I've owned the same pair of running shoes for about 5 years. I bought them in preparation for an obstacle race that I was running, and they've served me well ever since. We've worked on farms together, swam across lakes, and pedaled endless miles on bike trails and country roads. In short, my shoes and I have been through a lot over the years, and I guess you could say we've bonded as a result. That being said, it's becoming clear that our relationship will soon be coming to an end. The rubber soles are slowly falling apart, and tiny holes are forming in the cloth uppers. It's not a good look. And I should've bought a new pair months ago, but a combination of cheapness and sentimentality have caused me to hold off for the time being.
I remember when I first entered a Zen center and carelessly kicked my shoes off by the door. I came back after practice to find that they'd been placed side by side against the wall with my laces tucked neatly into the shoes. In fact, everyone's shoes were placed in a similar fashion so they formed a uniform row against the wall. I found out later that one of the senior students took it upon herself to check the shoes before practice and fix any that were out of place. "What's the big deal?" I thought to myself, "They're just shoes." But out of respect I started lining up my shoes neatly alongside everyone else's. It didn't take me long, however, to realize that shoes weren't the only things that got special treatment in the Zen center.
We bowed to our cushions before and after meditation, we washed our bowls in a ritualistic way after meals, and our teacher gave us strict instructions for hanging robes in the robe room. We did all of this because the Zendo was thought to be a sacred space, so by extension everything within the Zendo (shoes, bowls, robes, etc.) was also sacred. We bowed to our cushions because they gave us a place to sit. We carefully washed our bowls because they held the food which nourished our bodies, and we lined up our shoes because they carried us all day without complaint. In short, my shoes were sacred because the Zen center was sacred.
I like to think of this as the "shoe teaching", and over the years I've learned that it doesn't stop when I leave the Zendo. The bowls that hold my food at home nourish me just as much as the bowls I use during retreats. And the chairs I sit on at work are more comfortable than the cushions in the mediation hall. So if these things are sacred objects inside of the Zendo, wouldn't they also be sacred outside of it? Furthermore, if my shoes are sacred because the Zen center is sacred. Is it a stretch to say that the Zen center is sacred because the world is sacred?
With this in mind, I make it my practice to respect the sacredness of mundane objects. I try to be mindful when I wash my dishes, and I marvel at my good fortune each time I sit in a comfy chair. As for my shoes... I'm always careful to line them up neatly by the door each time I come home from work. They've put up with me for five years, it's the least I can do.
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