Once each year, in January, IMS closes down for two weeks and holds a special retreat—a staff retreat. It is a time when the staff of IMS, most of whom volunteer their time and energy graciously all year, get a chance to be taken care of themselves. The center is kept going by a skeleton crew of outside volunteers, while regular staff members take their turn at sitting and walking, breathing and noting, just as they have helped so many others do throughout the previous year.
The transformation of staff into yogis for a fortnight is usually quite thoroughgoing, right down to the taking on of yogi jobs. Those of you who have come to IMS on retreat will know that for a short period each day, between a half hour and an hour, retreatants help out with such simple tasks as cleaning, vacuuming, vegetable-chopping and dish washing. Which brings me closer to the point of my story.
On the recent staff retreat, I had the good fortune of volunteering for pot-scrubbing duty. I chose this job because it was the one I least wanted to do (I have a long history of aversion to dishwashing), and in the spirit of the practice I thought it might be best to work on my weaknesses. So each day after lunch, I would pad silently into the washroom, and spend the next hour or so in intimate company with a great mound of dirty pots, pans, baking dishes and cooking utensils. The cups and bowls were washed elsewhere—this was just the hard-core material from the kitchen. I would like to share some of the reflections I noted while bending over this task.
To begin with, let me just say that this was not the first time in my life that I have had a chance to ruminate over a pile of dishes. I have had ample opportunity before (although my wife would be quick to argue that it has not been nearly as ample as it should have been), but there was something about the immensity and regularity of this job that gave me a chance to really dig my teeth into it and give it some careful attention. Those of you familiar with the phenomenon of “yogi mind,” the tendency of small matters to loom out of all proportion in one’s experience when on retreat, might not even be surprised to hear that the daily sojourn in the pot-washing room became very important to me.
It is really remarkable, when you think about it, what an apt metaphor the scrubbing of pots is for the purification of the mind. Pots come and go in rapid (or sometimes in painfully slow) succession, like one mental state after another assailing the mind. Each one is defiled to a greater or lesser extent, and the variety of impurities is prodigious.
The salad bowls are easy, their little bits of carrot or lettuce falling away with a quick swipe of the sponge or blast from the sprayer. Many of our petty desires are equally easy to wash away. The lust to win the lottery, for example, might be expunged from the mind without too much difficulty; the likelihood of winning is so scant that the roots of this desire do not cling too tightly.
But the baking pans are a whole different story. Some are so encrusted with lasagna or bean loaf that they take a good deal of rubbing and scrubbing, scraping and prying. And the deeper ones have so many corners, particularly popular with residual crud, that there seems no easy way to get at them. You keep turning the pan in the sink, this way and that way, upside down, backwards and splayed across the rim—and still your efforts with the scouring pad resemble nothing better than the awkward and frenetic hacking of a dog trying hopelessly to dig out a buried rabbit or remove an entrenched flea. How like our many unwholesome latent tendencies! Some illusions and conceits are so tenacious, and so obstinately cling to the inaccessible deep corners of our minds, that even the most diligent practice can appear so often to make little headway.
And let us not forget those most insidious of pots, those that readily shed the last meal’s debris only to reveal months or even years of accumulated grime. These are like the fundamental evil roots of attachment, aversion and delusion to the mind. You know that generations of pot-scrubbers have gone before you, passing over to the pot-dryer a pot that is “good enough.” Each time it gets a little darker and a little harder to clean. You yourself want to “do the job right;” so you pour in some extra soap, heat up the water till you scald your hands, and attack with great vigor with the baddest-looking scouring pad you can find. Soft swipes are useless; the only thing that makes any headway is when you bear down with all your might. With each concerted stroke you are thrilled to see results—a bit of the black comes off, a bit of the shine shows through…and your arm begins to ache.
Sooner or later you take stock of your progress, see how much more grime still remains on the pot, see how many pots still remain piled up to your left…and pass it over to the dryer, saying (to yourself, of course, since you are in silence) “good enough.” You know that you could get it beautifully clean if you spent the rest of the afternoon on that one pot and gave it everything you have. You also recognize that you have to be “realistic.” Thinking of the rest of the pots, of your colleague with the drying towel, of the afternoon sitting in the hall, you settle for the gratification that you at least left the pot in better shape than you received it. Or maybe you make one or two pots spotless and just give the others a cursory wipe. After all, nobody’s perfect.
Such pots are an excellent metaphor for the situation we sometimes find ourselves in during insight meditation. If the salad bowls represent those unwholesome thoughts that tread relatively lightly on our present mind, and the baking pans might perhaps stand for some of our deeper conditioning from earlier more difficult stages of our lives, these blackened pots we have inherited from a distant past. Would that we could come into this world with a “blank slate,” with only one meal’s grime to scour. But we are only the latest in a long line of pot-washers who, like us, have given their successor something to work on. Had they all done their job better, there would be little left for us to do today.
We might know that nibbana in this lifetime is possible, the pots could all be polished till they sparkle, but Oh! how much work that would take. Meanwhile, if we leave each mind state a little bit cleaner, more healthy and wholesome than it was when it arose—this might be “good enough” for now. We can thus perhaps slowly develop the paramis, the perfections of virtue, concentration and wisdom, over many lifetimes. Next time it will be a bit less work, and maybe someday a pot-washer might have a manageable enough task before him that he might roll up his sleeves and actually do it in a single afternoon. The main thing is not to make things worse, not to so disgrace the position that you have not pulled your weight on this watch and make the task that much more difficult for the next person.
Actually the pot-washing metaphor of Buddhist liberation has been around for quite some time, albeit in a somewhat different form. In the Anumana Sutta the Buddha speaks of the need to look at the quality of one’s mind—day and night—just as one would look at oneself in the mirror. If there is a blemish found there on the face, in this case an unhealthy or unskillful thought in the mind, then one should strive to wipe it away.
This “pot-washing” view of Buddhist practice also emerged in an early school of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China. In a now-famous exchange, one great monk said meditation was like wiping the dust off a bright mirror—when all the defilements were eradicated the mind would be naturally illuminated, i.e., enlightened. He was contradicted by another monk, more heavily influenced by Mahayana doctrines, who said there was actually no dust and no mirror—all was empty. This innovation touched off a whole new understanding of Buddhism in China, and is one of the formative episodes in the establishment of Zen Buddhism as we know it today.
At issue, I suspect, is the degree of intervention one is willing to allow. The image of pot-scrubbing or dust-wiping suggests an aggressive act of changing the way things are, which is at odds with what we are taught on retreats about simply being present with whatever happens to be arising in our experience. Labeling the pot or the mind as clean or intrinsically radiant, and the lasagna scraps or kilesas as defilements that have been visited upon it, smacks of dualism and feels to some like an unacceptable judgment of what is, after all, simply there. Insight meditation is like standing at the sink, one might say, simply watching what goes by. Taking up the sponge and deciding to intervene, however, is something else entirely.
But then has the Buddha bequeathed us the techniques of insight meditation in order that we just stand by and appreciate how much our minds are in bondage to desire, how much we suffer? This in itself is surely not the way to liberation, is it? The Buddha has defined right effort, in part, as the getting rid of unwholesome thoughts that have arisen in the mind. Is this not the wiping of the dust? Insight is the essential tool that allows us to see our mental states as they are, that reveals an otherwise invisible Mara along with his hosts, but the hero of the Buddhist path goes on to vanquish his or her own defilements and only thus moves towards liberation.
These two approaches need not be considered as antithetical as they may at first appear, and herein lies the beautiful unity amidst diversity of the Buddhist tradition. To see the dust is to remove it; to handle the pots in the hot soapy water with a sponge in one’s hand is to cleanse them; to perceive, by means of vipassana meditation, the psychophysical process for what it is—changing, insubstantial and unsatisfying—is to loosen the bonds of misperception and to incline the mind—ever so slightly—towards liberation in the next thought-moment.
With insight one learns simply to see what states of mind have what qualities. Seeing things for what they are includes seeing what is pure and impure, what is wholesome and unwholesome. It also involves seeing that they are all equally empty of self, and this is what allows us to not identify with them. By not identifying with either wholesome or unwholesome thoughts, we can become liberated. Wholesome thoughts are a light and gentle presence in the mind, and are easily tolerated despite their emptiness. But the thoughts rooted in grasping, aversion and misperception are the ones that hold us tightly in their grip and distort our view of things. For these we need the powerful tool of insight if we are to break free of the suffering they continually cause us. The abandonment of unwholesome states is effected through seeing their emptiness.
As I stand at the sink in the pot-washing room, I cleanse the pots not because I hate the dirt or love the pots, but because it is the task at hand, the task for which I volunteered. I am simply engaged in a process—the washing of pots—and this is where my attention lies. When I am doing my job well, nothing intervenes. If my job was to smear the pots with dirt . . . there would not be so much difference. That too would be a process to which I would give my full attention. But though I stand at the sink washing the no-pots of their no-bean-loaf-crud, a simple truth persists: I still would not like to have my next meal prepared in a filthy pot…would you?