Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Zen & the Art of Sweeping


My trusty friend Ajarn Broom, always at hand to advise on how best to clean up the mind.

There's a lot to be said for sweeping. Perhaps on a site devoted to Buddhism, it might surprise some that space is given up to this subject, but please suspend judgment for a moment or two, and then perhaps you'll understand. You see, Buddhism and sweeping have a history. They're old flames that have been involved with each other for many years. In the two Buddhist traditions this author knows best, Theravada & Zen, sweeping is an established form of practice, as much as vipassana or zazen. It isn't as glamorous as the latter, and even good old mindful walking is better known in both traditions than sweeping. But, from Zen masters to novice Theravdin monks, sweeping has its place, much appreciated.

Even sweeping must wait sometimes. Easy there, fella!

On a recent visit to the nearby International Forest Monastery here in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, I took up the broom as my practice. Not that it was my first choice, mind you. I'd looked in vain for a quiet place to do some mindful walking (also known as walking meditation), but to no avail. The monks & lay guests were busy around the temple grounds sweeping and cleaning and stuff. And, as the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. I grabbed a broom and decided to brush all around the main hall, which the forest had covered in leaves, dirt and objects I couldn't begin to describe. So, with broom in hand, I looked down at the ground and mindfully swept  away all before me (making sure not to deliberately harm any insects). Where did all this material get swept? Why, back to where it came from, of course - the forest. Full circle.

The back of the Buddha hall immaculately swept!

Sweeping in this way can be a real pleasure, and a nice way to practice mindfulness, too. Of course, if your profession is a road sweep or housemaid, and you're expected to sweep under pressure & at super speed, it's understandable that it may not be the most relaxing & enjoyable of tasks for you. But, even when under pressure, if we apply some mindfulness to the situation, it can & will become a more pleasurable one. This I can vouch for with regards to my current profession as teacher in a secondary school, and it was also true in my former job in a psychiatric hospital in the UK. (Sometimes the whole world seems to be a 'loony bin,' but that's another topic altogether!)

A butterfly's wing - impermanence ever on display.

Therefore, whether in a temple, at home or work, mindful sweeping can be an excellent way to cultivate mindfulness. The mind becomes concentrated on its object - the broom - and hence both are more useful tools. For, if sweeping is done without heedfulness, we're always overlooking something, and leaving ourselves open to that most grating of criticisms, "You've missed a bit!" Moreover, a mind that can be concentrated easily is such a useful thing, even without a broom in the hand. Being able to concentrate - especially in a relaxed state of mind - enables a person to do whatever they're doing more successfully. It reduces mistakes and clumsiness - and again these author can claim this without fear of contradiction. So, why not take up the broom? Impress the parents, spouse, or boss by voluntarily - and mindfully - sweeping up the dirty stuff and leaving everything gleaming in the light of mindfulness!

The front of the hall after mindful sweeping - not bad, eh?

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