I just heard this phrase from a story of Acharn Chah. He was criticizing the attitude of lazy practitioners who hide their faults under the pretense of practice.
If we observe a water buffalo, it seems to tolerate all sorts of insects buzzing around them and would simply stand in water and do nothing much about their situations.
In the story, Acharn Chah visited one of his students and noticed that all his belongings were heaped into a corner of his meditation hut. When Acharn Chah enquired the reason and his disciple replied that the roof leaks when it rains. Acharn asked why he did not repair the roof and his student replied that he was practicing forbearance and equanimity. That reply earned the water buffalo retort.
Many of us may have committed similar faults during our practice. We mistaken our faults to be a practice or we hide our flaws under the pretense of some lofty Buddhist concepts / ideals. This is very bad because it results in the magnification of our flaws instead. We make such mistake out of ignorance, our inability to self-reflect, or just out of a huge ego. That is why it is important for us to have wise counsels from good teachers and Dharma Friends.
In another example, Chinese practitioners were gleefully boasting about their strict vegetarian diet and criticizing Buddhists who are non-vegetarian. That earned a critique from Master Hui Li who said that the path to enlightenment is not solely dependent on one’s diet; otherwise all the cows in the world would have been enlightened!
In recent times, youths in China started to quote Buddhist verses about letting go when they promote the culture of “lying flat (躺平). Faced with long hours and stiff competition at work, youngsters advocated an attitude of non competition. “Instead of striving for a better future, why not stay put and live simply?”, they said. From the surface, it seems to be advocating contentment but if we drill deeper, the underlying cause of such attitude is actually due to frustration, resentment, laziness and giving up. Letting go in Buddhism has nothing to do with giving up on life.
In Acharn Chah’s sermon, letting go means to let go of our bad habit. We let go of laziness if our mind tends to be lazy. We let go of agitation, if we tend towards agitation. Buddhist practice is correcting our flaws and perfecting our virtues. Unfortunately, we tend to fool ourselves instead. Thus, we convince ourselves that we are practicing contentment when we are just being lazy.
If we look at the Buddha’s life, we should see how Buddha continue to live diligently after Enlightenment. He did not just sit in a monastery and wait for people to serve Him. He travelled far and wide to educate others. He begged for alms and tidied His own belongings. He walked untiringly to reach out to people. All these actions are famously recorded in the Diamond Sutra where it was recounted how Buddha dressed appropriately and went our for alms, return for meals and washed up after Himself, thereafter.
Many people were puzzled, why a Mahayana sutra that teaches the lofty concept of emptiness (aka enlightenment) has this daily affair as an opening verse. I think the intention is to give us a precautionary heads-up. Emptiness and enlightenment doesn’t turn us into self-entitled Karens? We do not act like statues on the Altar; awaiting people to bow and make offerings to us. Nor do we lose our ability to live our life with dignity. Neither do we lose respect for social etiquette; No, we do not become crazy after enlightenment.
In short, we need to be constantly self-reflecting. Ensure that we are really practicing and not lying to ourselves.
May all be well and happy.