From dishes to dusting, from window-washing to bed-making, housekeeping provides an everyday opportunity for practice.
Zen is sometimes best defined by what occurs around its edges. In a formal setting we can observe Zen students sitting on cushions, chanting sutras, or offering incense. Most of us recognize this as being “Zen-like” and know that it is serious business. But what else is there to this behavior? What is Zen’s less formal side? When do “serious practice” and “real life” either join or separate? And just how serious do we have to be?
Whenever I cook dinner, one of my favorite actions is deglazing the pan. With a small amount of liquid and an adequate level of heat, a cook can transform the burned crust of residual ingredients on the bottom of a skillet into a flavorful and free-flowing elixir. That which was hard, stubborn, and resistant becomes soft and unstuck. This is also a workable recipe for Zen gravy: with a fluid balance of meditation and work practice, we can allow ourselves to become unstuck. And by “unstuck” I mean to say independent. We are indeed connected to all things, but we should feel free to move about, free to join others, free to examine preconceptions and misinterpretations, and free to find our Buddha-nature as we engage in the day’s most common actions and events.
Housework is a chance to approach your life with integrity. Washing soiled laundry and cleaning out cupboards are not duties given to you as acts of penance. Each forms a vital part of your well-being. Each activity you perform is an opportunity to observe the ways mind and body can work together and how they can sometimes conflict. The mind can spend hours worrying about a simple task that will take the body only minutes to perform. Although the music may be long, the dance itself is short.
Through art, a painter can make the ordinary come alive. As Zen students, we try to bring this kind of relevance into each moment of our lives, into this one moment that contains all moments. In this way, we allow the ordinary to enliven us. Sometimes this is successful, sometimes not, but the work itself goes on. Persistence is one of the major virtues in both the artist and the unenlightened.
By fully engaging in each of the day’s activities, we can help keep the words of Pai Chang alive. Whenever you address the dust and clutter close by, you take a step toward increasing your understanding. Ultimately, this one step can lead you toward that crucial point in your practice when you realize that toothpaste in the sink and coffee-stained linens are not just here to ruin your day. As you encounter each of these situations directly, with patience and good humor, you’ll discover renewed respect for your work. And you’ll approach this dusty world with a mind clear as glass.
Gary Thorp has been a Zen student since 1960. A former bookseller and jazz pianist, he is a full-time writer and lives with his wife in Marin County, California. His latest book, Caught in Fading Light: Mountain Lions, Zen Masters, and Wild Nature, will be published in October.