I’m off on a Japanese literature craze on this blog. In The Book of Tea there’s Teaism, In Praise of Shadows there’s a celebration of candles, and now it’s a look at the joys of cleaning.
And why not? It’s a weird time. Many of us are self-isolating due to the coronavirus and are spending more time than ever in our homes.
It’s also a stressful time—plus, an anxious one. It’s a major international crisis last in evidence during WWII and its aftermath.
For those stuck at home, with worries of the world, what can you do to take your mind off things? And what can you do to find peace of mind?
A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind
Shoukei Matsumoto’s work from 2018 discusses the therapeutic joys of cleaning. How by ensuring your home is clutter free, it provides you with a creative and relaxing impetus.
And with many countries now in lockdown, with many millions in their homes, now is the time to embrace his Buddhist concepts.
Not just temporarily, either. But in the aftermath—when the coronavirus disperses and the normal grind returns.
We must remember what’s happened, with a shift towards magnanimous and socialistic practices to support everyone in society.
And a shift away from wild capitalistic excesses, primarily the belief happiness and success in life is about wealth. To achieve that? Connive, manipulate, compete, and revel in greed.
Minimalism, in short, is all important in this day and age. As is humility.
Clarity, happiness, success, and mindfulness arrive due to some of the most simplistic elements of life. And it’s time for the world to embrace a socioeconomic shift.
Wishful thinking on my part, but at the very least you can read this short work.
It’s by a master of minimalism, whose simplistic approach offers an assured passage to peace of mind in troubling times.
Keeping It Clean
There are six chapters here I’m working through, plus a few opening segments that discuss the importance of housework.
Now, in the east this is a common and happily accepted part of life. In the west, cleaning is classified as a chore and is a generally undesirable activity.
Worse, it has negative connotations. An activity dumped onto women for generations as an oppressive and sexist act, whilst the man is out of the house earning the money.
But some of those negative connotations do shift over to men. When renting, for example, landlords may view a single male cautiously.
Perhaps rightly so, as a lot of men are incredibly lazy when it comes to the simple act of cleaning their home.
I’ve come across men, and women, in flatshares (and otherwise) who simply couldn’t fathom the idea of keeping their place clean.
I’m not uptight about this, here with an air of superiority—that’s not my goal.
I’m not OCD or cleanliness obsessed—it’s just a habit I’ve gotten into as I live alone. And I’ve come to enjoy the cleaning process. It was a natural progression, one helped along by my interest in Japanese literature.
And now I can reflect back and remember the laziness I saw when living with people. My pointless laziness, too, as I don’t claim I was a saint during my university years. Partying ensured that wasn’t possible.
But the behaviour of some others was remarkable. When in London studying my MA, there was a spoiled brat from a wealthy family abroad who normally had maids cleaning up after him.
He never did the dishes. We lived in a tiny London flatshare in Putney with the smallest kitchen imaginable. He’d spend hours in there cooking (something he was new to, but did at least embrace) and then dump his dishes in the sink. And they’d be there for weeks after. Request he’d do his dishes and he’d have a spoiled brat rage.
Looking back, I recognise a theme of self-absorbed young guys who just couldn’t be bothered. For many of them, they had mothers at home who’d taken care of all that for 18 years.
Now, faced with having to manage it all for the first time in their lives, obstinacy kicked in. Why bother? So, whilst at my first uni, it was the norm for almost every guy—especially with the dishes. Women were, usually, more conscientious about it.
But in my third year of 2005-2006 in Nottingham, the dishes were a constant source of debate. Due to one guy, Bernard (not his real name)—he just never did his dishes. Ever. They’d be sitting there for weeks. The remaining four of us, usually, would get fed up and do them for him, ensuring he won every time.
Bernard also had a lovely girlfriend, whom he cheated on constantly. Once within feet of her. Kind of says it all about the guy. She did, at least, eventually see sense and dump him.
At another location in 2010, some 18 year old neighbours in their first flatshare came across a problem.
They had no wheelie bins. Their solution? Not to contact the council for some. Instead, they just chucked all their rubbish out of the back window into the garden. There were many Pot Noodle cartons.
Before long it was a tip. One which my other neighbours complained about to the council, who sent a guy round to clean their mess up.
But it’s not always men. Years after university, I had a date with a young lady in Manchester. A borderline genius, she’d studied physics at Oxford. And at that point in June 2014, her landlord was getting combative due to her flat remaining in a state of total disarray.
She couldn’t comprehend all she had to do was clean the place. Do that once a week—sorted.
And it’s enjoyable! I’m serious here. Cleaning your home (“chores”) offers a sense of accomplishment. It’s also genuinely calming.
Most of the time. There are some laborious tasks that may not feel like it. Hoovering your home is noisy, irritating, and tiring.
But whether you’re in a house, flat, bungalow, houseboat, or cave, in the aftermath you can get a glowing sense of purpose.
What I’m on about here is the strange confusion and distancing many people have with basic chores. It seems a western thing. In the east, they just do it. And gladly.
Whereas here in England, from my experiences, chores are eyed warily as a tedious irrelevance. Almost as if they’re an assault on your very being. It’s some lazy remnant of our teenage years kicking in, where someone else should take care of it.
Well, we’re adults now. And we have to do them. So why not make the most of it?
“Think of your house as an allegory for your body. Keep cleaning it every day.”
Shoukei Matsumoto is a Buddhist monk at Komyoji Temple in Kamiyacho, Tokyo. There, since 2003, in the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji sect he’s learned about peace of mind and the road to enlightenment.
Monks start each and every day with a cleaning routine. Typically, sweeping the temple grounds. As he explains:
“We don’t do this because it’s dirty or messy. We do it to eliminate the gloom in our hearts.”
So, yes, he’s big on his Buddhist philosophy. And why not? As a way of life it’s helped many individuals maintain peace of mind—that’s over thousands of years.
It’s a methodical, almost stoic, approach to life. And it carries over into the atmosphere of a temple.
“When you visit a temple, you feel a blissful tension in the tranquil space. The gardens are well tended and spotless, without a single leaf on the ground. Inside the main temple hall, you naturally sit tall and feel alert. These things serve to calm the mind.”
What Matsumoto calls for is a sense of conscientiousness. Careless living will spoil the mind.
“If your world is bright, you will be kinder to others.”
Now, that’s a magnanimous approach right there. The Buddhist stance is aimed at cultivating the mind. And we can all achieve part of this through an uncomplicated focus on chores.
Think scrubbing the dishes, looking after your carpets, wooden floor, the bathroom etc.
And with the bathroom, I covered this in Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows—how the Japanese have a no-nonsense approach to the humble toilet.
Whereas those in the west, particularly here in England, scatology is a constant source of extreme hilarity. It’s a way of life for us.
However, I’ll take all that seriously—Matsumoto’s words are as wise as Tanizaki’s. But, yes, I’ll put aside several decades worth of puerile sensibilities for that chapter. And why?
“Your everyday domestic chores will become a way to clean your heart. This will improve the condition not just of your own mind, but of the minds of the people around you. I hope readers will discover that daily housework is an opportunity to contemplate the self.”
Is there much to get your head around here? Yes and no. Cleaning stuff is about cleaning stuff. You have your cleaning implements, some toxic bleach, those weird yellow rubber gloves, and a sense of dread.
I find it odd so many people head into cleaning armed with the harshest bleach possible, full of chemicals. I worked in a Wetherspoons (a pub branch here in England) in 2008 and was ordered to spray harsh cleaning chemicals over dining tables.
The bottles had massive warning symbols on the side, highlighting the toxicity of the product. The rest of the time, they were locked away in cupboards because they’re dangerous.
Was it really a good idea to spray them in areas where old people and young kids would be sitting and eating? Or anyone with a potential allergy?
For me, breathing in the fumes going from table to table was enough to make me dizzy.
Of course, the stuff was cheap—Tim Martin, the owner of Wetherspoons, has proven his state of mind during the coronavirus outbreak. Empathy isn’t his strong point.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump thinks it’s a great idea to inject bleach to battle coronavirus. But various bleach companies and toxicology experts have issued public statements indicating it’s a thoroughly bad idea.
Trump has also said malaria treatments could cure coronavirus. So, yes, we’ve now all seen a lot of experts desperately pleading with the public not to consume bleach. Please—DO NOT consume any bleach!
Anyway, it’s also a good idea to avoid using the stuff around your home.
The simple solution? Head for brands such as Ecover. It produces sound cleaning products with biodegradable ingredients. It’s also had a change of branding recently, going for a combative bit of copy.
“In some common household chore. Made uncommonly good by the power of our new formulas. Salvation comes in the strangest of places. Like a basketload of dirty socks and crumpled tees.
And all you have to do is choose. Choose to wear your goddamn clothes for longer. Making them last as long as they can. And looking fine as hell doing it.”
My point here is not to approach cleaning begrudgingly.
Think it through properly—buy products that are good for you and nature, not just because it’s “normal” to use the most brutal bleach you can buy. As Matsumoto puts it:
“Japanese people have always regarded cleaning as more than a common chore. It’s normal here for elementary and junior high school students to clean their classroom together, although I’ve heard that this isn’t done in schools abroad. It probably has to do with the notion in Japan that cleaning isn’t just about removing dirt. It’s also linked to ‘cultivating the mind’.”
He adds that cleaning isn’t thought of as a burden. Also up for discussion is what constitutes rubbish. It’s the norm to classify certain things as trash once we make that decision—even if something is, essentially, still in good working order.
“In Buddhism, it is believed that nothing has a physical form (tai). That is, there is no substance in anything in and of itself. Mottainai, the Japanese term for ‘wasteful’, originates from this word. But if something has no substance, how does it exist? Things exist because all things relate with each other to support each other’s existence. Humans are the same. The people and things in your life are what makes you who you are. This is why it’s not for you to judge whether something is useful, or to designate things you can’t use as rubbish.”
And this is where the crossover into our professional and social lives begins. If you treat things poorly, there’s a possibility you’ll head into the world with the same attitude towards those around you.
“People who don’t respect objects don’t respect people. For them, anything no longer needed is just rubbish. A child who grows up watching their parents act this way comes to perceive not just things but friends in the same way as well.”
Matsumoto then explains his concept for when you should go about cleaning. For him, it’s every single morning. For the above reasons—to cultivate his mind.
Unsui monks (Zen apprentices) begin their day with an early start. They wash their faces with cold water, then will begin cleaning. Dusting the temple etc.
For most of us, that’s not a possibility. We’ll head off to work with a lengthy commute ahead. Or at the weekend, cleaning isn’t particularly on your mind.
During the working week, some folks may go to the gym—or start their work. I wake up early and write, generally, with the same approach Matsumoto has to cleaning.
I drink tea, enjoy the peace and quiet, and write as much as possible. By 9am I have a vast amount done and can get on with the rest of my day.
All of which has a purpose for our magnanimous monk.
“Exposing your body to the cold in the pre-dawn air naturally makes you feel charged, filling you with energy for the tasks ahead. And cleaning quietly while the silence envelops you – before other people and plants awaken – refreshes and clears your mind. By the time everyone else is emerging, you’ve finished your cleaning and are all set for the day’s work. Cleaning in the morning creates a breathing space for your mind so you can have a pleasant day.”
He also mentions the importance of airing your home. Get a good breeze blasting through it.
As all this confirms for him, “Cleaning is a way to converse with nature.” As well as to protect our home from the elements.
“By cleaning and looking after your home, maintaining a balance with the raw forces of nature, you can preserve it in a state that allows comfortable habitation. Humans are primarily weak creatures who cannot survive long without shelter against the elements. This is why we must make adjustments to the environment we live in.”
Of course, if you let your household crumble to dirt and rubbish you’ll also invite all manner of germs in. Plus, rats may become attracted to food you leave about the place.
So, peace of mind and therapeutic joy for the spick and span home you have—yet, you also ensure you’re not besieged by a small army of curious rodents.
Matsumoto doesn’t mention them in his work, but cleanliness is part of all this. Especially if you live in a big city where rats are everywhere.
Now, we really like rodents. Rats are super smart, inquisitive, and fun creatures. But they’re also out to survive. If you leave your home a mess, they’ll come in and dine.
This is also the case with insects, which our monk does address.
“It is important to find ways to live that will enable you to avoid killing other living things. The foundation for this is daily cleaning. Insects come out in search of food and places to lay eggs. If you leave crumbs on the dining table and dishes unwashed or don’t take out the rubbish, insects will naturally emerge. Cleaning up properly after each meal is thus the first step towards abstaining from killing insects. It’s important to create an environment that doesn’t allow insects to breed.”
“For the sake of both humans and insects, please be kind to and respectful of life.”
That refers back to my assault on bleach, which is hardly the most environmentally friendly product to use in the name of cleaning your toilet, eh?
And Matsumoto concludes the chapter with a consideration on how and when you should approach your cleaning.
“Think flexibly and do your cleaning in tune with the movements of nature. In a regular home, it might be a good idea to establish certain arrangements, such as designating rainy days as days to do repair work. If you survey your home, you will always find things that need your attention.”
Zengosaidan is the term he refers to. It means to do all you can in any given day, so as not to have regrets tomorrow. In short, don’t put stuff off until tomorrow.
This helps to avoid grieving about the past—or worrying for the future. He mentions how people may even dream about the chores they have to do, rather than having a more fulfilling night of sleep.
Right, so you can’t just go at your cleaning with your bare hands and a crowbar. You need proper cleaning implements, sir or madam.
Monks wear samue (作務衣) robes for their duties. Cleaning and looking after the temple also has a term—samu.
They also have tenugui (手拭い) hand towels. They’ll often wrap these around their head, with some claiming it mentally prepares them for the day ahead.
Add to that some setta sandals. All of these items have been around for a very long time, of course. The sandals originated in the era of Senrikyuu between 1522–91.
Right, so the above lot may not interest your average household bound individual. Doreen from Bolton, for example, isn’t going to go for the full monk garb.
Matsumoto does cover more recognisable items, such as gloves, brooms, dustpans etc.
The broom is iconic for monks, you can picture them sweeping away and finding peace of mind whilst doing so.
Apparently, many monks find enlightenment whilst sweeping. However, his mention of a brush and feather duster is added in there. For most people in the west, we’re looking at:
- Your normal clothes
- A scrubbing implement
- Rubber gloves
- Industrial bleach (no!)
And you can skip the last one out for Ecover products or similar. With that in mind, here we go. It’s the big three: The Kitchen, Bathroom, and Toilet. Matsumoto takes one at a time.
“Tenzo epitomise those on the path to enlightenment who possess pure hearts, unplagued by worldly desire, so it is essential that they devote their hearts and souls to work in the kitchen.”
The tenzo is a chef. It’s a very important role in any Buddhist temple.
I’ve worked in a kitchen before, as well as a busy pub in Manchester city centre. The carnage that goes on is remarkable. George Orwell pays homage (of sorts) to it all in Down and Out in Paris and London.
With so many orders for food so rapidly, filth and grime rapidly build up. At the end of a shift, it’s common to see a scene of total devastation.
The result? Restaurants and hotels have a thorough cleaning strategy in place, which they must carry out daily. There are food hygiene standards to meet, after all.
In your home, it’s a bit different. No one is going to close you down if you leave a pan of baked beans remnants in your kitchen for a month.
And I refer back to my opening ramble—my time at university and the inability of some to do the dishes.
It was an almost catatonic inability to just spend a few minutes cleaning up after a cooking spree. And it caused a lot of acrimony and anger during my university years.
For the Buddhist monks, it’s an almost intrinsic part of their duties. To clean up after themselves and to keep everything tidy constantly. Again, to alleviate and cultivate the mind.
Which leaves them to get on with enjoying their food. As Buddhism revels in minimalism, the diet for the monks largely consists of fresh vegetables.
“The cornerstone of a monk’s diet is vegetarian food. Meat and fish are, of course, prohibited, but vegetables that have a strong odour such as onions, leeks and garlic, are also not acceptable for cooking.
Ingredients like konbu (a variety of kelp) and shiitake mushrooms are popular with many of the monks I am acquainted with for the exquisite dashi soup stock that they can produce.”
The monks also have a focus on environmental issues, such as reducing waste.
“It is essential to leave as little cooking waste as possible. Using up all or as much of your ingredients as possible will naturally reduce the amount of waste you produce.”
And he also addresses the nature of mess around your average household. If you’re with your family, then each meal generates a mass of it.
“Even if you are part of a regular household, you will find that making an effort to consume a diet as similar to a monk’s as possible brings many benefits. Cleaning up after meals becomes much easier, and the more you stick with this diet the more you will appreciate it.”
For cleaning, he recommends baking soda for your sink. And to avoid soaking plates, pots, pans, and utensils overnight—that’s “not acceptable”.
You must take that task on right away. As he reminds us, it’s the way of the Zen monks. And it saves a lot of faffing about and arguing after a cooking spree.
He concludes with a brief section on the secret to washing your dishes. He insists you shouldn’t let them pile up (good man). To ensure you don’t let that happen:
“Visualise what kind of meal you are going to cook and do only the work necessary for this meal.”
Snigger time. Yes, we have to clean the bathroom. Obviously. It’s really not a good idea not to do so.
Brits in particular will struggle to keep a straight face for such areas of Matsumoto’s book. But for Buddhist monks, the bathroom takes on a whole new level.
“According to tradition, unsui monks of the Soto Zen sect must obey the ‘Three Mandas of Silence’, which forbid them to speak in three areas of the temple: the zodo hall (where monks meditate, eat and sleep), the yokusu (bathroom), and the tousu (toilet).”
For Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows highlighted his reverie for the humble toilet. The Japanese view it as something of a silent sanctuary where they can do deep thinking.
If you’re from England and have used a public lavatory, or went to high school and tried to use a toilet, that relaxing possibility is long since shattered. It was an ordeal then, it’s an ordeal now.
Frankly, the only bathroom safe haven you’ll get is in your home. Everywhere else is a free-for-all.
Well, they’re a lot more disciplined in Japan. And Matsumoto highlights how water is essential for he Three Mandas of Silence (also called the Noble Silence).
“Water, the basis of all life, enters and circulates through our body before leaving it and becoming part of nature again in these three areas, and silence enables us to be mindful of the cycle of life. It is therefore very important to keep the hall, bathroom and toilet meticulously clean.”
He indicates monks use the bath as quietly as possible. They don’t dive bomb into the thing, the aim is to glide in and not splash water everywhere.
Of course, the bathroom is one of the most important areas to keep clean. Otherwise it’ll quickly become overgrown with mould and other such stuff.
“If you allow dirt left by the basis of life, water, to form, then impurities will accumulate within your heart as well. Conversely, if the bathroom is kept clean, then you can keep your heart clean as well. ‘The highest excellence is like water.’ These words from the Tao Te Ching convey that the ideal way of life is like water: flexible and calm.”
Right, how can you go about keeping it sparkling clean? A lot of people will head for the bleach at this point.
To be clear on this, bleach has harmful effects on your body. Inhaling the fumes really doesn’t do you any good. The leftover chemical residue doesn’t do you any good. And it certainly isn’t any good for the environment.
Also, chlorine-based bleaches can damage your eyes and skin. It can also cause:
- Skin rashes
- Extreme headaches
- Abdominal pains
- Esophageal perforation
- Damage to your nervous system
If you live in a poorly ventilated home, such as a dinky flat, the toxins in the fumes can pose a health hazard. You really shouldn’t use bleach. Go with more sustainable options, again with Ecover or other brands like Method.
I find it quite absurd you can still even buy harsh, bargain bin, no frills bleach in supermarkets. And blissfully ignorant mothers get the stuff and pour it out at home the moment there’s a spillage.
Nope! Get something better and follow Matsumoto’s advice.
“After cleaning the bathroom, you may find yourself so relaxed that you hum without thinking. However, as the bathroom is one of the Three Mandas, why not try from time to time cleaning it in complete silence instead?”
That paragraph is what happens to myself after a cleaning spree. The sense of accomplishment and relaxation—all is clean! Mindful cultivation and whatnot.
The bog (tousu—東司) is, of course, another matter entirely. Matsumoto notes, with a hint of impending doom.
“This is where the true colours of a household are revealed.”
Indeed. Yes, so in England this is a touchy subject. An awkward nation, we tend to ignore discussing this openly. Or, if we do, it’s to make crude jokes.
I still find it surprising to read the likes of A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind or In Praise of Shadows. An entire section dedicated to toilets!
From In Praise of Shadows, Tanizaki is particularly open about his stance on it. He writes whimsically about the experience and its many joys. Turn that extract into a sketch in a comedy show and us lot in the west would be laughing.
It’s a bit different for Buddhist monks.
“Since the toilet is an area that allows us to expel impurities, it is vital that our cleaning of it be thorough, leaving not even a fingerprint behind.”
There’s even a toilet ritual to follow. It’s pretty strict, but with good intentions.
“The toilet etiquette carefully observed by Zen monks, established by Master Dogen (AD 1200–1253), is to utter not a single word, and to keep the area clean.”
So, yes, Monks take cleanliness here very seriously. The state of the toilet reflects on the state of an individual’s entire home. Also, if it’s a disastrous mess, those using it will react accordingly. As in, feel less inclined to keep it tidy. And view the household negatively.
It’s funny, I suppose, as even in the west we associate the bath with calm and relaxation. Toilets? No, not at all. But for Buddhist monks, it’s quite the opposite.
“Since the toilet should be a place that is both calm enough for you to be able to relax, and clean enough to make you conscious of the way in which you use it, always endeavour to clean this room as often as possible.”
And so, you should endeavour to keep it clean. How do you do that? Well, good old industrial grade bleach, eh!? Or…
“The basic secret to keeping a toilet clean is to use it in a clean way.”
Later in the book, there’s a brief section on bodily functions. Monks have a toilet etiquette to follow, promoting a mindful approach to using it. He also calls for the consideration of others.
“Every time you step into your toilet you should appreciate how your body is expelling toxins and waste. You should feel refreshed and grateful.”
Other Parts of the Home
Okay, by now you should have a decent idea as to the monk mindset. Everything is about inner harmony, household repose, and routine.
The main point is to get the cleaning done pronto, rather than let it build up. Then you’ll have less of a chore on your hands.
So, chop chop, let’s take a look at the other areas of your home you should take care of.
Buddhist monks spend a large amount of time sweeping and polishing floors. In this work, Matsumoto regularly mentions how remarkably clean temples are.
They typically polish the floors every day to keep such a high standard. That’s an ancient outlook that’s led to impeccable results.
“Since the floors are thoroughly polished day in and day out, every inch of them is beautiful, with their surface, blackened through hundreds of years of use, taking on an almost translucent, fossilized look.”
So for the monks, it’s not really about cleaning them. It’s more about upkeep—maintaining such eye-catching levels of cleanliness.
“So you might be wondering what is the point of cleaning something that is already spotless. But for monks the physical act of polishing the floor is analogous to cleaning the earthly dirt from your soul.”
I have a wooden floor in my flat, but a lot of people have carpets. I guess that means a lot of hoovering, which I usually don’t find enjoyable.
Largely because of the pelting noise it creates, which disrupts my misophonia and tinnitus. Snowflake! Anyway, you can stick headphones in to get around that.
Hoovering (or vacuuming, if you please) is pretty full-on exercise, too. So just view it as a minor workout routine.
The music choice may not be the monk way, of course. Matsumoto suggests peace and quiet if you’re polishing a wooden floor.
The Tokonoma and Butsuma
The tokonoma (床の間, toko-no-ma) is a decorative alcove. It’s a big part of Japanese tradition and a celebrated aspect of the nation’s culture—there’s often a bonsai tree sitting in them looking all wonderful.
It started during the Edo period (which I mention extensively in my review of Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa).
There’s usually a kakejiku (掛軸) scroll in the mix. Throw in some flowers and incense and you’ve got a first rate toko on your hands.
The butsuma, meanwhile, is a Buddhist altar. When monks visit someone’s home, they’ll be led to this area and to recite sutra.
Matsumoto is rather critical of anyone who doesn’t keep this area clean. This is because it is each family’s temple, so it’s important to maintain high standards.
“In extreme cases I have even seen the space around the altar turned into a veritable storage space for dusty, unused furniture and exercise equipment. I cannot help but feel bad when I behold such a sight.”
So, it’s important to clean it daily. As this is a place to express gratitude—whether you’re in an apartment or mansion, you should endeavour to maintain one.
In many respects, it reminds me of the special tea rooms Kakuzo Okakura discusses in The Book of Tea—chashitsu (茶室, “tea room”).
Japanese people go to great lengths to make these rooms minimalistic but appealing. Simply so you can bask in silence and enjoy tea.
Matsumoto wants these all to be as clean as possible. Right down to the shoji paper doors, which often need repairs due to torn paper.
But, obviously, if any of the above are a mess, then it’s a reflection on your household. Keep it clean and tidy!
Clothes and laundry are next up, with our monk encouraging us all to have a new set of clothes for each season.
More importantly, washing is at the top of his agenda. For most of us these days, the washing machine will take care of all that for us. Doing so without is “unfathomable”, as Matsumoto puts it.
In the age before washing machines became commonplace, humans had to make do with smelling bad or scrubbing at clothes.
Usually a wooden washboard with cold water and soap. However, Matsumoto notes the monks do now have a communal washing machine. But for other matters (such as with their setta sandals) they’ll scrub at them by hand.
He also makes a statement which is most true.
“If there is a stain on your clothes, that spot becomes the focal point of your attention, making you unable to relax for the entire day.”
At my current role, there’s a colleague who often manages to get splodges of coffee on his various white shirts. And it annoys him so.
It’s the same for me, if I’m eating lunch and get some on myself I feel annoyed and self-conscious about it for the rest of the day. It’s a relief to get home and scrub it out permanently.
Matsumoto suggests a daily clothes washing process of:
- Put away
And it’s important to complete these tasks on the day they should be done. Don’t put it off. Otherwise it all builds up and adds to your stress levels.
He notes monks face common stains, which are indicative of the Buddhist way of life. The stains are:
And that’s a pretty fitting testament to what monks do on a daily basis to find personal fulfillment. And his solution for removing stains is straightforward.
“To remove a stain, lightly damped the spot, and then was it with soap. Once you have rinsed it with water, the stain usually disappears, but it cases when it won’t budge, use baking soda or natural bleaching solutions to remove it.”
Baking soda plays a big part in natural cleaning processes. Again, a much better answer to your woes than industrial grade bleach.
However, you can also use lemon juice to alleviate stench. Or natural oils. Plus, good old fashioned incense.
I have to mention Marie Kondo, as she’s big on this and started a decluttering craze. Her mission is to “spark joy” in all of us.
As you can see, she has a Netflix show about all of it. Plus, multiple books.
She’s embraced the cleanliness celebrity lifestyle much more than Matsumoto, who tends to keep himself to himself.
From his perspective, the best type of wardrobe is made from paulownia wood.It helps to fend off insects, which appears to remain a continuous problem from temples in Japan. If you can, use that to store your stuff in.
They’re expensive, though, so many folks will resort to good old fashioned MDF to get their wardrobe fix.
His notes on storage end here, but I think it’s a big part in having a positive frame of mind in your home. Don’t have things lying around cluttering everywhere up.
Get it stored away. Then, as with Tanizaki’s advice, embrace those natural shadows—have a candle burning in the evening. And what you do have around in your home will dance to that tiny flaming churning away.
Doing the Dishes
Finally! It’s the big one. It’s as if this entire piece has built towards this moment. Are you ready?
Well, unsui monks actually wash their dishes whilst they eat. So, they kind of don’t wash their dishes in any standard sense elsewhere.
They have six oryoki bowls that provide for all of their daily meals. They differ in size slightly, so can rest inside the other to make everything compact.
The implements are washed naturally during the meal with a piece of lacquer ware (hassetsu). It has a small piece of cloth attached. The monks use this to scrape food from their respective plates as they eat.
At the end, hot water is poured over the dishes for purification purposes. They’re then dried with a cloth and it’s over.
That’s it. No weeks of bickering and acrimony between housemates, it’s just done and dusted at the end of the meal.
The monks take all this so seriously, if a dish is dropped then there are major repercussions.
“In Zen monasteries, to drop a bowl on the ground is such a great sin that the person responsible must go to the residencies of all the elder monks to apologise.”
He notes the importance of the right frame of mind for this—along with the importance of water. And why reducing waste is essential.
“A single drop of water left in the ladle can be drawn by a hundred million people’ goes one of our sayings. Just one drop of water can provide us with an opportunity to expand our consciousness of the bigger picture.
The emphasis on conservation which is at the heart of our way of life is not just an effort to be green. In order to remove impurities from the heart, you must reduce the wastefulness in your heart.”
Compare this to the spoiled individual I flatshared with in London during my MA. Once, another housemate challenged him on his laziness.
To which he responded by scrawling out a crude message on a piece of paper, concluding with the legend, “Don’t fuck with me.” He stuck that on her door for her to come home to. Charming, eh? He was 28 at the time.
Repairs and Maintenance
The unsui monks at the Eihei Temple only complete repairs on certain days. For example, any that have four or nine in them are good for mending clothes. There’s a term for this—shikunichi (四九日).
Matsumoto notes it’s common these days for people to buy a replacement for something when it breaks.
In Japan, they often repair broken objects. One option is called kintsugi (金継ぎ—golden joinery), where powdered gold, silver, or platinum is in use fixing broken pottery.
As there’s a healing and restorative nature to the process, many with mental health issues or personal tragedies have taken it up as a hobby.
It’s a meticulous process that requires a lot of concentration, so you can see why this is of assistance.
“When you repair a torn seam, you also begin to repair the relationship between yourself and others.”
Matsumoto also recommends you should find a new use for an item if you can’t repair it. Repurposing objects is particularly essential in the modern era, where single use plastics are clogging up the planet.
But in doing so you’re really freeing up your imagination, rather than resorting to chucking it in a bin. It’s a pretty mindless action that achieves nothing.
And our monk ends the chapter on this rather enlightening note.
“People who endlessly chase after new things have lost their freedom to earthly desire. Only those who can enjoy using their imaginations when working with limited resources know true freedom.
What sort of life do you wish to lead?”
Body and Mind
Yoga enters the fray here as the self-help book enters a peace of mind phase.
Mental health issues are fraught in the modern world. Now I place much of the blame on this for the nature of big business capitalism, especially post-2008 financial crash.
A soaring cost of living crisis and poor wages leave most people struggling, whilst we have a socioeconomic stance that blames them for the situation capitalism has forced them into.
An actionable approach is to embrace minimalism and realise many of the fancy purchases deemed as desirable are utterly irrelevant.
You can achieve happiness through the simple things in life—minimalism. The likes of tea, creativity, and healthy food. They don’t cost much, yet offer incredible rewards.
And Matsumoto teaches of the benefits of simple mental health exercises.
He starts with breathing, which is a process we have control over (unlike our heartbeat etc.). He recommends you remain conscious of your breathing to remain composed.
If you become anxious or stressed, you’ll notice your breathing becomes ragged. For those with social anxiety disorders, it’s useful to breathe deeply to keep calm.
Matsumoto recommends the following process:
“Take a long, slow exhaling breath through your mouth, focusing on the spot just below your belly button. Imagine that you are squeezing the air out of that spot.
Once you have exhaled fully, begin inhaling through your nose, again focusing on the spot below your belly button. This time, picture that you are filling that spot with air.”
Next up is washing your face. He suggests doing so each and every morning. Most people probably do, but the Buddhist way often has hidden meanings.
In Zen, not washing your face at the start of the day means you’ll be impolite and hasty. So, there you go. That’s a warning for you.
In fact, he says you must not go out in public until you have done this. The monks use a senmenjukin to do so, which is a two-metre towel.
Add into this brushing your teeth. Gnashers. Whatever you want to call them. For monks, it’s a process called shinkui no sango involving the mind, body, and mouth.
The lesson from this is we have to polish our behaviours with our mind, body, and the human gob.
And brushing your teeth is a great start there. In part, because you don’t want to go about breathing garlic breath over your colleagues and whatnot.
Meals are next up. Before I get to Matsumoto’s notes, let’s have a look at the 2011 film Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
In the documentary, master sushi chef Jiro Ono (now 94 and still very much with us) applies many Buddhist practices to his tiny restaurant in the Tokyo underground.
Filmed in 2010 when he was 85, he talks of the importance of applying yourself to your work. And to always look for improvements—nothing is ever perfect.
Although he was three Michelin stars, so has maxed out perfection in the world of fine dining.
His approach to making meals is methodical and requires a lot of extra effort, but the results pay off.
Back to the book and Matsumoto mentions how, in this modern era, most of us are bustling along under the strains of 24/7 capitalism.
This lifestyle doesn’t lend itself well to healthy eating. The rise of junk food, quick fix snacks, and energy boosting products make for a quick fix with long-term problem. Such as soaring obesity rates.
He suggests we pay a little more attention to what we eat. I’ve certainly done this recently, the catalyst being lockdown. I’ve overhauled my diet.
However, I’m a tea/herbal tea drinker. I’ve done that since 2008—its health benefits and sense of ritual (Teaism) has been an essential part of my life since. I’m not alone, it’s deeply rooted in history.
“People who are interested in Japanese tea probably know that is was originally brought to Japan as medicine. You really cannot discuss the traditional Japanese tea ceremony without any mention of Buddhism. We think of our manners during meal time as just as important as during a formal tea ceremony.”
I’ve also come to savour eating meals more now I’ve switched away from eating crap—crisps, sweets, and the like.
Matsumoto notes the monks’ procedure in the temples is to give a word of thanks in a chorus. Then the enjoy their food in silent contemplation. Savouring every bite.
He also suggests aiming to stop when you’re around 80% full (there’s probably an app to record that for you).
He mentions shinshin ichinyo—that’s about the body and mind as one. Meals, manners, gratitude. They all add together to provide inner harmony. That peace of mind many of us are looking for.
There’s a traditional prayer he mentions called shokuzen. It goes as follows, verbatim:
“Many lives, and much hard work, have gone into the blessing that is this meal. I will show my appreciation by enjoying this food with a deep sense of gratitude.”
Finally, there’s sleep. This is absolutely essential in your function as a healthy, productive individual.
Matsumoto encourages hard work during the day and an early night, with an early start. As he points out, Buddha means “awakened one”.
So, as we rise each morning we should be looking to feel refreshed. Which really isn’t possible if you’ve had a cheese pizza with chips and gravy the night before, washed down with five beers.
But if you back off and stay 80% full, with a final herbal tea before bed, then the opposite may well come about.
When the Cleaning is Finished
In his conclusion, Matsumoto notes monks have a small space of a mat as their place of rest. It’s called a tatami mat, which measure a mere 180 centimetres by 85 centimetres.
It’s there they eat, sleep, and meditate. And they all live together—it’s very much a collective experience, this strive for mindful cultivation.
They usually work in total silence, with 10 other individuals over the course of the day. And they own very little.
“Quite honestly a life free of possession is very comfortable.”
He writes of the monk Ippen Shōnin (1234-1289) who was the founder of the Ji-shū section of Pure Land Buddhism. As with modern monks, Shōnin lived without possessions.
“By not being anchored down by worldly possessions, his mind was able to achieve true freedom.”
Matsumoto notes that living through simplicity, you only keep things of good quality that matter to you. As he puts it, you understand why you must treasure them.
Due to the skill others have imparted into making the things individually, as opposed to having them blasted off en masse from a production line.
In Yanagi Sōetsu’s (1889-1961) The Beauty of Everyday Things, he tells us of mingei (民衆的な工芸—minshū-teki-na kōgei). The hand-crafted art of ordinary people.
There, again, we find the real treasures in life. Not £40 million superyachts to support your ego. But a simple teapot, fashioned by a skilled individual.
Although I’m sure most capitalists would disagree. We’ve been taught to believe vast amounts of wealth are what bring personal success and happiness—and that wealth is success.
I just can’t agree with that anymore. A system of such capricious oddness, where luck, privilege, or being a complete tosser will get you further than skill and decency.
To become a millionaire, to become a billionaire, you typically ensure others receive vastly inferior wages and hoard excessive finances for yourself. And then acquire excessive worldly treasures that somehow come to define your worth. As if this justifies your existence.
Well, I picked up A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind for £5 ($6.18). You can, too.
You may not want to take the extreme measures of a Buddhist monk. But you’ll still learn a thing or two about common goals and humility.
As you can find beauty and solace in the most basic of things. And that can start with doing the dishes.
“There is an old Zen saying that goes, ‘Where there is nothing, there is everything.’ By letting go of everything, you can open up a universe of unlimited possibilities.”