Filed in Work, Zen (Chan)

The Dust Beyond the Cushion

From dishes to dusting, from window-washing to bed-making, housekeeping provides an everyday opportunity for practice.

Gary Thorp

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© Don Farber
If you sit long enough, your cushion will become an island amid a sea of dust. Thistles will overtake the yard. Things will begin to fall apart. At some point, you’ve got to clean house. The idea of ritual chores is intriguing to some, but for many of us, housekeeping has become work as rut. The thought of picking up a mop or a scrub brush is met with apprehension. This is where work-practice comes in: with the right approach, these daily chores can be done ably, even artfully. As with sitting, the important thing is to begin.

By some accounts, it was routine house and yard work that saved Zen Buddhism from almost certain oblivion. In the eighth and ninth centuries, Chinese Buddhist temples filled with monks who sought escape from military conscription, family problems, tax collectors, and indentured servitude. Sitting on a cushion and occasionally reading a Buddhist text were vastly preferable alternatives to the realities of outside life. As the story goes, it was Ch’an master Pai Chang who single-handedly came to the rescue. With his “no work, no food” edict, he immersed monks and teachers alike in the busyness of growing vegetables and performing routine temple maintenance. In this way, he revitalized life in the temple community and energized Zen practice. The temples bustled with daily activity, and any slackers were asked to leave. The energy created during communal work periods had a direct, dynamic effect on the monks’ zazen practice and honed the teachers’ skills. Even the quiet periods of the day were imbued with renewed meaning.

In practice centers today, when we sweep cobwebs from the rafters of the meditation hall or wipe spilled water from the kitchen sink, we are experiencing a vital, direct, and immediate connection to Pai Chang and all the teachers who followed him. With a stubborn but kindly persistence, our predecessors eventually reach every corner of our lives.

I once lived in an apartment so small I had to step outside into the adjacent hallway to open my oven door. There was room only for a bed, a radio, and a cardboard carton of books. I kept my clothes in a closet down the hall. Even in this confined space, there was housework to be done. Indeed, the demands of maintenance follow us wherever we find ourselves, from palaces to prison cells.

The Italian poet Cesare Pavese wrote in his journal that we never remember days, we remember only moments. And Zen teachers tell us that this moment is the only one we’ll ever have. Perhaps this is a better way of looking at enlightenment. It’s not achieving or gathering something. Nor is it losing or overcoming something else. It’s simply stepping outside of the room you’re in and allowing the oven door to open. It’s checking the ceiling overhead and cleaning up the spills beneath your feet.

The best tool is often the one nearest to your hand, and cleaning the place where you live can be intimate and immediate. When Pai Chang demolished the traditional hierarchies within his temple, encouraged daily activity, and chastised the lackadaisical behavior of his monks, he was after more than just a clean house. He sought a method of practice that could utilize both meditation and activity inside a daily setting. Even now there is nothing more practical than learning how to care for the place in which you live. Maintaining your home can create a radical and radiating effect; however, you should not be misled. You are not a dark-robed Cinderella who must scour pots, carry out the ashes from the wood stove, and peel root vegetables in order to experience love, truth, and beauty forever after. The truth of the matter awaits you in the very acts of scouring, carrying, and peeling. With practice, there is a critical point where resentment toward your work lightens, where you begin to settle into yourself.

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chrishazzard41's picture

I love my rituals, washing the dishes, sweeping my studio, sharpening the tools. I would love to send this to my (ex) son in law who says he has no timefor this. He doesn't cook, he doesn't change his sheets, his apple tree is ful of coddlin moth. He no longer has time to read a book. I don't think I will send though, he will not read it so such an action would be unwise.

hostsipes's picture

This fits with the eightfold path as well. Doing chores is one kind of Right Livelihood.

jjwalker7730's picture

"Go mindfully, mindfully go. Small function, Great function.All function is Great function. " Reverend Don Gilbert (Ta Hui, Great Monk), Zen Master

Dominic Gomez's picture

For Buddhists, faith equals daily life. Such is non-dualism. Each day's mundane activities are nirvana, and vice-versa.

junechun's picture

A good reminder. Thich Nhat Hahn's book,"The miracle of mindfulness" is all about being mindful,
doing the dishes, walking, driving, etc. It's not easy to be mindfull all the time, and that's why we need
reminders like these. Thanks.