“Shoveling Snow with Buddha”
In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.
Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.
Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?
But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.
This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.
He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
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.
All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.
After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?
Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.
Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.
Former Poet-Laureate, Billy Collins, is sometimes called a “people’s poet,” because he can write poetically about every day items like weighing your dog on the bathroom scale, a great osso bucco dinner, and a surreptitious review of the latest Victoria’s Secret catalog, which landed in the mailbox with his wife’s name on it. (No, I’m not kidding, and even that poem made me smile with its sardonic wit and self-awareness.)
I was hoping to find a Buddhist poem to share with all of you, and that may still happen, but I ran across this poem by Collins and couldn’t resist it. To me, it is the perfect integration of lofty spiritual ideas and the drudgery of every day life. If one must shovel snow, what could be more sublime, or transcendent than shoveling snow with Buddha? Clearly it transported Collins for several hours one morning while he completed what I can only assume is a truly onerous task.
The acronym, “WWJD?” (What Would Jesus Do?) has graced bracelets and posters for a decade or more, but I never understood the appeal of that eponymous Christian question. When faced with a difficult dilemma, it makes far more sense to me to just ask him directly: “Jesus, what would you do?” Go directly to the source, so to speak.
I think Collins would share my impulse. If one has an unpleasant task, why not do it in the company of your hero? Why not draw near the master to watch and learn from a place of proximity and intimacy, instead of through the lens of distance, history and third-party interpretations?
Shoveling snow with Buddha taught Collins about patience, equanimity, silence, the satisfaction of a job well done and the simple pleasures of community, cards and chocolate. Obviously, that’s not all the Buddha has to teach him, but it’s certainly a place to start.
Who would you shovel snow with? Who would you like to spend a few hours with, engaged in a difficult, physical task? What might they teach you and how would you reward yourself afterwards? It is the start of a weekend, so perhaps you’ll get the chance.