Sweeping Changes: Discovering the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks

Sweeping Changes: Discovering the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks

by Gary Thorp


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Sweeping Changes: Discovering the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks by Gary Thorp

Your home is an extension of yourself; therefore, when your home is in turmoil, your life is in turmoil. However, when you attend to your home, you begin to feel less hurried and more in tune with the world around you. There is delight and calm to be found in the midst of washing dishes or changing the water in a vase of flowers; there is pleasure to be experienced in the repetitions of daily life.

In Sweeping Changes, Gary Thorp shows how the principles of Zen can bring harmony and peace to your life at home. You don’t need special surroundings or to sit quietly in a formal posture to achieve the tranquillity of Zen; you can find it anywhere–in the action of dusting a shelf, organizing your closet, or feeding your cat. As Thorp conveys in sparkling prose, many everyday activities provide an opportunity for Zen practice, satisfaction, and spiritual growth. Whether you live in a small room, an apartment, or a palace, this delightful, insightful book will not only change your feelings toward housekeeping, it will help you see your home, and your place in it, in a new and nurturing light.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767907736
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication date: 09/11/2001
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 7.20(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Gary Thorp began studying Zen in 1960 and was later lay-ordained in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. A former bookseller and jazz pianist, he is a full-time writer, doing research in marine biology and the ecology of mountain lions. He lives with his wife, Lura, in Marin County.

Read an Excerpt


Crossing the Threshold

In ancient times, men and women protected their homes be festooning their doorways with flower garlands, affixing mistle toe or pine boughs to the lintel overhead, or rubbing the door posts with garlic or other potent herbal mixtures. The custom of a groom carrying his bride across the threshold of their home also has its roots in ancient agriculture. It is believed to have had some connection to "threshing," or using the feet to separate usable seeds and grains from husks and stems, dried straw and chaff. The origins of the word thresh are identical to those of turn, contour, return, and thread. And today, threshold not only refers to a doorway or gate, but also means both a new beginning and a limitation.

    Throughout the history of Zen, there have been commentaries on gates and doors. Virtually every teacher in every time period has seen the value in directing the student's attention toward these common points of entry. All types of doors—from massive wooden barriers to the famous "gateless" gates—figure in Zen's literature. Students learned early on that doors and gates are not only for walking through but also for thinking about. In fact, in Zen practice, any object or idea can become a door. And behind every door, there is a buddha waiting to be discovered.

    Inside your own home, doors do not usually require much maintenance or consideration. A door should have a full range of motion, so keep furniture and other objects a good distance from where the door might strike it. A doorstop willprotect both the door and the adjoining wall. You can silence any squeaks with an occasional application of oil. You might, rarely, need to replace worn paint or varnish or to perform a minor adjustment of the hinges or fit. But for all of their continued use, they make few demands on us.

    Do not think of doors as obstacles to whatever is on the other side. Practice opening them magnanimously and closing them with care. Through the mundane activity of entering or leaving a doorway, you can make a commitment to being either inside or outside of something larger than yourself. You can think about what you are leaving behind, about what you are entering into. In the Zen training halls, there are rules about opening, closing, entering, and exiting through zendo doors. These rules are liberating. It is one of the great ironies of Zen practice that through the rigid use of such rules, a sense of freedom is gained.

    Doors are more than wood or metal, more than hinges, pivots, fulcrums, locks. They are places that can become turning points—either you pass through them, or they block your path. You discover your own limits and thresholds. Sometimes it doesn't take anything very substantial for you to fabricate a closed door. For example, when the lock on a bathroom door is absent or broken, a cough, whistle, or quiet song can bar the door. At other times, it may take a more drastic solution to achieve this effect. The writer Jack London, gregarious as he was, often felt the need for privacy when he was writing. He hand-lettered a small sign for his door to be used at such times: "1. Please do not enter without knocking. 2. Please do not knock."

    As you walk from room to room in your own home, try to really experience the transition of traveling from one place to another. Notice the differences between motion and stillness. Sense how you relate to various enclosures and open spaces. Feel the differences between entering and leaving, if there are differences. Contemplate the thoughts that become caught between places, in the doorways themselves, and think of the people who have walked these paths before you. While you're thinking of others, the doors of your household begin to become the gates of compassion.

    Suzuki Roshi stressed repeatedly that, just like the swinging door, we should move freely back and forth throughout the various aspects of our lives, both wholly independent and, at the same time, completely connected to all things. He viewed the very act of breathing as the breath's entering and exiting a doorway. The image of stepping through a doorway is symbolic of your actual entry into your own life. It might be compared to a film loop in which you're entering the same door over and over again. You are always entering through the doorway of this very moment. There is no retreat. No heading for the exits. Just a continual "going in" to this eternal NOW!

The Way of the Broom

Could anything be simpler than sweeping your own floor? Complications arise only when "thinking" interferes with performance. When you become too conscious of your actions, too careful, you can encounter a kind of "nervous" negative energy. Oddly enough, too much thought can result in the same kind of disjuncture as absentmindedness and lack of concentration. When you strain too hard to create beautiful music, you fumble the notes and the music suffers. Even sweeping the floor can become awkward and ineffectual if done with too much care.

    Fish are not aware that they exist in water, and birds do not "think" about the air. Cows and crickets are, without thinking about it, at ease in their own natural elements. For you to find your own natural place, it is helpful to stay in touch with where you are now and what you are doing. Try not to let your thoughts carry you away. Keep bringing yourself back to yourself.

    The repetitive motions of sweeping a floor can be a good method for practicing this returning. (Using a high-powered vacuum cleaner may yield more spectacular results, but we're not seeking anything spectacular here.) Try doing some simple sweeping, without noise, without past or future, without premeditation, without stricture, without aim. Just move the broom. Without ambivalence, you can offer your very best. When you sweep in this way, you develop attentiveness rather than mere intention You watch the broom travel through all the leavings, tracings, tracks, and tiny evidences that show that things are alive all around you. There is dust, there are flakes and crumbs, and there may be mites and spiders. All things are moved along and guided by the traveling broom. Its path determines the path of all that falls before it. Before long, you might lose yourself in the gentle, rocking motion of this easy sweeping.

    When you are truly alive, however, you can concentrate wholeheartedly on one task without ignoring the rest of the world. You are still keenly aware of the ticking clock, the telephone, the sound of raindrops on the roof, the smell of baking bread. You see what is before your eyes and hear what is carried to your ears. Relaxing inside yourself, you then allow more things to enter your life. The size of the area being swept in no way limits the extent of your sweeping. And the quality of this sweeping is determined only by your own heart and your own actions. As with everything in life, the act of sweeping can be performed in many different ways. Notice the man standing on the roof of the barn, who sweeps an uneven surface. Or the young child struggling to sweep the kitchen floor with a broom twice her height. Or the smiling shopkeeper who sweeps the cement walkway in front of his store.

    There is something so familiar and timeless in this universal act that just thinking about it brings the feeling and memory of the broom handle to your own hands. You can hear the sound of sweeping all around. That sound—made by the movement of the straw over the flat surface of the floor—reminds me of jazz: Shush, tap! Shush, tap! Shush, tap! It's like the regular cadence that underlies and defines each song. Things begin to move along on their own. After the sweeping, you hear new sounds: the soft rattle of the dustpan and the thump of the wooden broom handle as it is rested against the wall.

    The next time you sweep the floor, try to move with deliberation, feeling both the support of the floor beneath your feet and the protection of the ceiling overhead. Try to sense the differences between rooms, and be aware of changing courses from area to area and from environment to environment. Notice the different qualities of light and the variations of shadows. And experience both the fragility and the strength of your own body as it goes about its common work.

    At times in our lives we all experience hunger and headaches, fever and chills, metabolic imbalances, distractions and disorder, near misses, wild diversions, and doubt. Still, we go on sweeping. We do the things that need to be done. We become united with each action. This daily work then becomes a kind of team effort. When we work wholeheartedly, who is not with us? Who is not helping us? Who does not support us in every action and breath?

    The uncomplicated act of moving a broom back and forth across a stair step or the kitchen floor can contain all the grace, purpose, and ease of motion that is exhibited in a timeless piece of choreography. The broom is our connection to the ground. It is an extension of our touch. It is the equivalent of the traveling monk's staff, the mountaineer's ice ax, or the shepherd's crook. It helps us to cover and explore the territory. With it, we sweep the dust from our floors, we reach into darkened corners, we retrieve items from under the bed, gather spiderwebs, push open doors, and unclutter our walkways. It is one of the most basic of cleaning implements, the very symbol of simplicity and patience.

    Your style of sweeping and the reasons you sweep can reveal much about your personality. Are your strokes generous and open? Or are they short and tightly controlled? Do you use the broom like a broom, or more like a snow shovel or a canoe paddle? Do you sweep "around things" rather than under them and behind them? Do you give your complete attention to the broom, or are your thoughts drifting and scattering some where else? Are you sweeping because you are bothered by the sight of a dusty floor, or because company is coming for dinner and you don't want your guests to find out how messy you really are?

    No matter how or why you sweep, you can bring sincerity and art and joy into this singular experience. When you sweep the floor or the stairway or the sidewalk, you can try to make your very best effort. But the point is not to transform the world into an immaculate place; it is to sweep with a sincere heart. With joy, you can perform the little dance steps that occur when you sweep close to your own feet, and you can delight in twisting around to reach the area behind you.

    There is a difference between a brand-new broom and an older one. As the broom gets used over and over again, its character is brought forth. If you move the broom from left to right as well as from right to left, the broom will wear more evenly, and, in the process, you'll experience two different sides of yourself. You may notice some awkwardness when you first turn the broom around, just as you feel a bit ill at ease whenever you change your perspective on things. Try to stand a different way or to hold the broom in a different way to see what else happens. Start to give more attention to the floor's edges and corners. Think about your own shadowed areas as well as those that are out in the open.

    The broom helps us to stake out our position. It anchors us in the midst of motion. It helps us to orient ourselves in the face of time and space and the subtle teachings of repetitive actions. If we concentrate on just sweeping, the floor and the stairway will take care of themselves. We might even begin to enjoy what once was a tedious chore. Perhaps when we've finished sweeping the floor, we'll practice sweeping shadows or sweeping the moonlight. We might even try sweeping with no broom at all. But this sounds much too heady, and too Zenlike, and our brooms would remain unattended and ignored.

    The act of sweeping unites us with our ancestors and with people all over the world. From cave-dwelling times until now, people have gathered bundles of straw and grass in order to sweep clean the flattened surfaces of their lives. And in many parts of the world, dirt floors and wallways are still commonplace. In the hands of the experienced, the broom becomes a multifaceted, functional tool. But no matter how carefully you sweep, you will always find a fine line of dust that still defies the dustpan, or a bit of lint that catches on a loosened splinter of wood. There is always something to remind you of what still needs to be done. There is no way to arrive at "finished." There is no road leading to "perfect." There is just some wandering atom of life, some single bit of dust, that calls you to attention and keeps bringing you back to your life.

Table of Contents

Foreword Edward Espe Brownxi
Introduction: Zen Practice Comes Home1
Part One: Traveling the Household
Crossing the Threshold11
The Way of the Broom14
Dusting without Raising More Dust19
Form and Emptiness: Your Space and Possessions22
A World of Windows32
The Idea of Maintenance34
On Changing Colors38
On Style: The Things with Which You Live41
The 10,000 Things That Hide within Plain Sight46
On Things Becoming Lost, Broken, or Worn49
Shrines, Altars, and Icons: Places of Homage in Your Home53
Sitting Down in the Middle of Things57
Part Two: The Kitchen: The Raw and the Cooked
The Art and Artlessness of Cooking63
On Serving Foodand Eating66
The Ins and Outs of Pots and Pans69
Addressing the Uninvited and the Unwanted72
Infinite Winter, Timeless Summer77
Part Three: The Bedroom, Bath, and Washroom
On the Many Intricacies ofWater85
The Smallest Rooms in Your House88
The World of Mirrors93
Tending the Place Where You Sleep95
Part Four: Outside Surroundings
Raking Leaves, Trimming Branches, Moving Stone101
Adventures in Light and Darkness108
Part Five: Living Arrangements
On Living Alone115
On Living with Others118
On Living with Animal Companions120
Part Six: Sweeping Sun, Waxing Moon
Tinkering with Perfection125
On Quiet and Conformity128
Prayer in Our Practice130
Finding Zen, Catching Zen, Holding Zen133
A Question of Time138
The One Who Listens141
Epilogue: The Buddha in the Bookcase143
A Selected Bibliography for Further Reading on Zen, Japanese
Culture, and Related Matters149
Subject Index155

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