An idiot's guide to peace of mind
I told the previous story to a large audience one Friday evening in Perth. On the following Sunday, an angry parent came to tell me off. He had attended that talk together with his teenage son. On Saturday evening, his son wanted to go out with his friends. The father asked him, 'Have you finished your homework yet, son?' His son replied, 'As Ajahn Brahm taught us at the temple last night, Dad, what's done is finished! See ya.'
The following week I told another story.
Most people in Australia have a garden with their house, but only a few know how to find peace in their garden. For the rest, the garden is just another place for work. So I encourage those with a garden to nurture its beauty by working a while, and nurture their hearts by just sitting peacefully in the garden, enjoying nature's gifts.
The first idiot thinks this a jolly good idea. So they decide to get all the little jobs out of the way first, and then they will allow themselves a few moments of peace in their garden. After all, the lawn does need mowing, the flowers could do with a good watering, the leaves need raking, the bushes need pruning, the path needs sweeping. Of course, it takes up all of their free time just to get a fraction of those 'little jobs' out of the way. Their work is never finished, so they never get to have a few minutes of peace. Have you ever noticed that in our culture, the only people who 'rest in peace' are found in the cemetery?
The second idiot thinks they are much smarter than the first. They put away the rakes and the watering cans and sit out in the garden reading a magazine, probably with glossy pictures of nature. But that's enjoying your magazine, not finding peace in your garden.
The third idiot puts away all the gardening tools, all the magazines, newspapers and radios, and just sits in the peace of their garden - for about two seconds! Then they start thinking: 'That lawn really needs mowing. And those bushes should be pruned soon. If I don't water those flowers within a few days they may die. And maybe a nice gardenia would go well in that corner. Yes! With one of those ornamental birdbaths in front. I could pick one up at the nursery. That is enjoying thinking and planning. There is no peace of mind there.
The smart gardener considers, 'I've worked long enough, now is the time to enjoy the fruit of my work, to listen for the peace. So even though the lawn needs mowing and the leaves need raking and blah! blah! blah! NOT NOW.' This way, we find the wisdom to enjoy the garden even though it's not perfect.
Perhaps there's an old Japanese monk hiding behind one of the bushes ready to jump out and tell us that our messy old garden really is perfect. Indeed, if we look at the work we have already done instead of focusing on the work that remains to be done, we might understand that what's done has been finished. But if we focus exclusively on the faults, on the things that need to be fixed, as in the case of my brick wall in my monastery, we will never know peace.
The intelligent gardener enjoys their fifteen minutes of peace in the perfect imperfection of nature, not thinking, not planning and not feeling guilty. We all deserve to get away and have some peace; and others deserve the peace of us getting out of their way! Then, after getting our crucial, life-saving fifteen minutes of peace 'out of its way', we carry on with our gardening duties.
When we understand how to find such peace in our garden, we will know how to find peace anytime, anywhere. Especially, we will know how to find peace in the garden of our heart, even though at times we might think that it's such a mess, with so much to be done.
Guilt and absolution
A few years ago, a young Australian woman came to see me at my temple in Perth. Monks are often sought out for advice on people's problems, perhaps because we're cheap - we never charge a fee. She was tormented with guilt. Some six months previously, she had been working in a remote mining community in the north of Western Australia. The work was hard and the money good, but there was not much to do in the hours off work. So one Sunday afternoon she suggested to her best friend, and her best friend's boyfriend, that they all go out for a drive in the bush. Her girlfriend didn't want to go, and neither did the boy, but it was no fun going alone. So she cajoled, argued and badgered until they gave in and agreed to go on the drive in the bush.
There was an accident: the car rolled on the loose gravel road. The young woman's girlfriend was killed; the boy was paralysed. The drive was her idea, yet she wasn't hurt.
She told me with sorrow in her eyes: 'If only I hadn't forced them to go. She would still be here. He would still have his legs. I shouldn't have made them go. I feel so terrible. I feel so guilty.'
The first thought that came into my mind was to reassure her that it wasn't her fault. She didn't plan to have the accident. She had no intention of hurting her friends. These things happen. Let it go. Don't feel guilty. But the second thought that came up was, 'I bet she's heard that line before, hundreds of times, and it obviously hasn't worked.' So I paused, looked deeper into her situation, then told her it was good that she felt so guilty.
Her face changed from sorrow to surprise, and from surprise to relief. She hadn't heard this before: that she should feel guilty. I'd guessed right. She was feeling guilty about feeling guilty. She felt guilty and everyone was telling her not to. She felt 'double guilt', guilt over the accident and guilt over feeling guilty. Our complicated minds work like that.
Only when we had dealt with the first layer of guilt and established that it was all right for her to feel guilty could we proceed to the next stage of the solution: What's to be done about it?
There's a helpful Buddhist saying: 'Rather light a candle than complain about darkness.'
There's always something we can do instead of feeling upset, even if that something is just sitting peacefully for a while, not complaining.
Guilt is substantially different from remorse. In our culture 'guilty' is a verdict hammered out on hard wood by a judge in a court. And if no one else punishes us, we will look to punish ourselves, some way or another. Guilt means punishment deep in our psyche.
So the young woman needed a penance to absolve her from guilt. Telling her to forget it and get on with life wouldn't have worked. I suggested that she volunteer for work at her local hospital's rehab unit, treating the casualties of road accidents. For there, I thought, she would wear away her guilt with all the hard work, and also, as usually happens in voluntary work, be helped so much by the very people she was there to help.
Before I had the honourable but burdensome office of abbot dumped upon me, I used to visit the prisons around Perth. I kept a careful record of the hours of service I had spent in jail to be used as credit in case I ever got sentenced!
On my first visit to a big prison in Perth, I was surprised and impressed at the number of prisoners who came to hear me speak on meditation. The room was packed. Around ninety-five per cent of the prisoner population had come to learn meditation. The longer I spoke, the more restless my captive audience grew. After only ten minutes, one of the prisoners, one of the leading crims in the jail, put up his hand to interrupt my talk and ask a question. I invited him to go ahead and ask.
'Is it really true,' he said, 'that through meditation you can learn how to levitate?'
Now I knew why so many prisoners had come for my talk. They were all planning to learn meditation so they could levitate over the walls! I told them that it is possible, but only for exceptional meditators, and then only after many years of training. The next time I went to teach at that prison, only four prisoners turned up for the session.
Over the many years that I taught inside prisons, I got to know some of the crims very well indeed. One thing I discovered was that every crim feels guilty for what they have done. They feel it day and night, deep in their hearts. They only tell this to their close friends. They wear the standard defiant prisoner face for viewing in public. But when you earn their trust, when they take you as their spiritual guide for a while, then they open themselves and reveal their painful guilt. I would often help them with the next story: the story of the Class B kids.
The Class B kids
Many years ago, an experiment in education was carried out in secrecy at a school in England. The school had two classes for the same age of children. At the end of the school year an examination was held, in order to select the children for the classes of next year. However, the results of the exam were never revealed. In secrecy, with only the principal and the psychologists knowing the truth, the child who came first in the exam was placed in the same class with the children who came fourth and fifth, eighth and ninth, twelfth and thirteenth, and so on. While the children who came second and third in the exam were placed in the other class, with the children who came sixth and seventh, tenth and eleventh, and so on. In other words, based on their performance in the exam, the children were split evenly between the two classes. Teachers for the next year were carefully selected for equal ability. Even the classrooms were chosen with similar facilities. Everything was made as equal as possible, except for one thing: one was called 'Class A', the other was called 'Class B'.
In fact, the classes had children of equal ability. But in everyone's mind the children in Class A were the clever ones, and the kids of Class B were not so clever. Some of the parents of the Class A children were pleasantly surprised that their child had done so well and rewarded them with favours and praise, whereas the parents of some of the Class B kids berated their children for not working hard enough and took away some of their privileges. Even the teachers taught the Class B kids in a different manner, not expecting so much from them. For a whole year the illusion was maintained. Then there was another end-of-year exam.
The results were chilling, but not surprising. The children of Class A performed so much better than those of Class B. In fact, the results were just as if they had been the top half chosen from last year's exam. They had become Class A children. And those in the other group, though equal the year before, had now become Class B kids. That was what they were told for a whole year, that was how they were treated, and that was what they believed - so that was what they became.