Originally published in The Hindu on November 24, 2018

The morning sky is still pale when people begin to gather in central Tokyo’s Komyoji temple. It’s a motley crew of about a dozen, including salarymen, in full suit-and-tie regalia, a fashionista sporting a silver tote and an elderly gentleman in scuffed leather shoes. As the clock strikes 7.30, they shake off jackets, put down bags and grab brooms, pails and buckets.

For the next 30 minutes, they clean, in silence. Every inch of the temple’s cemetery, verandah and yard is methodically swept and polished. Afterwards, the group shares a cup of green tea with the presiding monk at the temple, Shoukei Matsumoto, before heading off to the rest of their day.

Mr. Matsumoto, author of A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, began holding these cleaning activities at the temple when he realised the benefits of transforming the meaning of cleaning in people’s lives, from a chore to avoid into a meditation practice. Aware of the need for innovation to keep Buddhism relevant in contemporary times, Mr. Matsumoto, who holds an MBA from Hyderabad’s Indian School of Business, explained that while sitting still in meditation is not for everyone, “cleaning is relevant to all people”.

According to him, cleaning is the art of cultivating the mind, not just removing dirt: a stark contrast to the idea that dealing with filth is polluting. It also helps achieve a state of mindfulness — the goal of Zen Buddhist meditation. The cultural roots of the centrality of cleanliness in Japanese society lie in Zen practice, where cleaning is an even greater part of a monk’s training than meditation. Mr. Matsumoto recalled how his three-year-long apprenticeship at a monastery in Kamakura involved about four-five hours of cleaning a day.

From the monasteries

It was from Buddhist monasteries that the centrality of cleaning eventually spread into the wider Japanese society. Today, school children clean their own classrooms, football fans invariably take their trash with them when leaving a stadium, shoes are always removed, not only before entering homes, but also at restaurants and often, in public spaces like museums.

Monk Shoukei Matsumoto, who holds cleaning activities at his temple, believes the meaning of cleaning can be transformed in people’s lives — from a chore to avoid into a meditation practice

At Komyoji, an office worker explained why he spends his mornings sweeping the temple grounds. “Cleaning is as important as drinking water and eating food. It is part of life and you should live your own life, not outsource it to someone else.” A middle-aged lady said she joined in to help her wake up early in the morning and face the day with focus. A young mother ventured that cleaning with others gave her an excuse to leave the house and spend some time in the company of adults.

Mr. Matsumoto explained that ultimately the goal of cleaning was cleaning. Nothing more. “There is no end to cleaning,” he said. “You sweep away a leaf and another one falls to take its place. That’s just fine. There is no difference between the process and the goal.”

The English edition of Mr. Matsumoto’s pithy book was published earlier this year. Some tips from it for the would-be cleaner: Cleaning should be done in the morning as the first activity of the day; it should be done quietly, while the silence envelops you.

The toilet is an area that Zen monks put a great deal of effort into keeping clean. Adherents believe that the Bodhisattva, Ucchusma, attained enlightenment in the toilet, making it a holy space. People who don’t respect objects don’t respect people. For them, anything no longer needed is just rubbish. “My purpose in writing the book,” concluded Mr. Matsumoto with a twinkle in the eye, “is to demonstrate that cleaning is fun. Don’t deprive yourself of the chance to enjoy it.”