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Picking Up Leaves

Recently, I’ve come across a few disheartening posts on social media in which people ridicule certain wholesome actions as being insignificant because “they’re too small to make any real effect.”

Combined with the recent weather as winter nears, I thought I’d share a story on this topic.

There was once a monk chatting with his teacher in the temple courtyard, when suddenly, a gust of wind sent tree leaves flying all over the ground.

The teacher began picking up the leaves, one by one, and placing them into his pocket.

His student asked, “Why are you picking up the leaves? The wind is going to blow again and there will be even more leaves on the ground later.”

The teacher replied, “Each leaf I pick up now is one less leaf on the ground. That way, even though they’ll accumulate, it will still be less than if I hadn’t picked them up at all. The same goes for our delusions. Although distracted thoughts may abound and it seems like there’s no end to them, if we are able to notice them and purify them one by one, there will ultimately be less delusions floating around.”

There are many instances in which we overlook small deeds as we go about our lives. We might take the elevator instead of the stairs, wasting a small bit of electricity, or we might leave the faucet running while brushing our teeth, wasting a small bit of water that could mean life or death for someone else in another part of the world. We might entertain thoughts of desire—perhaps for a donut (I’ve been craving donuts since coming to China… the ones here simply aren’t the same as a hot and fluffy Krispy Kreme original)—or thoughts of momentary spite when things don’t go our way.

These minor transgressions, while seemingly harmless on their own, can easily build up. Just as how one snowflake is barely noticeable yet a mass of billions of snowflakes can shut down a city, these small deeds can build up and create significant hurdles in our lives and especially in our practice.

In the Ksitigarbha Sutra, there’s a line that goes (paraphrased): “do not ignore small transgressions and think they are without fault. Accumulated, they are deeper than the great ocean, taller than Mt. Meru, and can obstruct the holy path.”

On the same note, we should not ignore small virtues either. Whenever I encounter somebody struggling to be a full-time vegetarian, I tell them it’s great that they’re trying, and even if they’re only able to cut out one meal per week, that’s already one grateful sentient being. What matters is that we’re constantly improving. Those who are already stable in their practice should be wary of skipping a day, but those who haven’t started a practice should understand that it’s perfectly fine to start one step at a time.

There was another similar story I encountered on social media in which thousands of crabs are washed up along the shore, and a person slowly throws them back into the ocean one by one. An onlooker walks by and says, “There are thousands of crabs, you can’t possibly make a difference.”

While throwing a crab back into the ocean, the young crab-thrower replies, “It made a difference to that one.”

When we offer food to others, we’re not ending world hunger, but we’re eliminating one instance of hunger. While most of us are unable to single-handedly wipe out social issues, we can do a lot within our ability to lighten the load.

The disheartening post I saw on social media made it seem like there’s no point in making small changes. It was an all or nothing scenario—either make no changes whatsoever, or make drastically significant changes.

But change isn’t a one time thing. In this impermanent world, there are plenty of opportunities for change. By beginning with one area, we can slowly build momentum and eventually change other aspects of our habits.

However, beginning the process of change does hold one potential downfall. It becomes easier to be complacent and think, “oh, I already changed X, so it’s okay if I don’t change Y.” If we’re aiming for awakening, then we cannot stop anything short of perfecting the actions from our body, speech, and mind.

With that in mind, be wary of every action. Is there something that can be improved? There always is, just as there are always leaves to pick up. But as endless as the problems might seem, know that each problem resolved—no matter how small—is one less problem to deal with later.

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