Mental health counsellors often recommend that clients clean their home environments every day. Dirt and squalor can be symptoms of unhappiness or illness. But cleanliness is not only about mental health. It is the most basic practice that all forms of Japanese Buddhism have in common. In Japanese Buddhism, it is said that what you must do in the pursuit of your spirituality is clean, clean, clean. This is because the practice of cleaning is powerful.
Of course, as a monk who is dedicated to spiritual life, I recommend Buddhist concepts and practices. But you don’t have to convert to a new religion to learn from it. Many people’s associations with the word “religion” may include a set of rules to regulate people’s values and actions; the creation of an irrational transcendent entity; or the idea of a crutch for people who cannot think for themselves. In my view, though, a respectable religion does not exist to bind one’s values or actions. It is there to free people from the systems and standards that order society. In Japanese characters, the word “freedom” is written as “caused by oneself”.
Cleaning practice, by which I mean the routines whereby we sweep, wipe, polish, wash and tidy, is one step on this path towards inner peace. In Japanese Buddhism, we don’t separate a self from its environment, and cleaning expresses our respect for and sense of wholeness with the world that surrounds us.
You can see the presence of nature in the Japanese traditions of sado (tea ceremonies) or kado (flower arranging), which were both originally born from Buddhism. But the idea of “nature” in Japan has been strongly influenced by western culture. Pronounced “shizen”, the characters reflect a human-centred version of the world in which humans stand at the top of a hierarchy as the agent or messenger of the creator.
But there is another sense of “nature” derived from ancient Japanese. Pronounced “jinen”, the same characters once meant “let it go” or “it is as it is” – a definition much closer to Buddhist philosophy, with its links to animism and the worship of nature.
After Buddhism and the other philosophies were introduced to the Japanese people, they began to see nature not only in humans, but also in all sentient beings, and even in mountains, rivers, plants and trees. This view of nature persists in modern Japanese culture – for example in Pokémon’s characters or Studio Ghibli films such as Arrietty, with their environmentalist messages. As a result, even when we pronounce the characters for nature as “shizen”, the term still carries with it the Japanese idea that humans are not excluded from nature, but are part of it.
Buddhism says the notion that you have your own personality is an illusion that your ego creates – and cleaning is a means to let go of this. The characters for “human being” in Japanese mean “person” and “between”. Human being is “a person in between”. Thus, you as a human being only exist through your relations with others – people such as friends, colleagues and family. You as a person have some particular words, facial expressions and behaviours, but these arise only through your interaction and connections with other people. This is the Buddhist concept “en” or interdependence.
Buddhist cleaning practice provides each of us with an opportunity to understand this concept. You don’t have to acquire special techniques, hire a professional cleaning consultant, or perform the special rituals used by senior monks.
The basics are very simple. Sweep from the top to the bottom of your home, wipe along the stream of objects and handle everything with care. After you start cleaning your home, you can extend cleaning practice to other things, including your body. How you can apply cleaning practice to your mind is a question I want to leave unanswered, but if you practise cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning, you will eventually know that you have been cleaning your inner world along with the outer one.
Of course Japanese temples sometimes employ cleaners when they are short of hands. But Buddhist monks also clean by themselves. This is because the cleaning practice is not a tool but a purpose in itself. Would you outsource your meditation practice to others?
As with meditation practice, there is no endpoint of the cleaning practice. Right after I am satisfied with the cleanliness of the garden I have swept, fallen leaves and dust begin to accumulate. Similarly, right after I feel peaceful with my ego-less mindfulness, anger or anxiety begin once again to emerge in my mind. The ego endlessly arises in my mind, so I keep cleaning for my inner peace. No cleaning, no life.
• Shoukei Matsumoto is a Buddhist monk at the Komyoji temple in Tokyo. A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind is published by Penguin