Monday, August 07, 2006

Cleaning and Zen

Cleaning and tidying are interesting activities. There can be actions which are cleaning explicitly and deliberately. Like when you plug in the vacuum cleaner and motor it around the house. There can be incidental cleaning, like cleaning the bath while you are taking a shower. There is habitual orderliness, which is the prevention of the need of cleaning. If you don't dirty things, they naturally don't need cleaning. Somehow, for me this recalls two Zen Buddhist poems.

In a temple where the Fifth Patriarch of Zen taught there were two promising student, Shenxiu, who was something of an academic and Huineng, a 'barbarian' from the South of China. Shenxiu was admired by others and was widely expected to become the Sixth Patriarch. The Patriarch himself decided that there should be a competition to write a poem that describes Buddha-nature. Shenxiu wrote:

The body is a Bodhi tree,
the mind a standing mirror bright.
At all times polish it diligently,
and let no dust alight.

Huineng wrote in reply:

Bodhi is no tree,
nor is the mind a standing mirror bright.
Since all is originally empty,
where does the dust alight?

The latter 'won' and the Patriarch gave the ceremonial robe to Huineng. The poem itself is a favourite of mine, hanging on one of the walls in my home (as is Huineng one of my favourite characters of Buddhist history).

However if we are talking about the real world of cleaning, the theorising doesn't work. You cannot make your home clean by realising that cleanliness is an empty abstraction. I agree if Shenxiu when it comes to cleaning. My house is a bodhi tree, and the windows mirrors bright, we should constantly keep it clean and let not dust alight... lest we gain grimy corners.

Interestingly, after I started writing this (I saved it on Monday), I found the Sutra of Weilang at Jason's bookstore (only after browsing did I realise that Weilang was an old romanisation of Huineng's name (probably in Cantonese, which is apt because Huineng was Cantonese). Nice synchronicity and enough to persuade me to buy it.


Laurie Jeffery said...

You have an excellent blog. I've just read every word. I wish I was back in New Zealand, I love that place.
Best wishes and keep up the goos work.

Crypticity said...

Cheers for the comment. Your blog is interesting too. We share a few interests such as cooking, walking and naturism. Keep it going. It seems that half of blogs die a peaceful death within a couple of months.