Wednesday, April 17, 2013

cleaning the zendo

Today is splendiferously bright and sunny, with blue sky from horizon to horizon. Today, I have promised myself to clean the zendo. I am delaying that effort by writing this blog entry ... fucking off, to put it bluntly.

My Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once complained that his students in New York did not clean the zendo and that he had to do it.

He meant, in part, that he was getting old and the effort was in many ways beyond his means. This is something any Zen student would be wise to consider: What happens to your energetic and much-convinced and perhaps years-long practice when cleaning the zendo is physically beyond your means or when doing zazen is physically out of the question? Never mind the cutsey answers about Zen having to do with "mind." Literally ... when you can no longer do it, what value or usefulness remains? And if an answer to that question is elusive, what were all those years of hard work about?

I think -- and mind you this is just what I think -- Kyudo had something else in mind as well with his complaints about inattentive and lazy students.

Coming to a zendo from the outside can have the feel of going to a movie or a baseball game ... visitors are visiting; they come for the enjoyment or awe or spiritual fireworks or wise gurus or whatever other out-there fulfillment ... and management is responsible for upkeep of the arena because, what the hell, that's the lifestyle they chose! There will always be a stable boy to muck out the stall so that missy can ride a well-groomed mare.

But I don't think Kyudo's irritation was entirely based on the inattentive laziness of the students who left him holding the bag. I think his disappointment may have been as much with himself -- that he had not managed to instill the understanding that the zendo belonged to those students, that the zendo had no meaning without their presence, and that to take care of the zendo was literally a way of taking care of and being responsible for themselves ... a cornerstone of Zen practice. How is Zen practice ever to bear fruit if you can't wash the floor?! Zen practice is not some Vatican positing a glistening and free-standing "Mother Church."

True, lazy and arrogant Zen instructors might take advantage of good-natured students, but still...

This point of view is not something one man can tell another. People learn it or they don't. But I can imagine that Kyudo, as a man who had chosen the stable-boy pastime of Zen instructor, might still feel as if he had somehow failed.

And as an adjunct benefit, he was stuck with the cleaning.

OK, OK ... I'll get off the computer now. Since the aches and pains and weakness of age will assert themselves in any event, I might as well put them to some use.

Make a promise, keep a promise.

You gotta die of something.


  1. Genkaku,

    My recollections on Kyudo and cleaning is much different and may be worth reporting here for the sake of completeness, and fairness to his sangha. I am sure other people who practiced with Kyudo have other takes on this.

    Perhaps he had his issues. perhaps it was his style, but in the early years he steadfastly refused to let the sangha do much cleaning and the little he permitted was subject to intensive but non-specific criticism.

    I heard him say such "nonsense" such as he knew only knew how to clean properly. More than once during his weekly talks he said that he would go into public bathrooms and would clean them, but we should not do this as we did not have the "ability" to do so, and could get sick or get into trouble.

    I pondered on his rather strange pronouncements and speculated that part of this was a kind of teaching method, an indirect admonition to try harder, and to take it beyond the zendo.

    Historically, there was a period during which there would be cleaning for about 20 minutes after evening zazen but it was short lived and eventually dropped.

    Once, in an informal setting, I specifically addressed the sangha cleaning issue saying in effect that we certainly could and should clean; in reply he said that since we had jobs and families to go home to, this was his job.*

    So it could be that by the time you trained with him, the sangha had been "trained" into not doing much cleaning except during sesshin**.

    Finally, he was appreciative to those who came outside of regular practice times to help with major tasks like waxing / re-urethaning the floors.

    While I think most people would appreciate a clear and straightforward approach to samu / work practice / cleaning, Kyudo's approach certainly drew my attention to this aspect of training.



    *Kyudo didn't seem to have a day job, nor was he involved in writing or other projects, nor did he have monks-in-training. Also, it could very well be that there was more to this cleaning story, perhaps criticism from the folks that provided financial support above and beyond month dues and suggested fees.

    ** During the morning cleaning at some sesshin the particpants were asked to clean up West Broadway between Spring Street and West Houston.

  2. Frank -- Thanks for another perspective. Appreciated.