As you sweep, put your heart into the sweeping, for sweeping is part of our establishment of striving and effort. Reflect on Dhamma. Reflect on instability, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self while sweeping, and the heart will be open and cheerful. This way, keeping to the monastic standard is an enjoyable experience. - Luang Por Baen
In the monastery, we do a lot of sweeping with two types of brooms - the hard broom and the soft broom. The Thai-style hard brooms have a long handle and the bristles are made from the centers of coconut palm leaves. These are used for sweeping driveways, trails, and walking meditation paths. The soft brooms use a type of Asian grass for their bristles, known as “kaem” grass, and are used for sweeping decks and wooden floors. These two types of brooms are hand made and in the west the soft brooms can be purchased in Asian markets. The hard brooms we have to make ourselves.
There are a few different ways to make a hard broom. The handle can be any long piece of wood, and in Thailand we use bamboo. At Abhayagiri a young thin Doug Fir tree or a straight piece of manzanita works. The bristles are still the Thai-style centers of coconut palm leaves and are shipped from Thailand as we haven’t yet found a suitable western equivalent for these. How the bristles are fastened on to the handle is up to the individual. It could be the quick method, which is to fasten a bundle of bristles on the handle with a rubber strap. The other slower but arguably more secure method is to use rubber bands to secure “sub-bundles” of about 8 bristles each together, then to tie these bundles around the handle using thin cordage and clove hitches. The bristles are made to fan out into a usable broom shape by a ball at the end of the broom handle, fashioned by wrapping either rubber or cloth around the lower end hidden by the bristles.
For myself, I learned how to make these brooms using the “slow tie” method while at Dtao Dum in Thailand a number of years ago, and my “broom ācāriya” was Ajahn Hasapañño. Monks who have taught broom making at Abhayagiri include Ajahn Sek and Ajahn Kovilo. When the monks get together to make brooms for a few hours, it is an opportunity for learning some traditional Thai crafts, sharing some Dhamma conversation, and fostering communal harmony.
Once hard brooms are made, it is time to put them to the test and do some sweeping. If a hard broom has a long handle, it can be used in long arcs to sweep, say, the driveways. The brooms with shorter handles can be used with smaller arcs to sweep the trails. In the west we also use rakes to clean the trails, and whether a rake or a broom is used is up to the individual. If the sweeping is done mindfully and thoroughly, then one can spend an hour or more sweeping and there are tangible fruits to one’s labors - the trails are clean and beautiful. Then the leaves fall again and the sweeping has to be done again, which can be used as a contemplation of impermanence.
The exact technique for sweeping will vary from monastery to monastery. In the old days at Wat Pah Pong the environment was flat and sandy and Luang Por Chah would encourage his students to sweep from the outer edge of the trail toward the center. This would keep the trails from becoming rutted out and would keep the sand from going to the center so that in the rainy season the water would drain to the sides rather than pooling in the middle. With clean trails, you are more likely to see ants, centipedes, and snakes, and therefore not step on them. At Abhayagiri we have mountainous and rocky terrain and our trails seem to “grow” rocks. On a mountain, the sweeping needs to be away from the mountainside and over the edge. Sometimes the trail is retained by boards and the leaves pile up against these boards. When the leaves pile up into a critical mass,one needs to stop sweeping, bend over, pick them up, and manually throw them over the edge before continuing the sweeping. The sweeping also has a compassionate function in that when walking on the trails one won’t crush any little beings hiding under the leaves. When the trail is clean, ants and beetles are more visible.
During the sweeping we can notice different types of leaves. Madrone leaves are large and rubbery and tend to sweep off the ground easier than oak leaves. We have at least a dozen species of oak trees and some of them, like the tanoaks, have spiky leaves. When these spiky leaves are swept away it is appreciated by those monastics who choose to walk barefoot as they won’t get “spiked” while walking the trails.
Sweeping is a great way to spend time in the forest. If one decides to sweep a certain section of trail during the afternoon, then one might find a good place to stop for a while and sit down to meditate. The awareness can become spacious and one might notice a deer or a songbird nest with little eggs in it. This is one way of skillfully bringing the mind to a state of peace. At the right moment, one can pick the broom up again and continue sweeping. The overriding intention here is to make the mind peaceful and cheerful and is not necessarily getting all the trails swept.
As time goes on, different innovative ways to clean the roads and trails are developed. Now we have battery powered blowers and Luang Por Pasanno can be seen each morning between 6:30 and 7 am blowing the leaves and dusting off the cloister area driveways.
Leaves and branches fall to the ground, thus revealing their Dhamma. Dhamma is the truth of origination: All that arises must come to change. At first those things arise and establish themselves. Then over time they keep changing until now when they are seen as fallen leaves, all dried up. This is Dhamma. This very Dhamma is nothing but the nature of instability, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self. If we deeply consider things in this way, then in any activity we will have a blameless type of enjoyment, even fun, which lies within the bounds of the peaceful mind. However, if we don’t maintain our internal sense of peace, then sweeping will also be that way. - Luang Por Baen