sent by the Master to try to point out to me a better choice
than the one I was making, without letting it sound like the Master's idea.
day or so later, I had borrowed the large tractor and plow from the office and
was breaking ground with the first pass of the plow. Seated so high and in
command of that heavy equipment, I am sure I felt more than a little proud.
That self-satisfaction got marred quite soon, however, when the hard steel of
the plow struck a snake, cruelly stripping the flesh off its back. I turned in
my seat and saw it writhing in the morning sun - exposed, distraught, and most
likely in agony. I broke out in a cold sweat.
I kept going. On the second pass through the field, I flushed a frog that
hopped right into the path of the plow and died instantly from the blow. My
hands trembled as I down-shifted and tried to slow the course of that
murderous machinery manned by me. Nonetheless, I completed the job.
after that, I repented of those two deaths, in the Buddhahall, before the
Master and the great assembly. "A snake and a frog?" the Master
repeated with a bit of dismay, followed by a rather reluctant and
had been trained to translate. It was my main job or should have been. So few
of the Buddhist sutras were in English back then and the Master wanted more of
them published as soon as possible. I had my assignment and knew I should keep
pace with my work, so that I could pass it on to the next committee of the
Buddhist Text Translation Society in a timely fashion.
my garden project turned out to be time-consuming, especially because it was
not an 'official' garden. That means the other residents at CTTB took turns
working in the community gardens, not the one I had made. I struggled to
maintain my own garden, with only one elder nun, who spoke a dialect that no
one on campus could really understand and so probably never figured out where
the actual community gardens where, coming by to help me. Looking back, I
realize she probably figured she was doing the right thing, as I had convinced
myself I was. My pride grew as the garden flourished.
the days were filled with planting, thinning, weeding, fertilizing, watering,
and later with harvesting, I began to feel pressure that lead me to try to
work on translation at night.
we finished the evening mantras, I would walk clear back to that southeastern
building, flip on some lights to find my way to my office, and then burn the
midnight oil. Lights out was at 10:30 p.m., but I often broke the curfew and
stayed up working. Then one day the Master began to grumble publicly during
one of his classes (which everyone on campus attended) about wasting
electricity and showing off. He was talking about me! He professed that I was
just trying to attract his attention, displaying from afar that I was such a
diligent translator that I worked at night, too. And he complained about the
lack of thrift one person working in such a big building and turning on so
many lights. His residence and classroom was in a building that had a direct
line of vision to the building where I worked. The glare of the lights at
night, he said, disturbed him. While the Master complained, my tenacious ego
silently countered his complaints in my mind. "That's an exaggeration! I
only turn on the porch light until I get the office light on and then go back
to turn the porch light off. I never thought about the Master seeing my lights
when I went to translate at night. I was too busy working!" My ego made
so much racket in my head that I totally missed the message in the Master's
tirade. Anyway, by the end of that class, the Master had declared the
southeastern building 'off limits' at night. And my ego kept licking its
passed quickly, and I raced to keep up with the demands of the ripening crops,
the stubborn weeds, and the coming harvest. Translation suffered and my pride
swelled as I began to gather the first greens. Just about then, that same nun
came by. She walked more deliberately this time not just passing by, but
heading directly for me. "I have come to deliver a message from the
Master," she said firmly. I stood silent, waiting.
wants me to tell you that he will not eat a single vegetable from this
Of course, I had been gathering those first sweet peas and tender greens with
my teacher in mind. That was all she said. No smile. No encouraging word. Just
that pointed message.
only that, but as harvest time became full-blown, the community kitchen was
inundated with garden vegetables more than could be comfortably eaten or
preserved. In retrospect, I suspect the amount of extras probably equaled just
about the amount I reaped from my selfish-centered plot.
took time for me to assimilate it all, but afterwards I saw so clearly how my
ego-based garden project had caused the Master to spend his valuable time and
energy trying to teach me lessons that I should have known from the start.
Join the harmony of community work, do not create an ego-centered project.
Insisting on my own way caused me to create some serious karma.
Do the job I was trained to do and keep my commitments and meet the deadlines.
But while doing any job, do not show off or display a special style.
And painfully, the fruits of the ego are unworthy of nurturing the body and go
counter to nurturing the spirit.
Finally, last but by no means least, sharing in community work generates a
gentle rhythm and harmony and brings its own rewards, not the least of which
is diminishing the tenacious ego.