As read by Gil Fronsdal
This has to do with a man who was an Abbott of a Zen monastery.
The abbot was a most unusual man, he seemed always to have
a smile in his eyes and a look as if he knew you better than you knew yourself. He once told this story about himself...
When I was 13 my family would send me up to the mountains around the monastery to collect edible plants to be used for our evening meal. This foraging trip was the only work that I enjoyed doing otherwise I tried every trick I could to avoid work on my family's farm. I was still going to school but school had no interest; for me and my ever present anger was a welcome barrier to learning anything the teacher was teaching.
Occasionally during my foraging trips I would pass by the monastery while the monks were out and about sweeping the leaves from the many paths. The first time I saw the monks working I was mesmerized in watching them going about their work.
For many months afterwards I would often stop for awhile to watch them sweep. They went about their work silently and with an efficiency that seemed effortless. One day a monk walked up to me and asked what I was doing in the mountains. Immediately I became defensive and scared I resented anyone who tried to get to know me, so instead of answering the question I countered
by asking him what he was doing. The monk smiled and answered he had been told to sweep and that he was just killing time until he could return to his room for a nap.
As I walked home later in the day I thought about his answer and was glad that he did not seem any different than myself; when I was required to do anything my heart was never in it and my attitude was that I was passing time until I could be excused taking a nap was certainly preferable.
The next day I passed by the monastery on one of my foraging trips and another monk stopped his sweeping and asked what I was doing. again I resented the question, it felt like an intrusion, however this time I did not feel as scared, again I deflected the question by asking what he was doing. He answered that he was doing extra work in hopes of being assigned to the kitchen which was always warm in the winter and always seemed to have one or two extra sweet rice cakes in the cupboard for cooks to nibble on without saying anything I nodded and left to continue my foraging. The monks answer resonated with me since I too liked to be warm and eating sweet cakes was one of my favorite activities second only to sleeping.
The next time I passed the monastery a third monk asked me the same question. I was surprised that I wasn't offensive or resentful of being asked. However again I deflected the question back to him he explained that he was sweeping as a spiritual discipline to help him overcome his anger. Later as I walked the mountain trail with my bag of plants I felt a kinship with this monk like me he had
anger but I was perplexed that he would want to overcome it. For me my anger protected me. A week later I was again outside the monetary watching the monks sweep. yet another monk came up to me when he asked me what I was doing I mumbled something about collecting plants I doubt he could hear me my
voice was so faint. But I did muster up some strength to ask him what he was doing. he replied that he was beautifying the monastery so that others may be inspired in their work of spiritual transformation before I left him I glanced down the well swept paths and realized that part of the reason I was compelled to
watch the monks sweep was that they seemed to be transforming the paths into something that made me feel peaceful.
The next time I stood outside the monastery watching the monks I was drawn to walk over to a fifth monk and before he could ask me what I was doing I asked him. He looked at me with kind eyes and after what seemed like a long but quite soft silence he explained that he was sweeping to be of service to all who used the monastery in practicing this way he hoped to find the ultimate peace. as I left the monastery that day I thought his answer strange because I didn't understand what he meant by service and peace I certainly couldn't see how these had any value for me.
The next time I visited the monastery for the last time I had an unfamiliar feeling as I walked up into the mountains. Just before I reached the monastery I guessed that i was looking forward to seeing the monks again I felt a warm glow of gladness in anticipation by what I would find. When I arrived at the monastery I walked right up to the old monk who seemed absorbed by the sweeping. I inquired what he was doing. as he answered each of his words washed over me like cleansing water: me? he said I am not doing anything, my ego was swept away long ago. There is no I that does anything now the awakened life moves through my body my mind my heart and my mouth no one sweeps there are no paths to sweep and there is no dirt to brush away. I was stunned by his answer and before I could respond he handed me the broom and walked away.
I have been here ever since.