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Three Foolish Monks

by Sally Jennings

Three monks were given a treed tract of land in the country by their monastic order to found a monastery which would be self-sufficient. They were to farm a large section of their land in order to raise crops and tend livestock to provide food for the monastery. A beautiful stream ran through the property, and was to provide the water for the monastery and farm. As soon as they arrived on the property, the three monks set about clearing the land and building the monastery and outbuildings.

Now these three monks were from the city, and not well-founded in the country ways, or agriculture. They were, however, young, eager, and egotistical enough to assume they could manage the tasks assigned to them. From the time they arrived onsite, they rejected the advice of the villagers, who after all, were untrained in monastic affairs. The monks prayed daily as they went about building the monastery, but they continued to ignore the villagers. They did not ask any questions, because, after all, they were the monks, and the villagers were mere villagers.

Now the monks had come to the property in the early spring, and did much building right through May. They made a trail through the woods and built a stone crossing of the stream that divided their property in order to service the fields they were clearing on the other side of the stream from the monastery. In June they noticed that the stream was particularly high, but not understanding that this was flood season, they decided to build a permanent dam upstream from the stepping stone crossing they had established. The crossing, by the way, had been very hard to build, since very large rocks were necessary to raise the step height above the June water level. After the dam was built, they noticed that stream flow had diminished significantly downstream from the dam. They barely needed the crossing stones, the streambed was so dry by July.

From the time they arrived, the monks had continually been ill with digestive complaints. No matter which foods they ate, they still became ill. The river water smelled bad, and got worse as the summer wore on. But, the monks were determined to maximize the resources they had found and not rely on the villagers. Finally, in late July, everyone became sicker and with the diminishing water supply, very thirsty. They needed four extra village boys just to haul the daily water for the monastery and the livestock from the reservoir above the dam.

The monks decided, in order to manage the dam they had made, that they would have to find a way to measure the water.

One fine summer morning they set out on the long trek to the stream on foot, to perform the measurement. They carried little except three measuring tools, one chosen by each. They squatted down on a large stone in the middle of the stream and began their task of measuring the water flow.

The first monk had brought a fine steel ruler, exquisitely marked in both inches and centimeters. He had been limited to the size of his backpack, so the ruler was only a foot long, but he figured he could make do somehow. As the other two watched, he lowered this ruler into the rushing water. He found he had to plunge his arm farther and farther into the stream to measure the depth, until, alas, the slippery steel washed from his grasp in the current, and the ruler was swept downstream. Pulling his arm out of the water, the monk also lost his three gold rings he wore to cure his arthritis. Lost, gone forever.

The second monk, not to be outdone in fineness of instrumentation, had brought a beautifully marked bamboo stick, which was much longer than the ruler. He lowered the stick into the water, and for a brief moment, it worked. Until the current snapped it in two, at which point it caught on the monk's watch, and flipped both into the rushing stream. Lost, gone forever.

The third monk, being a low-tech type by nature, and somewhat of a procrastinator, had merely found time to grab a ball of string from the scullery shelf on the way out the monastery door. He tied a small rock to the string, and lowered it into the current. The rock drifted, pulling the string with it. Soon the entire ball of string was nearly used up, and the end was in danger of whipping out of his hands into the water. He quickly tied on the necklace of his protective saint's medal he wore around his neck at all times so he could continue to hold the end of the string. But alas, being unversed in primitive woodsmen's skills, he tied the necklace and medal on with a granny knot, and the current suddenly pulled the knot apart, and as he fumbled, the rock, string, necklace, and medal were all swept from his grasp. Lost, gone forever.

While the monks had been trying their measurement experiment, the villagers had gathered on the bank to watch. Seeking to be helpful, although their help and advice had been consistently rejected thus far, one villager pointed downstream a ways and began to talk furiously in the native dialect. The monks were not well versed in the native tongue, but through much gesturing, figured out that they were being directed downstream, around the curve of the river.

The monks had never paid attention to what the villagers were doing here in this land, or how they were doing it, so they did not know what was downstream on their own property. Following the villagers' pointing hands, the monks beat their way through the underbrush on the stream bank, until, lo and behold, they spied a large, solid bridge spanning the stream. One of the villagers, who appeared as if by magic via another route on the stream bed, seemed to be a leader of the group. He pushed and pointed the trio of monks to the pillars on the bridge. There, under the bridge deck, were many markings on the pillar of the bridge showing the water height.

The monks were aghast. The villagers were perhaps not total primitives after all. There had been a measurement standard in place all along, built many years ago, and accurately marked through the seasons. Furthermore, it turned out the bridge itself was part of a sophisticated road system that served the village and surrounding areas. A nearby lake with freshwater springs, much closer to the monastery than this stream provided the entire region with an unending supply of clean, fresh water. The bridge markings showed water flow, a system the villagers used to know when to avoid drinking the stream water, since the markings told them when the beavers upstream were building dams. And they knew beaver water carried the parasite giardia.

The monks had known little because they had asked little. Instead, they assumed they would import their techniques and apply their urban knowledge to this rural task of building a monastery and farm on raw land. They were eager, and young, and but unsuitable in temperament and inexperienced in skills to successfully perform the task at hand. They had the right connections to inherit the task from head office, but it appeared, little or no supervision by those wiser than themselves, and little if any divine guidance. Their strategy proved incorrect, their measurement tools proved ineffective, and their communication skills proved insufficient. In addition, they ignored the advice of the local experts, the villagers, whom they perceived as untaught, unsophisticated, and incompetent.

In the end, through further tortuous questioning and gesturing, the monks found out that the villagers had another form of the same faith as the monks' that turned out to be more than adequate to the monks' in every respect. The monks consequently noticed their work was redundant in every way. They covered up their inadequacies enough to be reassigned by head office somewhere else, and the monastery buildings were turned over to the villagers. Once the dam on the stream was removed and the stream habitat restored, the villagers did a superb job of running the former monastery complex as a ecological and spiritual retreat center.

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