Queen of Clean
…Moment by moment, wipe the mirror carefully/Let there be no dust upon it.
Head monk Shenxiu, in a poetry contest to succeed Hongren, the Fifth Ancestor of Chan
…From the beginning there is nothing at all/Where can the dust alight?
Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor
~ The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor
Never neat, in the past few months my garage has increasingly filled up with boxes of stuff ~ projects half finished, camping gear not put away, books moved out of the library. And the mess has sprawled to the corners and table tops of our house: almost everywhere I look, a cracked flower vase here, a old pear-shaped candle there; broken pencils and leaky pens now long dried; and more stacks of books. Fearing the worst, I went to psychiatry.org and looked up “Hoarding Disorder”, which is defined as: “A persistent difficulty in getting rid of or parting with possessions, leading to clutter that disrupts a person’s ability to use their living space.” After I could not get within three feel of my tool chest in my garage, that began to sound familiar to me. Then I came across a new Netflix reality series, called “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” She performs “life-changing magic” by teaching people to discard any thing in their house that does not “spark joy.”
It is frightening to see the five-foot naught Kondo, who speaks mostly Japanese, go into someone’s cluttered home for the first time, jump up and down with joy and squeal: “I like [sic] mess!!” One can’t help but feel we are watching Bambi encounter Godzilla, though this time the monster far out-matched. I have, however, been touched to see on the show the deeply emotional relationship people have to so much of their stuff. A young gay man, settling into a live-in relationship with his partner, needs to reconfigure their apartment. He goes through a old pile of his teenage-era poetry, which he was wrote just as he was first recognizing his gay feelings, and keeps them. A woman sorts through her recently deceased husband’s clothes, “His clothes were so big, his shoes so big,” she says with tears; their life together was big. And now, after 40 years, he is gone. One by one, she takes his articles of clothing, thanks them for their service, and puts them in a Goodwill pile (I recently heard that Goodwill is turning away the mounds of toss-offs the show is creating).
Back to my garage. Zen, thank god, is different from the KonMari Method, as we learn from Huineng in the above poem. It was with great relief that I recalled his verse in the Platform Sutra recently. These two lines, part of a poetry duel to establish a successor to the Fifth Patriarch, showed me that he was my kind of cleaner: from the beginning, there is nowhere for dust to settle, so what is left to clean up? Now, whenever I get the urge to clean my garage, I instead sit on my cushion for a time. After all, it was the messy guy who became the Sixth Ancestor.