07 March 2023

Sweeping the clutter away

It is just after midnight and so, technically, it’s the 6th of March, Medin Poya. Coincidentally, a few hours ago, I chanced upon a photo that I have seen many times: that of a hamuduruwo sweeping, under a tree. There are some ruins just beyond what appears to be the perimeter of the temple premises and beyond these, some distance away, a weva. It’s a poignant capture of Buddhangala, Ampara. Tharindu Amunugama captions his photograph thus: ‘Sweeping the clutter away.’ Made for reflection on this poya day of the month Medin.

Now poya days have significance in the popular imagination of Buddhists. They are typically associated with some significant event in the life of the Buddha or the history of Buddhism in the island. It is said that it was on a full moon day in Medin that the Buddha returned to Kapilavastupura, i.e., for this first time after the ‘abhinishkramanaya,’ when Prince Siddhartha left the kingdom, his wife Yashodara and their newborn son Rahula after witnessing the ‘Sahara peranimithi’ or the four signs that precipitated this decision, this departure: an elderly person, a sickly person, a dead person and an ascetic.  So the story goes.

I have also read an alternative version of the abhinishkramanaya, ‘Sabae Siduhath’ where the author, whose name I forget, citing various sutras, explains that Prince Siddhartha had to leave or face dispossession for disagreeing with a decision of the Sakyas to go to war against the Koliyas. He was convinced there had to be a different way out of the dilemma and that he would not return until he discovered it.  

Whichever story you want to believe (and it needed not be either of the above), what was discovered had something to do with ‘un-cluttering.’ For example, eliminating the fundamentally unwholesome conditions or qualities that obstruct the pursuit of truth or inhibit comprehension, lobha (greed), dosa (harted) and moha (delusion). The ‘how’ of it is explicated in the discourses related to the Noble Eightfold Path (Arya Ashtangika Margaya): samma ditthi (right understanding), samma sankappa (right thought), samma vaca (right speech), samma kammanta (right action), samma ajiva (right livelihood), samma vayama (right effort), samma sati (right mindfulness) and samma samadhi (right concentration).

This is not a lesson or discourse on the dhamma, for that is for teachers who are students deeply committed to understanding the dhamma, those who are consciously and actively engaged in an effort to un-clutter.

Sometimes parables help. Indeed, the Buddha frequently used examples and parables to illustrate a point or untie a complicated knot. Clutter clouds the mind. An ‘eyesore’ doesn’t exactly make for sober contemplation, unless of course one has developed a capacity to unpack, so to speak, the clutter, break it down to constituent parts and in this way hone the faculties that can draw the anitta (impermanence), dukkha (sorrowfulness) and anatma (without lasting essence) that are the quintessential markers of existence.

The more important lesson, I feel, is that of sweeping. Sweeping cleans up. Sweeping is an act, an exercise, the practice, something that informs and is informed by reflection, the ‘theory’ if you will or ‘the dhamma’ if you want to stick with the Buddhist metaphor.

The hamuduruwo is sweeping the clutter away. This is obvious. It is a simple exercise, sure, but one in which can contain, theoretically, each element of the Noble Eightfold Path. In fact, it seems to me, it is applicable to anything, any act great or small. Meditation. Capable of doing away with ‘clutter.’ Of all kinds.

As for the clutter showered upon us by others or circumstances, not all of it can be swept away as easily, but that does not forbid uncluttering. The cultivation of equanimity in the face of the ata-lo-dahama is what it is all about, it seems to me.

And now, about to leave for Ampara to attend the funeral of a young man who died in a tragic accident, it seems auspicious that this image of the hamuduruwo with an idala floated up from an ocean of visuals once again. It’s many hours to Ampara. Much clutter can be swept away.  

Sabbe satta bhavantu sukhitatta
. May all beings be free of sorrow. May there be wisdom and may it be deployed in clearing the pathways that lead to uncluttered regions. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart