Applying a Wholesome Attitude

Luang Por Pasanno • May 2012

Yesterday Ajahn Saññamo gave us a reading about sweeping leaves—how sweeping can be an integral part of our practice. His reading came from a book detailing the practices at Ajahn Baen’s monastery. It is a big monastery with large open areas, so every day, everyone goes out to sweep. In his monastery, sweeping is part of the practice and training. That’s the way it should be for us as well—and not only with sweeping. All the various chores, duties, and responsibilities we have are part of the training. They’re not simply things to fill the time, or excuses to take a break from practice to get something “practical” done. Rather, they allow us to examine the attitudes we bring to the activities we perform and to evaluate the way we spend our time.

How do we spend our time? Do we spend it thinking about ourselves, and resenting anything that impinges on our preferences, views, and opinions of how we imagine things should be? Or do we spend our time engaged in what we do with generosity and kindness, with a sense of relinquishment? Do we put energy and effort into our chores and duties, or do we try to slide by, thinking to ourselves, If people see me moving around the place, maybe they won’t notice that I’m not really getting much done. These are some of the attitudes we might bring to our practice. It’s helpful to skillfully engage with these attitudes, because they can give rise to unwelcome, problematic moods. Once a mood like that does arise—if we’re engaged with what’s going on—we can respond with an energetic attitude, asking ourselves, How can I shift this mood in a positive way?

There’s a story Ajahn Sumedho tells about sweeping during his early days at Wat Pah Pong. It is a standard practice in forest monasteries to sweep the grounds, and Wat Pah Pong is no different. The day before each Observance Day, the bell would ring to indicate that it was time for sweeping, and all the monks were supposed to go out and sweep the large, dusty central areas of the monastery. Ajahn Sumedho relates how he didn’t like going out into the heat and the dust, nor did he like the activity of group sweeping, so he’d usually wait to join the group until he was about the last person to come out. Because he took so long to join the group, he’d often get the last broom, which was usually some scruffy old thing, made of a few little twigs that didn’t really do much. Ajahn Sumedho said he would go along and scratch a bit at the ground, stand, wait, internally grumble and complain, and say to himself, This is really stupid. I don’t like this. Why do we have to do this? His mind would go on and on. Of course, Ajahn Chah noticed what was happening, and one day during the sweeping period he walked past Ajahn Sumedho and said, “Wat Pah Pong—is it suffering?” Ajahn Sumedho reflected on this, Wat Pah Pong—is it suffering? No, of course not! Wat Pah Pong isn’t suffering! It’s me! It’s not Wat Pah Pong. I like Wat Pah Pong. I’m the one making suffering out of this. It’s me. That was a powerful and significant insight for him—to see that the external situation is one thing, and whether or not he adds suffering to it is another. After that, Ajahn Sumedho put more energy and enthusiasm into the sweeping. By doing so and reflecting, he decreased the suffering for himself and turned sweeping into an enjoyable experience.

We can use our chores in the same way—to bring up energy, a sense of relinquishment, generosity, service, and mindfulness. Doing that helps to provide continuity for our practice; it keeps us reflecting on what’s happening in the mind, what’s going on with our attitudes and perspectives. We can see more clearly the story the mind is telling us, so we learn how to work with it in a skillful way. Sometimes it’s easy to focus on getting a particular chore over with, so we can go back to our dwellings and do “our practice.” In doing this, we forget that our mental state and what’s going on in the mind is our practice.