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Cleaning with Hope

From the heights of Manhattan skyscrapers the people below look like ants hurrying through a surreal forest of molded glass and rock, full of purposeful design and color on the one hand and littered with needless things on the other.  It is winter in New York, but the morning is clear and tolerably cold.  Hope and I help each other sweep 36th Street, where Shinnyo-en’s Manhattan Training Center (MTC) is located, two busy ants slowly zigzagging our way toward Fifth Avenue.

Hope is originally from New York.  After living in Italy for several years, she and her family have recently returned to settle here.  She’s come early to the MTC.  It’s around 9:30 a.m.  Service, the ceremony where the Shinnyo Sangha (spiritual community) harmonize in chant, prayer, intent and learning of the Dharma (Buddhist teaching), won’t start for another hour and a half.  But another kind of service, gohoshi, that is, the practice of offering ourselves in service to others, has already begun.  Hope joins us.  We clean the MTC’s bathrooms, floor, carpets, tables, chairs and windows.  It always feels soothing, peaceful and refreshing to clean the MTC with my Sangha.

When Hope and I go outside to sweep the street, we talk about our backgrounds, keeping each other company while taking turns at sweeping and holding the dustpan and trash bag.  As we near the end of our cleaning route, we try to help each other figure out why even sweeping the streets, an activity that can feel embarrassing and even punitive to some, feels so much better than cleaning in the privacy of our own homes.  Is one act more beneficial than the other?  Does the peace we feel in doing the cleaning gohoshi come from within ourselves, or is it caused by the interconnectedness we feel in teamwork?  Or both?  Does it matter?

Street litter, the leftovers of moments in the lives of careless walkers, prompted these reflections.  Perhaps this is the main lesson I learned from cleaning with Hope: that reflections must accompany action; that reflecting on what makes an act of service peaceful or joyful can be as important and meaningful as its benefit to others; that without such necessary reflections the experience of cleaning a New York street, for instance, could become mere routine, something of limited benefit and void of liberating meaning—litter; that such necessary reflections may in fact yield the wisdom we need to continue to act and move farther along in our paths to peace.


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