Mindset: A Lesson in Patience From the Shaolin
Here’s a story my Chinese teacher told me growing up. The lessons from it have stayed with me the past two decades and I hope you can get something from it.
A young boy in China left his poor village in the country to apply to become a monk at the famed Shaolin Temple. After the long and arduous journey he was turned away at the gates of the temple. Knowing that his perseverance and patience would be tested, he sat outside the gates. Days went by and then weeks until at last one of the older monks let him in. He was interviewed and tested by the senior monk and was finally accepted as a junior monk. He was elated, and when word got back to his village everyone there was elated.
The Shaolin monks were famous for their skills at martial arts, and no one from any nearby village had ever been so honored as to be accepted at the temple.
His first night at the temple the boy could hardly contain his excitement. He dreamed of learning fabulous sword forms and acrobatics…he couldn’t wait for his first lesson the next day. When the next day finally arrived, he was ordered by the chief instructor to carry a large wooden pail down the mountainside to a stream, fill it with water, and bring it back up to the temple. The boy did as instructed, but it was a huge struggle for him to drag the heavy bucket all the way back to the temple.
When he arrived much of the water had splashed out. The instructor poured out the remaining water and ordered the boy to return, this time with the bucket full. The boy again filled the bucket and managed to get most of the water back to the temple.
“Good,” said the instructor. “Now stand beside the bucket and with your palm slap the surface of the water. Repeat that until there is no water left.”
The boy again did as instructed. He felt perhaps he was being punished for spilling the water, or further tested to see if he had the perseverance and discipline to train as a Shaolin monk. After just a few minutes his palm was red and burning from slapping the water but he continued until all the water was gone.
“Good,” said the instructor. “Now go get another bucket of water and do it again.”
This went on all day, and to the boy’s horror the next day, too. Then the next day, and the next… and soon weeks and months were going by and all the boy did was carry the big bucket of water and slap all the water out of it. Often the boy felt he was being made a fool of, sure that he had done something terribly wrong to make the instructor hate him so much. But there was no one to complain too – all the older monks were busy practicing their fancy spear forms and sword forms and acrobatics.
After a year the Buddhist holidays arrived and the head monk called the young boy into his office.
“Young man, you’ve been here for a year. Now I want you to take a break and visit your family for the holidays. I’ve notified them that you’re coming, and I’ll expect you back here in two weeks to resume your training.” When the villagers got word that the young Shaolin monk was returning they were overjoyed and decided to hold a big celebration in his honor.
When the boy arrived at his village he discovered a huge banner over the main road welcoming him home, and he found that the villagers had roped off an area in the village square for a celebration in his honor. His pride at returning as a Shaolin monk quickly faded as he realized they wanted him to demonstrate his martial arts skills in the roped off area.
He told the excited villagers that he preferred not to but they insisted and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The humiliation grew in the young boy. Indeed he had been made a fool of by the head instructor. In a whole year he hadn’t learned any martial arts at all. Now he was about to lose face in front of his entire village.
The villagers dragged him to the head table and yelled and shouted and urged him to show them some real Shaolin kungfu. He stood motionless with tears welling in his eyes and his face reddening, ashamed to tell the villagers that he had learned nothing. Finally the frustration grew to be too much.
“Leave me alone, I learned nothing!” screamed the boy as he slammed his hand down on the table. Everyone stood silent and wide-eyed for several moments.
When he slammed his hand down, he had broken the thick stone table right in half.