The Well Made Wheel

The Buddha’s teachings are rich with wonderful imagery and inventive metaphors that help us not only to relate the teachings to our own ordinary experiences, but also help us to reimagine an experience from a completely different perspective. I found another one of these rich images last week in a sutta that I hadn’t come across before, which speaks to me on many levels about what we need to keep our practice going in the right direction.

It is quite an unusual sutta because the Buddha is talking directly about one of his previous lives, something that is rarely found in the suttas in the nikayas. In the sutta the Buddha recalls a time when he was a chariot maker. He is asked by a king, Pacetana, to make him a pair of wheels for his chariot, to be completed in time for a battle that is going to happen in six months time. The Buddha, as the chariot maker, agrees to this commission, but with six days to go before the battle he has only completed one wheel. King Pacetana asks him if he will be able to complete the second wheel in six days, and the chariot maker replies that he will. He presents the king with the two wheels, but the king is a little confused:

‘What is the difference, friend chariotmaker, between the wheel that took six months less six days to complete and the one that took six days to complete? I do not see any difference between them.’—‘There is a difference, lord. Observe the difference.’

Then the chariotmaker rolled the wheel that took six days to finish. It rolled as far as the impetus carried it, and then it wobbled and fell to the ground. But the wheel that took six months less six days to finish rolled as far as the impetus carried it and then stood still as if fixed on an axle. trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The king then asks why this is the case and the chariot maker replies:

‘The wheel that took six days to finish, lord, has a rim that is crooked, faulty, and defective; spokes that are crooked, faulty, and defective; and a nave that is crooked, faulty, and defective. For this reason, it rolled as far as the impetus carried it and then it wobbled and fell to the ground. But the wheel that took six months less six days to finish has a rim without crookedness, faults, and defects; it has spokes without crookedness, faults, and defects; and it has a nave that is without crookedness, faults, and defects. For this reason, it rolled as far as the impetus carried it and then stood still as if fixed on an axle.’ trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi

At this point the Buddha makes his big reveal to the monks he was telling the story to, and explains to us the meaning of this particular metaphor:

“It may be, bhikkhus, that you think: ‘On that occasion the chariotmaker was someone else.’ But you should not think in such a way. On that occasion, I myself was the chariotmaker. Then I was skilled in crookedness, faults, and defects in wood. But now I am the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One, (1) skilled in crookedness, faults, and defects of the body; (2) skilled in crookedness, faults, and defects of speech; and (3) skilled in crookedness, faults, and defects of mind.

“Any bhikkhu or bhikkhunī who has not abandoned crookedness, faults, and defects of the body, speech, and mind has fallen down from this Dhamma and discipline, just as the wheel that was finished in six days fell to the ground.

“Any bhikkhu or bhikkhunī who has abandoned crookedness, faults, and defects of the body, speech, and mind is established in this Dhamma and discipline, just as the wheel that was finished in six months less six days remained standing.

“Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: ‘We will abandon crookedness, faults, and defects of the body; we will abandon crookedness, faults, and defects of speech; we will abandon crookedness, faults, and defects of the mind.’ It is in this way that you should train yourselves.” trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The image of a well made wheel that will roll straight and true speaks about our practice in many ways; about the importance of taking our time to develop, about the importance of working out our defilements, and the importance of paying attention to detail. For me though, it particularly points to the times when our practice loses its drive. The well made wheel eventually comes to a halt but it remains upright even when it is stationary. The badly made wheel can only stay upright with some momentum behind it, and as soon as that energy is gone it falls to the ground, it simply cannot hold itself up. Our practice can fall down too if we haven’t put enough work into it, or if we are riding along on a wave of enthusiasm; as soon as some obstacle comes along that disrupts our forward momentum, everything just flops to the ground like the badly made wheel.

I’m not disparaging anyone who has had this experience, I pretty sure most of us have had times when our practice is being carried along by our infectious enthusiasm, and we are making so much progress so quickly that we feel like our feet are hardly touching the ground. On the contrary, I think these times are an important part of our development because we can learn many lessons from them, not least the important lesson of never taking your eye off the ball because you think you’ve ‘got it cracked’. To borrow a useful phrase from the bible, pride comes before a fall, and it rarely ever fails to happen that no sooner do you think you have got it all sussed than the universe presents you with the opportunity to see that you haven’t.

I see the times in our practice when our wheel comes to a grinding halt and flops over as not reasons to despair but instead as incredibly useful and visceral reminders to keep doing the work. Finding ways to maintain our momentum on the long hard yards of the practice is a recurring theme in my blog posts, and I see this as a reflection of what is needed to cultivate a sustained practice that will need to stretch across years and decades. Buddhism, like so many spiritual practices, is no quick fix. I occasionally joke that I will write a Buddhist self help book entitled “Change your life in just 10 easy years”, because in reality it takes a long time to start to get major transformations from the practice. If you want to follow a practice seriously you will need more than a packed lunch to sustain you.

If you read any of the teachings of the stern Thai ajahns like Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Lee, or Maha Boowa, you might be struck by the lack of flowery language, self care routines, or uplifting themes compared to more mainstream Buddhist infused mindfulness and meditation teachings. It’s all work, hard work, effort, diligence, no slacking, no shirking, keep going til the end from these guys; and who are we to quibble about this approach when many believe that they completed the path to enlightenment? When our practice hits a pothole and flops to the ground this is a powerful lesson to us that we haven’t yet completed the work, there is still more to be done; and if we internalise some stern Thai ajahns then we can dust ourselves off, remember their advice, and get back to the hard work.

The Buddha, just like the stern Thai ajahns, points out to us that we can only make progress by doing the work, and in this sutta from the Chinese Āgamas he gives us another metaphor of a chicken hoping that her eggs will hatch, while not taking the actions that would lead to that happening:

Without cultivating the means that bring success, yet a monk makes the mental aspiration: ‘May I eradicate the influxes and may my mind attain liberation’—it should be known that such a monk is certainly not able to attain the eradication of the influxes and be liberated. Why is that? It is because of not cultivating. Not cultivating what? That is, not cultivating the establishments of mindfulness, the right efforts, the bases for supernormal power, the faculties, the powers, the awakening factors, and the noble eightfold path.

It is just as a brooding hen who has laid many eggs, but who is unable to shelter and incubate them, regulating their changing temperature at the proper time. Yet she wishes: ‘May the chicks with their beaks and claws peck the egg and hatch on their own, emerging safely from the eggshells. It should be known that the chicks do not have the power on their own that would enable them to emerge safely from the eggshells by means of their beaks and claws. Why is that? It is because the mother hen has not been able to shelter and incubate them, regulating their temperature at the proper time and thereby nurturing the chicks. trans. Bhikkhu Anālayo

When our eggs don’t hatch, or our wheel falls over, the question we need to ask ourselves isn’t necessarily ‘what did I do wrong?’ but is something more like ‘what didn’t work?’ or ‘what was missing?’ The Buddhist understanding of the world is one of causes and conditions; if something didn’t turn out as expected it means that the conditions weren’t present to cause it to happen. This is a situation that not only we find ourselves in, even monks practicing under the Buddha himself hit these kinds of hurdles:

“… a certain bhikkhu approached his own preceptor and said to him: “Bhante, my body now seems as if it has been drugged, I have become disoriented, and the teachings are no longer clear to me. Dullness and drowsiness obsess my mind. I live the spiritual life dissatisfied and have doubt about the teachings.”

The Blessed One said:

“So it is, bhikkhu! (1) When one is unguarded in the doors of the sense faculties, (2) immoderate in eating, (3) and not intent on wakefulness; (4) when one lacks insight into wholesome qualities (5) and does not dwell intent on the endeavor to develop the aids to enlightenment in the earlier and later phases of the night, one’s body seems as if it had been drugged, one becomes disoriented, and the teachings are no longer clear to one. Dullness and drowsiness obsess one’s mind. One lives the spiritual life dissatisfied and has doubt about the teachings.

“Therefore, bhikkhu, you should train yourself thus: (1) ‘I will be guarded in the doors of the sense faculties, (2) moderate in eating, (3) and intent on wakefulness; (4) I will have insight into wholesome qualities (5) and will dwell intent on the endeavor to develop the aids to enlightenment in the earlier and later phases of the night.’ It is in such a way, bhikkhu, that you should train yourself.” trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi

What is important to note in the Buddha’s reply is that he identifies what the missing conditions were that are causing the problem. He doesn’t tell the monk to do some exercise to liven up a bit, or lecture him about the teachings and why he shouldn’t have doubts. He recognises that the state the monk is in is because he has not been following the basic instructions that create the conditions that allow us to practice; in the same way the badly made wheel was full of defects, he has allowed too many foibles to remain unchecked and his practice has fallen over.

If our practice falls over then it just means that something further needs to be cultivated, and I see these ‘failures’ as an integral part of our development. Thinking that we have got it right, only to fall over at the next hurdle is, to me, fundamental to our learning. By going through this process over and over again we can experience two things: firstly we identify the areas we need to cultivate more, and secondly we have to keep letting go of ideas that we thought were right to make space for new ideas and perspectives which will allow us to push our development on a little bit further.

When we take up the practice we have to do so with the willingness to let go of everything we think we know, because according to the teachings we cannot truly see reality until the path has been completed. That means any of our thoughts could be a delusion, even the ones we feel most certain of, so the more we go through this process of thinking we’ve got it only to find that we were wrong, the more we learn to not pay so much attention to that feeling of certainty, and the easier we find it to give up those ideas and feelings that seem the most convincing but ultimately turn out to be no different to any other idea we have.

People sometimes have big insight experiences, and change their whole lives because they feel like they have seen a deeper reality, but they never make any progress after that point because they won’t let go of that big experience. They become convinced that the experience they had was the ‘real truth’, and that they could be happy if they could get back to that experience again. But sadly that never happens, they spend the rest of their lives chasing after an elusive shadow of an experience that they cannot ever get back, and in the meantime they fail to develop their practice any further.

That is one of the things I find so grounding about the stern ajahns of the Thai Forest tradition, they aren’t impressed by anything; so you saw a radiant deva? That’s nice, now get back on your cushion and meditate. So you floated up to the sky and cried rainbows? That’s good, now here’s a brush, the toilets need cleaning. I can’t speak for other Buddhist traditions, but day 1 lesson 1 of Theravada is ‘whatever comes up in your mind, don’t believe it.’ It doesn’t mean much to you on day 1, but at some point further down the line when your head feels like it disappeared while you were meditating it is useful to already know how to respond to that experience – just don’t believe it.

But the metaphor of the well made wheel has an encouraging element in it too. The well made wheel stands up on its own, even when it isn’t moving, and if our practice is developed enough then we can have some faith in it to remain upright even when we feel like we have ground to a halt. A well made wheel doesn’t need much effort to get it rolling again, and likewise our good practice won’t need much work for us to get back on track.

It is impossible to have a practice that is all sunshine and roses, there are always going to be tough times, lean patches, and spectacular failures. So with this in mind we can work as hard as we can while the going is good, and try to do enough to keep our wheel upright when the momentum runs out. But even when the wheel does fall over, we know that it just means there is still work to do, so we pick up the wheel and work out a few more of the defects. It’s a long and repetitive process, often with very little feedback:

It is just as a skilled master or a skilled master’s apprentice who regularly takes hold of the handle of a hatchet with his hand. Taking hold of it continuously, tiny impressions of the hand and the fingers become gradually visible in places. Even if he is not aware of the tiny impressions on the handle of the hatchet, the impressions become visible in places. trans. Bhikkhu Anālayo

Change will happen over time, as long as we keep applying ourselves. But of course we can get so used to not being able to recognise if changes are or are not happening that sometimes the only way we know that there is still something to work on is when we end up lying in the dirt. Buddhist practice is about cultivating the middle way, whether our wheel stands up or whether it falls down, we continue just the same. Once we have dusted ourselves off and picked up our fallen wheel then perhaps we can embrace it as an opportune reminder to keep up the hard work; and if our wheel stays upright, then perhaps we can recognise that it is the result of hard work, and embrace that too as a reminder to keep up our efforts.

Photo by Jon Cartagena on Unsplash

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