慈濟傳播人文志業基金會
Tomorrow’s Fallen Leaves

Let’s sweep up today’s fallen leaves and not worry about those that fall tomorrow. Live in the present. Make today count. That’s a practical attitude for life.

Sister Ning Rong [寧蓉], come help us sweep the fallen leaves,” Huang Ying-ju (黃映掬) called out to me. “They’re all over the place, and they’re difficult to sweep up.” Huang is an employee at the Jing Si Books and Café main branch at the Jing Si Abode, the Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien, eastern Taiwan. I had just arrived at the store to volunteer after attending our daily volunteer morning meeting.

“Okay. I’ll be right with you,” I answered. I put down my purse and went to get a broom before joining Huang and the others. Some fierce northeast winds yesterday afternoon had blown down many leaves, followed by a dip in the temperature and rain. The wet ground had made it all that much more difficult to sweep up the leaves.

The Jing Si Books and Café main branch is being rebuilt on its original site. During its reconstruction, the store has been temporarily relocated to another spot at the Abode. There is a wooded area near the temporary store. Volunteers had laid interlocking paving bricks and pebbles in the shade of some trees in the woods and set up stone tables and chairs there. They created a nice corner to sit and rest.

But as nice as the place is, it is quite an undertaking to sweep up the leaves there, especially during the autumn and winter rains. That time of the year is the time more leaves fall, so there is a lot to clear away, and the rain just made our task more difficult, with some leaves stuck to the wet, uneven ground. We often had to squat down and pick up the leaves we couldn’t sweep up.

We were all sweaty by the time we had finally cleaned up the area. We sat and enjoyed a drink of water, feeling a great sense of achievement from having given the place a good cleaning. Suddenly, a gust of wind arose, and just as quickly the ground was littered with leaves again.

The scene in front of me made me think of the obstacles we often encounter on our path of spiritual cultivation. Just when we feel we have done a good job of cleaning away our inner impurities, someone’s negative comments or bad attitudes cause anger or unwholesome thoughts to rise in our minds again. It’s like the wind blowing a fresh batch of leaves off the trees onto a recently cleaned patch of ground.

Looking at the fallen leaves around us and thinking of this, I thought of an interesting anecdote that occurred during my childhood.

I was 11 that year. At the time, my family and I lived in a house with a stretch of woods behind it. When the wind picked up, it’d blow leaves off the trees, which would ride the breezes into our home. To keep our house cleaner, our father ordered us to sweep up leaves in the woods before going to school every day. That meant we’d have to get up earlier than before.

There was nothing pleasant about having to get up early to sweep up leaves, especially in autumn and winter, when it was tough to leave our warm beds. As expected, we were not happy about our Dad’s order, and it showed on our faces. One day, our dad saw our glum expressions and said to us, “Look at you, suffering from having to sweep up the leaves! Let me teach you how you can make your job easier. Before you sweep, shake the trees. That way, you will loosen the leaves that are going to fall off the day after, and you will only have to sweep every other day.”

We were overjoyed when we heard his suggestion. “Such an awesome idea! You should have shared it with us sooner!” we exclaimed.

A smile crept onto Dad’s face. Taking his white robe, he left for the hospital to see his patients.

The next day, we rose earlier than usual. After having breakfast prepared by our mom in record time, we went out into the woods and set to work shaking the trees, hoping to loosen the leaves that might fall off the following day. But we soon found ourselves covered in sweat, just halfway through our task. We realized only then that shaking the trees was even more work than sweeping up the leaves—especially because we were aiming to loosen the leaves that weren’t quite ready to fall off yet.

When we finally had swept up the leaves and felt our job was done, we rested cheerfully in our backyard. Mission accomplished! Just then, a gust of wind rose, blowing more leaves off the trees, covering the ground again. We were astounded. How could this have happened?

Our cousin said, “We mustn’t have shaken the trees with enough force. We must shake them more violently tomorrow.”

“Right!” my younger brother chimed in. “We had better give the trees such a good shake that we loosen the leaves that won’t fall off until the day after tomorrow too.”

“I say we shake off all the leaves that will fall off in the coming week,” I said. “That way we’ll only have to sweep once the entire week.”

The next day, we rushed to the woods immediately after we had gotten out of our beds and worked even harder to shake the trees. But it soon dawned on us that our endeavor was futile. The realization was like a rude awakening.

Seeing how crestfallen and baffled we were, Dad said to us, “My silly children, you can’t eat your dinner together with your lunch, can you? If you try, you’ll be too stuffed to eat it all, but you will still be hungry at night. Isn’t that right?” We nodded our agreement. He continued: “Focusing on what you need to do today is the way to go. It’s a pipe dream to want to finish two days’ work in a single day.”

Our young minds eventually came to grasp the fact that sweeping up tomorrow’s leaves along with today’s is an illusion. No matter what we do today, there will always be new fallen leaves tomorrow. The best we can do is do a good job with today’s work, and let tomorrow worry about itself.

This childhood experience provided a good lesson for me: Live in the present. Make today count. Speak kind words, think good thoughts, and do good deeds. That is the kind of attitude we should embrace for life. Sweep up today’s leaves and don’t worry about those that might fall tomorrow.

The other way around is also true. Don’t carry over your worries—the fallen leaves in your mind—from day to day. Leave your shoulders and hands free to take on what tomorrow will bring.

March 2022