Two memories really got me thinking about Zen and mopping floors this week. But before I go into that, I want to talk about one aspect of Zen. You’ve heard the expression “Chop wood, carry water.” Zen’s flavor is earthy and this saying captures that perfectly. This simple phase could just as well say, “Mop floors, wash dishes.” One thing this saying does is give full-throated encouragement to a Zen practitioner who aims to cultivate mindful attention in everything she does. This is how we practice. In addition, the saying is encouragement to unhesitatingly do what needs doing. Without doubt or fear. Mopping floor Zen is down-to-earth, affectionate, and intimate.
Mopping Floors, Shoveling Snow
Like I said, two memories really got me thinking about Zen and mopping floors this week. One of these memories is of an old Zen story. The other is of deeds done by my spiritual friend and teacher, John Bailes. To me, this conjunction of memories is all about the affection we share in Zen practice. Here’s the old Zen story.
It goes like this: When Chen-chi was inaugurated abbot, one of the senior monks at the monastery asked him, “Golden flowers sprang from the earth on the day the Buddha began teaching. Now that you’re abbot, what auspicious signs can we expect?” To which Chen-chi replied, “I swept the snow from the gate this morning.” Ah, how lovely, an abbot shoveling snow.
Correspondingly, John helped us move our meditation cushions, alter, and room dividers from the Gloucester UU Church to the Lanesville Community Center last Saturday. The move had to be done before the practice period entering ceremony. In helping out, John demonstrated his affection for practice and maturity as a teacher. And, when He joyfully mopped the LCC floor I was deeply pleased to know a teacher who does not feel too grand to share in the “lowliest” chores. Thanks, John!
The Other Shore
Finally, mopping floors and intimacy. During this practice period some of us are discussing Thich Nhat Hanh’s new translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra.
“Shunyata” is the central teaching in this sutra. The concept is expressed in a Sanskrit term that’s been variously translated as “emptiness”, “boundlessness”, or “openness.” The Heart Sutra teaches that from a momentary daydream to the oldest mountain, whatever can appear in experience can be fully appreciated as boundless, open, transparent, empty.
The Heart Sutra’s shunyata way of looking at things is not the way of commonsense. On the contrary, commonsense encourages us to regard mountains and everything else as separate, discrete, independently existing, standalone items.
In the shunyata way we adopt the working hypothesis that things are not isolated, independent, standalone ball bearing like bits. Rather, we explore them as integrated yet highly complex processes. We regard them as identifiable flows in a vast process like universe. Furthermore, we learn that each apparent “thing” we see, hear, or think can be viewed as more like a river than a static, unchanging thing. And that’s because each “thing” relies on and is causally related to thousands of other “things” in order to appear as the thing it appears to be.
The True Heart of Understanding
What’s more, according to the Heart Sutra, anyone who has a deep experience of shunyata, of the absolute inter-dependent openness of things, becomes filled with compassion and freed from mental hesitation and fear. One consequence of this shift in experience is noted by the poet and Zen teacher Peter Levitt. Here’s what he writes in his forward to The Other Shore.
“Intimacy, is the heart of the teaching contained in this book. In the thirteenth century, Zen Master Eihei Dogen taught that enlightenment is just intimacy with all things. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching is the same. When we allow the true heart of understanding to arise within us, such intimacy is not only possible, it is the spontaneous expression of what we and all things are.”
When we allow the true heart of understanding to arise within us, we’re always ready to lend a hand. We’re never reluctant to mop the floor or to shovel the snow at the gate. We become compassionate and fearless in this understanding. Furthermore, we’re no longer fixated on questions like, “Is what I’m about to do above my place in life?” We’re no longer concerned to ask, “Is what I’m considering beneath my standing in life?” We don’t wonder so much what the neighbors will think. Simply, we’re willing to help out wherever we can.
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I hope you have a wonderful week!