In Zen China, the legendary poet Han Shan is often seen in ancient paintings beside his friend, Shide, who usually has a broom and a wild grin. That broom tells us a lot about Shide; it displays his mind.
Today as I was sweeping near my doorway, I remembered a scene from 30 years ago at a Zen center. I was in retreat in downtown L.A. and for some reason I had a quiet room off the zendo, which I appreciated. One morning, as I was leaving my room for the chore period, and feeling ambiguous about showing up, I stepped onto the porch and saw our teacher on his hands and knees sweeping the dust. I was surprised that a person of his position would have done such an ordinary task. But as I considered him, I was humbled by his wide, generous idea of duty to the center and his students.
To return to the Zen person, Shide–I think his broom is a symbol of ordinary action, the ever-present possibility that action is close at hand. Shide’s sweeping is active participation in the dharma, and nothing is too ordinary to be overlooked. So, for Shide, there’s no sitting around.
I’m sure Han Shan and Shide knew they were ordinary people in ordinary settings–like us. Yet, they are shown as awake and fully engaged, almost always able to find a kind of nirvana in their situation.