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Three Monks, No Water, a traditional story

The following tale is published as an exhortation to the sangha from Tulku Karzang Rinpoche.
Once there was a temple on a mountain and in the temple a young monk lived, all alone. The
young monk performed all the chores of the temple’s daily life. He swept the floors,
maintained the altars, as well as maintaining his daily practice and chanting. He had a life filled
with peace and simplicity and worked hard, always doing his best.
Since there was no water on the mountain, the young monk had the daily task also of bringing
water up the mountain from a refreshing stream below. He used a shoulder pole with a bucket
on each end to carry the water. It was heavy and the pole cut into his shoulders painfully as he
climbed back up the mountain with the full buckets. With the water he was able to keep a
garden, as well as meeting his own needs.
One day a tall skinny monk appeared, as a visitor to the temple. He was older and travel weary
and the young monk offered him refreshing water and shared his meal of vegetables and rice.
He invited the older monk to stay at the temple with him and the offer was gratefully accepted.
The next morning the two monks agreed to fetch water together and went down the mountain
with the pole and buckets. Sharing the task came with some difficulties. The pole was very short
for the two monks to carry between them and they could only carry one bucket. It slid on the
pole to bang on the young monks legs again and again. The monks argued about whose fault it
was that the method was not working well. They finally struggled to the temple, having spilled
half of the water so that there was little left for their needs and none at all for the little garden.
It happened that there was a dry, hot spell in the weather and the one bucket of water a day
was very little to provide comfort and meet the needs of the monks and the garden, which
began to fade. In their thoughts, each of the monks blamed the other for the situation of the
water, feeling the other monk was not doing his share. This affected their meditative practice
very strongly yet neither was willing to take on the work by himself and make a better job of it.
One fine day another monk, big and fat, appeared at the temple. He had many papers and
books and when offered some water, he took a big share and ate most of the dinner. He then
asked how he could be of help in the temple and wished to stay on. The other two monks
agreed, a bit reluctantly.
As they performed their meditative practices in the night each monk was privately thinking
more about the water than their practice. The young monk thought he should not have to carry
water anymore as the newcomers could take it over. He felt very happy. The skinny monk also
thought he would not carry water any longer. He felt that as he was weaker than the other two
and the eldest he should be respected by not having to do that work. The fat monk thought to
himself that he should not ruin the daily routine of the others who must be very skillful at water
carrying. Also, he said to himself, a scholar does not have to do physical work.
The next day no water was carried as each monk held onto his conception that the others
should be doing the task. The garden wilted, the sun was hot and the last of the water was
drunk. The next day, no water, the day after that, no water. On the fourth day, the temple was
silent and there was no water and no practice.
Then, a little mouse crept out and scrambled up the drapery on the incense table. He knocked
over the incense burner and the silky draperies immediately caught on fire. Smoke soon filled
the temple and the monks came running. Fire, fire, they cried, we need water! The young monk
seized the pole and the buckets and ran down the mountain. The older monks stamped out fire
and dragged the draperies out of the temple and the young monk arrived at the critical
moment with two buckets of water. The flames were quickly extinguished. For a second run the
skinny monk grabbed the pole and carried two buckets by himself. Each monk carried many
buckets of water that day and by evening as they sat in the hall, exhausted, they made an
important decision and the next day they began to work together. They brought a vat up to the
temple and the skinny monk kept it filled with water. The fat monk cleaned and restored the
temple, while the young monk tended the garden. Later, when the garden needed weeding all
three monks worked together silently. The temple again was filled with peace and harmony and
the sounds of chanting and spiritual practice.
Each monk fulfilled the role for which they were best suited and each was dependent on the
others in maintaining their own development and the harmonious condition of the temple.
Thus, they accomplished the two benefits, for self and others.