The Rock Garden

I vacuum my home and can’t see what I’ve cleaned up.  It’s not there.  All I see is lines of the vacuum cleaner, the appearance of order imposed on the strands of the carpet.  It’s hard to feel like you’re doing something when vacuuming.  But it’s easy to focus on the lines.  So I make a practice of making the wheel lines of the vacuum cleaner orderly.

I’m reminded of the rock gardens at Ginkakuji in Kyoto.  The infectious orderliness of sand, meticulously raked by monks until they look like ripples of water spreading across a lake.  The sand isn’t any cleaner because it’s orderly.  But the monk does it anyway.  And when you leave, the ripples stay in your mind, thousands of miles away when you’re vacuuming the floor.

I’ve learned a lot from watching and listening to monks practice and speaking of their insights.  There is a famous saying in Zen Buddhism.  “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”  The state of one’s mind doesn’t change the nature of the work that needs to be done.  But the perspective of the mind may change the meaning of the work.

Paul Haller, one of the monks at the Soto Zen training center in San Francisco, told a story once of the experience of a death in his family.  During the travail, he could think of little he could do to help the pain of the family’s loss.  So he cleaned the bathroom.  His wife was surprised he was able to do something so menial with focus at the time.  But he realized the smallest thing he could do to create beauty in the disorder of the world at that time would be at least something small to contribute.  Sometimes it’s the smallest efforts that can have the greatest effect.

As I vacuum, my wife will see that I have vacuumed.  She may contemplate the lines I’ve diligently prepared for her and think they look like ripples across a lake.  But at least she will see that there is one less thing for her to do.

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