Lots of wind this past week, so lots of leaves on the ground. There are good environmental reasons not to rake up the leaves.  But, if you do choose to rake, you can approach it as good physical and mental exercise rather than a chore.

On the physical side, raking for 30 minutes a day, can increase metabolic rate, reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, tone muscles, improve flexibility, and even improve cardiovascular fitness. Raking burns approximately 375 calories per hour. (Jogging burns about 430 calories per hour.)

Maybe the more sustained benefits come the mental side of raking.

There was a Zen Master named Pai Chang who was famous for establishing the Zen monastic rule. One of his rules was about working every day. The story is told that when he was very old he continued to work. The monks felt bad about him working in his old age and hid his tools.

“I have no virtue. Why should others work for me?” he said, and refused to eat. “A day of no work is a day of no eating.”

So, the monks gave him back his tools.

Zen schools today still continue the practice of daily work. No matter what the work is, you can continue your practice in that work.

Besides raking as Zen practice, there are many horticultural therapy programs that include raking. I find that both raking and weeding both have physical and mental benefits. I think I like my vegetable garden best in the spring when all the soil has been turned and raked smooth, free of both weeds and plants.

I have also created big and small Zen gardens. These traditional dry, landscape gardens can be the size of a large yard or small enough to put in a shoebox lid.

You can find tranquility from your Zen garden in the simple raking of circular patterns and enjoying the meditative process achieved through creating patterns. Raking the sand, pebbles, gravel or rocks in the garden into circular and other patterns around objects (boulders in large outdoor gardens, small stones in small indoor gardens).

Zen gardens are not a place for vegetation. They are a place for peace and reflection, not vegetation.

It’s not really easy to rake a perfect circle. People spend years perfecting their raking, but a perfect circle isn’t the goal.

The focus on the practice. the patterns, the circle, will eventually teach you how to recall that focus away from the garden.

Of course, you don’t need to have a Zen garden or be a Zen practitioner to do this. Leaves work pretty well this time of year too.

When I’m working outside in my garden or raking my Zen garden, I sometimes think of Billy Collins’ poem “Shoveling Snow With Buddha.”

If we substitute raking for shoveling, it is still true that

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,

but I can picture Buddha with

his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.
…his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe

So there we are, working our way across the yard full of leaves. Or maybe we are raking the sand and gravel in a Zen garden.

In either place, I might call out to him

This is so much better than a sermon in church…
This is the true religion, the religion of [leaves or sand],
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

Because he has thrown himself completely into the raking

as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

And we both keep raking -  me constantly chattering and commenting while he keeps working “inside his generous pocket of silence.”

I rake the leaves or the sand until the noise in my mind disappears. Sometimes the ringing in my ears seems to disappear. Sometimes the monkey in my mind stops jumping from branch to branch. Sometimes the circle almost seems to be perfect.

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