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Do Dishes, Rake Leaves (And Don't Forget the Endless Loads of Laundry)

Karen Maezen Miller on how the domestic practice of ancient Zen masters can lead us to intimate encounters with our own lives.

I have a garden in my backyard, and even if you don’t call it a garden, you do too. In the fall, the broad canopy of giant sycamores in my backyard turns faintly yellow and the leaves sail down. First by ones, and then by tons. A part of every autumn day finds me fuming at the sight of falling leaves. Then, I pick up a rake.

Tell me, while I’m sweeping leaves till kingdom come, is it getting in the way of my life? Is it interfering with my life? Keeping me from my life? Only my imaginary life, that life of what-ifs and how-comes: the life I’m dreaming of.

At the moment that I’m raking leaves, at the moment I’m doing anything, it is my life, it is all of time, and it is all of me.

In the spring, the garden bursts to life and once again I see what time it is. It is time to weed. When I look up across the endless stretch of the job before me, I surely want to quit. But if I manage to regain my focus on what’s at hand I realize it’s just one weed. There’s always just one weed to do next. I do it weed by weed, and the weeds always show me how. I never finish.

Looking for greater meaning in life, some people think that housework is beneath them. Cooking and cleaning are beneath them. I know that feeling well. Sometimes they seem so far beneath me that I can’t see the bottom. I can’t see the beginning or the end. Is there a point to doing the work that seems pointless? The work with no visible end, no redeeming value, and no apparent urgency? Yes. It’s the wisdom of the ancient homemakers.

After Buddhism came to China, the Chan school replaced the tradition of itinerant alms-begging with communal living. It was practical, for one thing. And it was practice. Monastic training came to encompass all the work essential to everyday life—cleaning, cooking, and gardening—as well as meditation. For that reason we could well view the great Chinese masters as our progenitors in mindful homemaking, since many of their teachings point directly to the everyday chores we might rather high-mindedly neglect.

A monk asked Joshu, “All dharmas are reduced to oneness, but what is oneness reduced to?” Joshu said, “When I was in Seishu I made a hempen shirt. It weighed seven pounds.

More than a thousand years have passed since Joshu gave that response, originating one of the many classic koans that recount his provocative teachings. To this day seekers are still struggling to find a way out of the shirt. What does it mean? What is he getting at? I don’t understand!

We don’t just struggle with a shirt in a Zen koan. We struggle with the shirts in our hampers. With the pants, the blouses, the sheets, and the underwear. Laundry presents a mountainous practice opportunity because it provokes a never-ending pile of egocentric resistance.

It’s not important to me. It’s tedious. I don’t like to do it!

The monk in this story is like the rest of us, seeking wisdom through intellectual inquiry. If we’re not careful, this is how we approach mindfulness: as an idea, one we rather like, to elevate our lives with special contemplative consideration, a method for making smarter choices and thereby assuring better outcomes. The problem is that the life before us is the only life we have. The search for meaning robs our life of meaning, sending us back into our discursive minds while right in front of us the laundry piles up.

In his commentary on this koan, the late teacher and translator Katsuki Sekida rinsed Joshu’s shirt clear of obfuscation. “Joshu’s words remind us of the keen sensibilities of people who lived in the days when things were made by hand. The seven pounds of hemp was woven into cloth and cut and sewn into a shirt. When Joshu put on his hempen shirt, he experienced a sensation that was the direct recognition of the shirt for what it was.”

The shirt, you see, is just a shirt. Feel the fabric, the weave, and the weight of seven pounds in your hands. The laundry is just the laundry. Pull it out of the hamper, sort by color and fabric, read the care instructions, and get on it with it. Transcending obstacles and overcoming preferences, we have an intimate encounter with our lives every time we do the wash. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but no one turns their nose up at a clean pair of socks.

With only a change in perspective, the most ordinary things take on inexpressible beauty. When we don’t know, we don’t judge. And when we don’t judge, we see things in a different light. That is the light of our awareness, unfiltered by intellectual understanding, rumination, or evaluation. When we cultivate nondistracted awareness as a formal practice, we call it mindfulness meditation. When we cultivate it in our home life, we call it the laundry, the kitchen, or the yard—all the places and the ways to live mindfully by attending without distraction to whatever appears before us. But it’s hard for mus to believe that attention is all there is to it, and so we complicate things with our judgment—debasing the ordinary as insignificant and idealizing the spiritual as unattainable—never seeing that the two are one.

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