Heartspeak - Sweeping Leaves Sweeping Anger
by Geeta Rao
Ubon Ratchadhani is a remote spot in Thailand, on the edge of Cambodia and Laos, and fairly off the tourist track. But for seekers, this is where one can retreat as one pursues a path to monkhood or train as a novice monk or nun at Wat Nana Chat, a forest monastery started by Ajahn Sumedho. Because the monastery itself is geared strictly for monks and novice monks, the women’s section is away from the main monastery, in a semi forest close to the local cremation grounds. While the main ‘sala’ or meditation hall was open to all, a generous patron had gifted a smaller ‘bot’ or meditation hall for women which was made of white marble, and was quite a pretty place.
We were four novice nuns in retreat. Three were actually going on to take orders, and I was a spectator involved with my own practice. However, rules and duties applied to all. Mine was to sweep the bot and forest paths leading up to the bot from four am to six am every day. The routine was simple – sweeping leaves from four to six, sorting the alms food and breakfast from six to eight – that was the only meal we had for the day, and then the rest of the day was spent in walking meditation, sitting meditation and self-study. A group meeting and meditation took place later in the evening. On full moon nights there was an all-night chanting of the sutras. Occasionally, though not much of this was encouraged, one could meet Ajahn Jnanadhammo, the abbot.
I must admit I was irritated with the duty I was assigned. It clashed with the two hours the very interesting Nana chat library was open to women, and it clashed with the alms rounds on which the monks went every morning. I wanted to be part of the village trips. The task itself was one that tried my patience – the leaves fell with manic intent, and I was convinced it was a conspiracy against me. A gust of wind would blow, and just as I finished one section, the path would be full of leaves again. It was exhausting, and I was unused to using the vertical brooms that the Thais used. I was soon simmering with anger at the thought of missing out on the ‘action’ as the monks and novices came back with news of the village. The forest and cremation grounds were making sleep difficult, and so were the Nana Chat rules which clearly had some gender bias. I decided my retreat would be sabotaged if I didn’t complain.
Khun Ping, the seniormost of the women in retreat, and the one who was taking her vows as a Buddhist nun, refused to see reason when I complained that sweeping leaves made no sense. “You will understand,” she said. But I need to study, I protested. “This is the meditation” was her response. I found myself even more irritated and angry. The leaves and I fought a silent battle, and the leaves always won.
Khun Ping observed all my trials and said, “You are fighting – but do you know what you are fighting?” I knew what she was getting at, and I knew she had a point but I was angrier because I knew my reactions were spiralling out of control. “There is no deeper Zen significance in all this,” I said rather rudely to Khun Ping. “You are expecting significance so you are disappointed. All you have to do is sweep,” she replied calmly.
I complained to Ajahn Jnanadhammo about my library deprivation and how my period of self-study was being affected. He found some books for me to read and offered to see that the library was open for me at certain times, but he said, look within. This meant I still had to sweep. My time was up and I left the serene hall where Jnanadhammo sat, cursing for having wasted this significant encounter with a whine on how I was feeling ill-used about sweeping leaves. He had written and expounded on various meditation techniques, and I had actually wanted to discuss them in my meeting, since I had questions on some of the things I was dealing with in my own practice.
My arms ached, and I woke up stiff and cold. I continued to sweep. The first week was spent in anger at the fact that I had been chosen to sweep, and was missing the books. But when books were available, and I had all the time in the world to study, meditate and practice, I was still angry. I had a fairly easy task compared to some of the other novices. But the anger came in waves, and this is a moment many meditators will identify with – when you can observe the rising of an emotion but cannot break the pattern. I was also bewildered by my own anger since I was usually a much disciplined retreatant being used to long retreats and solitude. And then there it was – I suddenly knew why I was angry. I was angry because I thought I was a ‘senior’ meditator, and more evolved on the path than most of the other novices, and needed to be doing other important spiritual things. It was one of those moments of rueful acknowledgement – how many books had I read about this ego battle. How often had I learned in the Vipassana practice that there was no ‘junior’ or ‘senior’ stage in meditation – all one had to do was observe the impermanence of all rising states. The next moment I found my anger dissolving, and that was that as far as the sweeping was concerned. I knew it would not return.
I spent the rest of the days and nights in silent meditation at the bot and on the walking paths – Nana Chat had special short path cuts into the forest for meditators to walk on. I looked forward to the morning sweeping. Even the leaves seemed better behaved – they stayed off the paths, or so it seemed. The picture that still stays in my mind is not my little kuti, the cremation grounds, or the meditations in the hall. It is of the early mornings spent sweeping leaves at Nana Chat. As Khun Ping had said – this was the meditation.
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