Irrigators guide water;
Fletchers shape arrows;
Carpenters fashion wood;
The well-practiced tame themselves. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
Once in the past, most people had one occupation, one profession, one trade or craft (butcher, baker, candlestick maker), often inherited from his/her parents. There was a sense of order to knowing who we were and how we fit in socially. But in recent years most of us have had to be more flexible, taking on a whole range of tasks to make a living and to find a place in society. We can not only change our profession or trade, but we can leap over (or fall out of) whole categories of work or activity in the world. This verse hearkens back to a simpler time, though there were still many challenges to be faced.
This poem could be called an all-purpose reminder. What is our main duty? What goals are we oriented towards? What work do we think it’s most important for us to accomplish in this life?
There are many references in the Pali canon to “taming” ourselves. They allude to understanding and restraining the intentions and actions motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion (lobha, dosa, moha), the unwholesome psychological roots that all of us have to deal with. Fortunately we are also heirs to generosity, kindness, and wisdom (alobha, adosa, paññā) as well, and our task is to nudge the unwholesome roots aside to make room for the wholesome roots. All this takes place within the realm of our intentions and actions of body, speech, and mind.
For most of us, the unwholesome roots have visceral power and the wholesome roots have a softer quality. So we have to train ourselves to turn away from the spectacle of our greed and anger and towards our wholesome impulses. This has a secondary effect of curbing our selfishness, our belief that we have to compete with and defeat others. The profound peace that can come from behaving ethically and kindly is in opposition to the “always needing to get ahead” impulse.
The ability to reflect is intrinsic to the Buddha’s path. Only by reflecting on our internal and external experience can we start to see the world from a different perspective, one where “I and my wants” are no longer at the center of our awareness.