At Green Dragon Temple in California, I met a man whose dharma name I can’t remember and whose given and family name I never knew. He was English and had grown up poor and scrappy. He had only four teeth in his mouth but as he said, he made good use of them. He and I got on like a house afire, for whatever strange subterranean reason people with different habits of humor and dentistry get along. I had the better teeth and he the better sense of irony. He taught me to curse like an Englishman, but in my well-denticulated mouth the words lost their cutting edge and left us both laughing.
His signature expression in any moment of frustration was: Jesus wept. You or I might have said, “Oh, for God’s sake,” but for him it was a headshake and a loud “Jesus wept,” with the “Jesus” drawn out on the first syllable so it sounded like “Jeeeeeeeesus wept.” For weeks I found this expression puzzling. As an expression of frustration it is puzzling. But what made it more puzzling to me was a slight mis-hearing of it. I was certain he was announcing that Jesus swept. Well, he grew up in a carpenter’s shop, I thought. Lots of sweeping. But what does that have to do with how difficult it was to get the old temple truck’s engine to turn over, or to wrestle with the plumbing in the student bathroom in Cloud Hall?
Sweeping is a Zen thing, engaged in by everyone—students, priests, abbots—with no questions asked. “Chop wood, carry water” is the practical expression of human life, and life at Green Dragon Temple involved plenty of that for those of us who lived there, whether for a week or a lifetime. Work is an important teacher in the Zen school, and a Zen student’s life is made up largely of meditation and work. Study is important, but getting out of the head and into the body, then beyond the body is the practice. “To study the way is to study the self,” said Zen master Dogen, “and to study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.” He said more, much more, volumes more, and the myriad things is still a mystery to me, but my own understanding of meditation is that by following the breath as it goes in and out of the body, the mind is freed, not dwelling on anything, just as the breath does not stay still or stuck in one place.
So sweep we did, much of the day at Green Dragon Temple. There was always something somewhere to sweep. One day I convinced my English friend that the roofs needed sweeping. The pine needles and leaves lay thick on the temple grounds and the many roofs of the temple buildings were covered with them as well. We rigged a rope and up I went, while he held the other end of it down on terra firma. He was deaf as a white mouse and every time I moved out of sight I heard a long loud “Jeeeeeesus wept” and a tug on the line just to make sure I was still there.
It was a glorious day, the sun shining out of the fog and the weedy, salty smell of the ocean coming up from Muir Beach. I was happy sweeping the rooftops and he seemed content holding the rope. He was a cynical man much of the time, but he had a heart capable of melting. I knew he had children and grandchildren, perhaps a wife. In temple life we knew very few details about one another and it didn’t matter. He and I were connected that day. That stout line of hemp held us together. But also the physical activity of making things right, of working, of sweeping, allowed us to leave our minds behind in a kind of self-forgetting. I wondered if Jesus actually swept, and I thought he might have, given as he was to finding a path to the ineffable regions of the spirit, sometimes called God.
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