What’s In Your Toolbox

Venerable Dieu Tinh

In the past I have had several chances to work in the construction projects at our monastery, and I had to learn to work with different types of tools such as hammer, machine drills, and chisels.  We have a tool shed where all the tools are kept, it’s not far from the construction site, but having to run to the shed every time we need something takes a lot of our time and energy, so we decided to take the tools that we will need, put them in the tool box, and take the tool box to the construction site, so that we don’t have to run back and forth as much.  This did save a lot of our time and energy.

This taught me a lesson for cultivation.  That is, to ask myself the question, “What is in my tool box?”  Often times we do not have the right tools or any tools at all.  Tools are analogous to the essential skills in our practice.  What kind of skills have we learned from our practice, from coming to the monastery, or from attending the Dharma sessions?  These are the questions we should ask ourselves from time to time.  In the ordinary world, we do not learn skills that will prepare us for the “world” itself.  The ordinary world teaches us greed, anger, delusion; how to make more money, how to get ahead of others, how to get away with things.  But in the monastery, we learn values that are quite contrary to the values of the world.  We learn the values of compassion, forgiveness, patience, resistance, and perseverance.

The Buddha teaches that true happiness does not come from things like wealth, power, or status; true happiness comes from within, from cultivating in our minds the wholesome qualities, and from developing the positive strength that will prepare us for the worst.  Every day in our life we are affected by pain, suffering, and losses, and towards the end of our life, we will have to face with old age, illness, and ultimately death.  But the ordinary world does not give prominence to these issues.  The ordinary world pushes them aside so as to pretend that the world is a beautiful and happy world.  But when coming to the monastery, we learn to bring to attention the fact that terrible things happen in life too, and we need to prepare ourselves for them, otherwise when they come, we will be torn into pieces, and the suffering would increase even more.

So one important skill that we learn at the monastery is focusing.  It means to bring awareness to one point, and maintain that awareness.  In the Dhammapada, the Buddha describes the mind as “quivering, wavering, hard to guard, to hold in check.”  Because the mind likes to wander off, we need to be able to prolong our awareness and keep it there firmly and solidly.

An image that describes a solid mind is a stone column that has its foundation buried deep underground.  Even strong winds cannot tip it over.   Similarly, a strong solid mind does not get scattered in every which direction the thoughts go. It will stay firmly at the center.  This is when we can begin to access the inner source of peace.  The mind that wanders does not find true peace because it is always affected by the upheavals of life.  But when the mind is planted right here in the present moment, we can fully live our life.

Another skill that is essential in our practice is disengaging.   That is, to separate the mind from the thoughts.  Our mind tends to identify with our thoughts, and that’s how we become one with our thoughts.   But the mind and the thoughts are two different things.  When they are separated, the mind becomes the observer, and the thoughts are being observed.  What we can see is the difference in quality that is characteristic of our thoughts.

In one sutra passage the Buddha told the Bhikkhus how he was able to develop mindfulness before his Enlightenment.  He said that he simply separated his thoughts into different categories.  One category is thoughts that lead to unwholesome actions and thus to unwholesome results.  The other category is thoughts that lead to wholesome actions, and thus to wholesome results.  By doing this, he was able to filter out the unwholesome thoughts and maintain only what is wholesome.

What the Buddha encouraged here is that we should be selective.  We must filter out the unwholesome thoughts, and maintain only those that are conducive to higher wholesome qualities of the mind.  We can imagine our mind as our home.  You can choose to welcome only those you trust, and close the door on whomever you do not want in your house.  That is why we want to be able to have control over the mind so that it can remain as a safe home for us.

These are two among the many skills that we can learn from coming to the monastery.  The environment here is ideal for bringing positive results to our practice.  Therefore, we should take the skills with us and use them when going back to the mundane world where these skills are not only useful but are also essential.   At the monastery you learn how to use your tools, so when you leave, you need to collect your tools, put them in your tool box, and have them handy when you need them.

For sure learning the Dharma is not an easy thing to do, but the Dharma in the long run will lead to freedom and true happiness.  As for me, when the practice gets tough, I revive my courage again and again with this teaching from the Buddha:

“Abandon evil, O monks! One can abandon evil, monks. If it were impossible to abandon evil, I would not ask you to do so. But as it can be done, therefore I say, ‘Abandon evil!’  If this abandoning of evil would bring harm and suffering, I would not ask you to abandon it. But as the abandoning of evil brings well-being and happiness, therefore I say, ‘Abandon evil!’”

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