Jordan Peterson since well before the publication of his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life has been making a splash with, among other dicta: clean up your room; the idea being that if you can’t bring attention, decency, and integrity to your corner of the world you have no right to hold placards, march, or otherwise demand policy etc. changes in the broader world. Self-mastery first, he asserts. I agree. I am reminded of my early days of Buddhist training in Howell NJ with my late Teacher Khensur Lobsang Tharchin. During a period after older attendants had relocated elsewhere and before newly appointed attendants had arrived from India, my duties included caretaking, cooking, admin work, yard work and general serving at the Temple in Howell.
The very first week I had brought down his lunch tray and placed the dishes in the sink. Pulled away to attend to other tasks that included admin work for a grant-funded project, I forgot about the dishes.
At around 2 in the afternoon, Rinpoche, who was then around 70 and possessed of the regal bearing of a seasoned and ethically impeccable monastic, came quietly down the stairs for his afternoon walk around the Temple grounds. As usual I stood from where I was in the back office as he descended the stairs, and I followed him into the kitchen to open the front door for him.
But before going to the door, he walked over to the kitchen sink, peered down at the dishes and said only:
Just two words delivering a universe of meaning.
He did not appear displeased, angry, or annoyed. He simply uttered: Still there? with the perfect impactfulness that only true masters embody. After that, I gained an indelible appreciation of the beauty and dignity of cleaning up promptly, and offering kindness, selflessness, and respect by trying never to subject another to a mess, however insignificant that might seem.
Some people argue: oh you just have higher standards of cleanliness than I do. Perhaps, and I certainly know those whose standards far exceed my own. But we know those foody bits stuck in the drain trap are not supposed to stay in a sink that is to be called clean. Those crumbs and sauce on the counter and stove are not placed there purposely to add joy to our lives. We know that disorder and filth degrade the energy of a space, and when our space is degraded we feel it, and it affects us.
Venerable Ayya Tathaaloka, founder of Dhammadharini Monastery in California, in one of her videos said that a good monastic always leaves a washroom, any washroom, cleaner than when s/he came in. I can’t tell you how many public washrooms have invited me to pick up paper towels off the floor, wipe around the sink, and even the toilet. I always walk out with the satisfaction of offering a gift to the next person using the space. While that next person might trash my efforts through disregard, heedless entitlement, and the completely self-harming confusion that the world should be treated as a garbage can, I get to walk away with peace of mind and joy and sometimes even feel cloud 9 beneath my feet. Some people might find this virtue signaling reprehensible and politically incorrect. But I have that much faith in what people I respect and admire have taught and practiced.
Some people prefer to pay someone to do their cleaning. Fair enough, if you can afford it. But you’re also missing out on a valid spiritual practice with the potential to clear many an inner veil. Ever notice how a cleaning run, or even picking up garbage on the sidewalk and placing it in a bin leaves you feeling exhilarated? It’s magic.
Have I succeeded every time with the ethic of orderliness and cleanliness? Definitely not. But rarely after that “Still there?” episode did I let a plate touch the bottom of the sink for much more time than it took to soap the sponge, wash, and rinse it.