The Many Ways to Sweep

A Story by Gil Fronsdal

“When I was 13, my family would send me up to the mountains around the monastery to collect edible plants for our evening meal. These foraging trips were the only work I enjoyed doing. Otherwise, I tried every trick I could to avoid work on my family’s farm. I was still in school but it held no interest for me; my anger was a welcome barrier to learning anything the teacher was teaching.

“Occasionally, during my foraging trips, I would pass by the monastery while the monks were out sweeping the leaves from the many pathways. The first time I saw the monks working, I was mesmerized in watching them going about their work. For many months after, I would often stop awhile to watch them sweep. They went about their work silently and with an efficiency that seemed effortless.

“Then one day, a monk walked up to me and asked what I was doing in the mountains. I became defensive. I resented anyone who tried to get to know me. So, instead of answering the question, I countered by asking what was he doing. The monk smiled and answered that he had been told to sweep and that he was just killing time until he could return to his room for a nap.

“As I walked home later that day, I thought about his answer and was glad that he did not seem any different than me. When I was required to do anything my heart was never in it and my attitude was that I was passing time until I could be excused. Taking a nap was certainly preferable.

“The next time I passed the monastery on one of my foraging trips, another monk stopped his sweeping and also asked what I was doing. Again I resented the question; it felt like an intrusion. However, this time I did not feel as defensive. But again I deflected the question by asking what he was doing. He answered that he was doing extra work in hopes of being assigned to the kitchen which was warm in the winter and always seemed to have one or two extra sweet rice cakes in the cupboard for the cooks to nibble on.

“Without saying anything, I nodded and left to continue my foraging. The monks answer resonated with me since I too liked to be warm and eating sweet cakes was one of my favorite activities, second only to sleeping.

“The next time I passed the monastery, a third monk asked me the same question. This time I was surprised I wasn’t defensive or resentful of being asked. However, again I deflected the question back to him. He explained that he was sweeping as a spiritual discipline to help him overcome his anger.

“Later, as I walked the mountain trail with my bag of plants, I felt a kinship with this monk. Like me, he had anger. But I was perplexed that he would want to overcome it, because I felt my anger protected me.

“A week later, I was again outside the monastery watching the monks sweep. Yet another monk came up to me. When he asked me what I was doing, I mumbled something about collecting plants. I doubt he could hear me, for my voice was so faint. But I did muster up some strength to ask him what he was doing. He replied he was beautifying the monastery so that others might be inspired in their work of spiritual transformation. I glanced down the well-swept paths and realized that one reason I was compelled to watch the monks sweep was that they seemed to be transforming the paths into something that made me feel calm and safe.

“The next time I stood outside the monastery watching the monks, I was drawn to walk over to a fifth monk, and before he could ask me what I was doing, I asked him. He looked at me with kind eyes. After what seemed like a long but soft silence, he explained that he was sweeping to be of service to all who used the monastery. Practicing in this way, he hoped to find ultimate peace.

“As I left the monastery that day, I thought his answer strange. I didn’t understand what he meant by service and by peace, and I certainly couldn’t see how these had any value for me.

“The next time I visited the monastery was the last time. I had an unfamiliar feeling as I walked up into the mountains. Just before I reached the monastery, I realized that I was looking forward to seeing the monks again. I felt a warm glow of gladness in anticipation of what I would find. When I arrived at the monastery, I walked right up to an old monk who seemed absorbed in his sweeping, and I inquired what he was doing.

“His words washed over me like cleansing water: “Me? I am not doing anything. My self-consciousness was swept away long ago. There is no ‘I’ that does anything. Now the awakened life moves through my body, my heart, my mind, and my mouth. No one sweeps, there are no paths to sweep, and there is no dirt to brush away.” I was stunned by his answer and before I could respond, he handed me the broom and walked away. I have been here at the monastery ever since.”