Leave No Trace

Luang Por Pasanno • June 2012

There’s an idiom I appreciate from the Zen Tradition which is simply stated: “Leave no trace.” It’s an attitude ascribed to persons who do everything with clarity, efficiency, and mindfulness. It’s helpful to cultivate this attitude, both as an ideal within the mind and also in terms of the little things we do—paying attention so we do not leave a trace behind us when we’re engaged in our daily activities. This can be helpful even with very simple things like preparing for pūjā or getting ready for work. Wherever we go, we don’t create a mess, we leave things neat and tidy. After washing our robes in the washing room, we wipe up the water around the sink; we make sure things are clean and tidy when we leave. Leaving our kuṭi, we ask ourselves if everything is neat and tidy. We see that everything is done in a circumspect, crisp, and clear manner. In this way, we can cultivate an attitude of leaving no trace.

There’s an image for that in the Zen Tradition. Apparently, when turtles walk, their tails swing back and forth, sweeping away their footprints. That image suggests not leaving a trail of debris behind us when we walk from one place to another. Sometimes when the monks are getting ready for pūjā or having tea in the monks’ room, they open and close the cupboards without thinking of others who can hear this. For those of us sitting in the Dhamma Hall next door, it’s bang-crash-bang-crash-bang-thump-thump. So we need to be sensitive to the impact we have on those around us and try not to leave a trace of noise. In terms of our relations with people, we can reflect on the things we say by asking ourselves, What kind of trace am I leaving in this conversation by the comments I’ve made? With our internal processes we can ask, What kind of trace am I leaving in my mind due to the moods I’ve picked up or the attitudes, views, or perspectives I’m holding?

Instead of leaving behind the debris of our mental, spoken, and bodily actions, we can cultivate an attitude of leaving no trace. One image used for an enlightened being is a bird that leaves no tracks in the air. That’s a great reminder for us as we go about our daily tasks and activities.