In the Shoes of the Buddha

by Angela R. Vuagniaux One Saturday after morning meditation at Deer Park, I looked at the sidewalk surrounding the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall and had the urge to sweep. The desert earth had been tracked in and smeared red all over the new white concrete. It looked messy. Although it wasn’t my assigned working meditation, I knew the next day many guests would be coming for the Sunday public Dharma talks and I wanted the hall to look like the Pure Land it was meant to be. No one else was there, so I invited myself to a session of sweeping meditation.

Days before, while clearing the leaves from the paths of the garden in Solidity Hamlet, a young monk had taught me to sweep. My movements had been brisk, trying to accomplish the task as quickly and neatly as possible. I viewed sweeping as a menial chore to be gotten done. After about a half hour, in the quietest way, a young shining-faced monk took the broom from my hands. “Let me show you,” he said kindly. He then swept the earth as if he were giving a slow gentle massage. Until that moment, I had not even realized that I had been completely wound up and oblivious to the present moment. “It’s a meditation,” the monk reminded me with a smile. As I began to sweep more mindfully I saw how often we are praised for making a good, thorough, and quick job of any task. Now, here was someone showing me that I didn’t have to work for love or approval, that it was all already wonderful. This small lesson brought tears to my eyes, and that day I became a novice sweeper.

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Thoughts came and went as I calmly swept the walkway around the meditation hall. When finished, I opened the door and looked inside. I saw that the cushions and mats had been cleared away, and that the wood floor needed sweeping. I was happy to continue my meditation inside, and found the appropriate dust mops to do so. When I swept around the altar and the platform where I knew Thay would be sitting, I felt more respectful, even reverent. Soon I began to see everywhere as a place not only for Thay to occupy, but for the Buddha as well, and all of us Buddhas-to-be. I imagined the whole world, all space and time, filled with the Buddha…and I was a Buddha too. I continued sweeping like this—wonder-filled. Inside and out were no different.

In one corner of the hall, Thay’s white straw sandals for walking from the door to the platform were kept. When I saw them, I felt a surge of energy inside me—I wanted to walk in those shoes! I slowly leaned over to pick up the sandals, my heart pounding. I looked around: no one in the hall but me. First one foot and then another went into Thay’s slippers. They fit! I looked up, half surprised that no lightning struck me down. Soon I was walking across the meditation hall, just like Thay! For a moment, I thought that maybe the shoes had the power to make me glide across the earth like that. I imagined myself being Thay and immediately felt light and free, floating across the temple floor. Then, I imagined myself as the Buddha, the Buddha in the teacher’s shoes. Filled with a new exuberance, I picked up the dust mop and pushed it around the meditation hall, sweeping like the Buddha. Just as the new rays of morning sunlight came over the mountain and flooded the meditation hall, I felt flooded with light and love. I was the Buddha, in Thay’s shoes, sweeping in the light of the morning sun, in the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall.

Eventually, I grew a little nervous. I did not want to be disrespectful, so I took off the white sandals and put them gently back in their proper place beside the door. Of course, I knew that I did not need Thay’s shoes to be a Buddha, and I knew that I could access that same lightness and joy anytime I wanted. I did not need the shoes, just my own mind and breath. Thay had taught me that. Lesson complete, I put the dust mop away, and bowed gratefully at the door. The place was shining.

When people ask me about my time at Deer Park Monastery, I tell them that my brief training in mindfulness with hundreds of others was the most nourishing thing I have ever done. I hope to have the opportunity to practice with teachers like Thay and many others again, each of us wearing our own shoes.

Editor’s Note: According to the Asian tradition and our practice of fine manners, it is not accepted practice to wear the garments belonging to the teacher.

Angela R. Vuagniaux, Blooming Lotus, is a poet and newcomer to the Order of Interbeing. She lives in Great Barrington, MA and is practicing with the Berkshire Mountain Sangha.

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