During that first year in China at my Temple, all of us incoming students were assigned a chore to be performed each morning after breakfast . . . . . cleaning the temples and altars, stocking incense, cleaning the toilet building.? As the elder, I was exempt from chores, or rather, my ?chore? was to make sure everyone else?s chores were completed each day.
I promised all of my younger temple mates that I would be a benevolent elder, of course.? But the truth is I felt uncomfortable with my assignment. I did come to understand over time the culture?s respect for elders, but I saw myself neither as ?elderly? nor as special.??
I?d listened to and read many teaching stories from my days living at two different Zen Buddhist monasteries about the meditative qualities of sweeping leaves.? If you Google ?monk sweeping leaves,? you will find many of them. I decided that I would assign myself the chore of sweeping the main courtyard where we trained each day.
I cut several tall bamboo trees, stripped the lower branches and leaves, and left 2-3 feet at the top.? Wiring them together along the span gave me a good broom that cut a wide swath of the courtyard with each pass.? Every morning, I would use it to clean the yard of all leaves and twigs that had fallen the previous day and night, and ready it for the morning drills.
That was a number of years ago now, and yet, here I am in the Northern Berkshires with that same morning chore.? You see, I?ve built a training platform in my back property, and began teaching qigong and taiji there two weeks ago.?
After early morning ?sitting still, doing nothing? and a pot of tea, I grab my broom and go to my ?courtyard? out back.? There are leaves to be swept, having fallen overnight from several massive maple trees. It is quiet, and the meditation garden surrounding it is starting to take shape with a mix of colors and textures, heights and widths, angles and slopes.
Sweeping leaves is considered to be a mindless chore, something I used to tell my daughters I was well qualified for as a joke.? But I find it to be anything but . . . . . . a sharp and clear focus on what I am doing, making sure the broom catches every leaf, every maple seed packet, every twig, slowly making my way from one end to the other.? When I am done, there is the satisfaction of having accomplished something good, 15 minutes of just sweeping leaves, stillness in action.
When I sit on my cushion, I focus on my breath; when I sweep leaves, I focus on the leaves and the task.? Same thing. Just breath, just sweep.??
On that now clean courtyard, there is Qigong and a single pass of Water Taiji, and my day is well underway.? Centered and grounded, both the earlier sitting on my cushion and the sweeping have brought me fully into their respective moments.? I leave the courtyard vowing to show up for the rest of the day?s moments, to fully engage whatever I find along my path.
Your day doesn?t need to begin with sweeping leaves.? Preparing a pot of tea, chopping vegetables, vacuuming your house, a conversation with a good friend . . . . . whatever you are doing, just do it and nothing else.
There is just this, just now, just here and nowhere else.
You might think it funny that sweeping leaves is an important part of my day, but it is. Preparing that pot of tea is, too. And so is writing this essay . . . it is what I am doing right now, right here. Just this, and nothing else.