The very distinguished abbot of a huge Zen monastery wrote this little article that said, “In Zen, there are only three things. First, cleaning. Second, chanting. And third, devotion. That’s all.” Many Americans go to Zen hoping to get enlightened, but they don’t want to do the cleaning.
~ Taitetsu Unno
A funny thing happened on the way to enlightenment: echoes of my old-time religion began seeping to the surface.
For those who aren’t aware, a key component of Zen practice is a ritualized sort of cleaning, or soji. The Austin Zen Center’s online glossary defines soji as “a brief period of mindful work; temple cleaning.” Typical morning programs there close with a few minutes of silent employment at such tasks as straightening up the meditation hall, sweeping and vacuuming various spaces, and scrubbing bathrooms.
I’m not sure when it hit me, but at some point I realized that my new practice of Zen was bringing home the truth of the old saying about cleanliness being next to godliness.
This came as a bit of a shock, as godliness is really not something to which I aspire. And yet, somehow, I found something resembling it in dusty floors and dirty toilets—even my cat’s litter box, as I blogged about over a year ago. While explaining anything related to Zen is problematic—given both my inexperience and the fact that it’s, well, Zen—I’d like to at least try to capture what I mean here.
I suppose mindfulness can be defined many ways, but to me it boils down to one word: attention. As I experience it, this word attention involves immersing oneself in all the myriad, minute details of a given moment—how the body feels, the distribution of weight and intersection with surfaces such as floors, chairs, computer keys. Walking meditation, beyond providing a respite from long periods sitting, affords an opportunity to observe the many elements that comprise moving one’s body through space. Each footfall, each roll of each ankle, maintaining one’s balance throughout—everything is an invitation to practice, to live in the literal, concrete, specific moment.
And then there’s soji. It’s not that one forgets oneself, exactly, but with practice a degree of focus develops such that one joins with the task, the moment; the broom, the sponge, movement, the short amount of time allotted, together bring a brief release from the world of thoughts, longings, aversions, and worries. Ironically, by diving into the details, it’s possible to gain at least a passing, and liberating, sense of oneness.
In his book Infinite Circle, Bernie Glassman uses the image of cleaning to explain a nuance of the bodhisattva precepts as not commandments, but rather guidelines for practice, a map of the Buddha way. Imagine these precepts as a glass, he says: we can aspire not to break them, but in the very act of living we will continually violate them. Practice, then, becomes a matter of cleaning off the smudges or traces of our actions, a regular atonement through “taking better care of the glass.”
This is why such an emphasis is placed on cleaning in a Zen monastery. It doesn’t matter whether you think anything is dirty or not, just clean! Cleaning is going on constantly. Becoming this process of cleaning, the Zen student is inevitably changed, as are her surroundings and the people she comes into contact with. This process of cleaning goes on from the very beginning, and at the same time things happen that make life a mess again. This is endless. We never get to the point of no longer needing to clean the glass.
Cleanliness requires some degree of attention to one’s surroundings, some degree of connection and harmony. I may not know much about godliness or buddhahood or anything like that. But maybe, just maybe—thanks in part to Zen cleaning practice—I’m getting a little better at paying attention. And this has been a tremendous gift indeed.
A student said to Master Ichu, “Please write for me something of great wisdom. Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: “Attention.”
The student said, “Is that all?” The master wrote, “Attention. Attention.”
The student became irritable. “That doesn’t seem profound or subtle to me.” In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, “Attention. Attention. Attention.”
In frustration, the student demanded, “What does this word attention mean?” Master Ichu replied, “Attention means attention.”
~ Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special: Living Zen