Books

Why cleaning is good for you, according to Buddhist monk Shoukei Matsumoto

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

About twice a month, Shoukei Matsumoto posts a public invitation on Twitter inviting strangers to come around to his work place at approximately 7:30 a.m. to help him clean. When they’re done sweeping and polishing, there’s a short window for conversation and a cup of tea. An hour later, the guest workers are on their way again, spilling out into Kamiyacho in central Tokyo and heading on to work.

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, by Shoukei Matsumoto, Translated by Ian Samhammer.
144 pages
PENGUIN BOOKS, Nonfiction.

The CEO of a Tokyo Stock Exchange-listed company once showed up with workers in tow. Furiitā (part-time workers) are regulars, says Matsumoto, as it gives their day structure and offers company, if only for an hour.

For Matsumoto, a Shin-Buddhist monk who belongs to Komyoji Temple in Tokyo, cleaning is a form of communication. It’s also something that unites: everyone from CEOs to school kids clean, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm and vigor. And cleaning is the singular subject of his book, “A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind,” in which Matsumoto espouses, as the title suggests, why cleaning is transformative and restorative both for the environment and for us.

If the history of self-help books on cleaning is ever written, 2011 might well be identified as Japan’s high-water mark. That year, Marie Kondo published her first book on cleaning and decluttering, as did Matsumoto. KonMari, which is both her public moniker and a method of cleaning, went on to achieve global fame. Time magazine selected her as one of the world’s most influential people of 2015.

But fame and Time never found Matsumoto. Nor did he go looking for them. Over coffee in Kyoto, where he lives with his family when not in Tokyo, Matsumoto tells me that he turned down more than a few requests for TV appearances, skeptical of how his message would unfold in, say, the setting of a variety comedy show.

That’s not to say Matsumoto is a zealot about cleaning. If anything, the tone of his book is gentle, and charming, much like the man himself. By contrast, KonMari, in her books at least, sounds more severe, like a nun with a furrowed brow as she castigates her sisters for downgrading clothing to loungewear.

Matsumoto smiles when I bring up KonMari. “I agree with the ideas of KonMari-san, but I don’t have a technique,” he says, referring to the methodology that is at the core of her books.

However, without the phenomenal success of KonMari, it’s unlikely Penguin would have picked up Matsumoto’s book, seven years after it first appeared in Japanese, and given it an English-language translation.

In the book — a short treatise with whimsical illustrations of the monk cleaning (pictured below right) — Matsumoto outlines the importance of cleaning in the monastic setting, how he cleans and why it’s good for the heart. While it’s true Matsumoto doesn’t have a “technique” in the same way as KonMari advises to clean by category and not location, Matsumoto clearly views cleaning as a practice, one in which he has a lot of experience.

“The practice of cleaning is not only for the environment, but also for my mind,” Matsumoto says, telling me that it’s not uncommon for therapists treating patients suffering from depression to recommend cleaning to help them.

The idea for the book came from a number of sources: Matsumoto had returned from Hyderabad in India where he had completed his MBA. He wanted to help a younger generation of monks to better manage their temples, and he wanted it to be an interfaith effort. Cleaning is one area all institutions can agree on, and that became Matsumoto’s basis for reaching out to temples and monasteries across the country.

The book touches on monastic and temple life frequently: hardly surprising as it’s where Matsumoto learned to clean and it’s where it was instilled in him that cleaning is a practice.

In places, the book is cute and funny: while cleaning out your lighting fixtures, Matsumoto advises getting a “loved one, if possible” to hold the step ladder.

“Clean the lamps and fixtures gently, as if you are polishing your heart and soul to make them shine their brightest,” he writes.

“I hope that readers come to clean their own home or office more positively,” Matsumoto tells me. He continues: “If you see cleaning as a chore and something to avoid if you can, then it’s something that’s not good for you in your mind. But if you can change your recognition of cleaning from something that’s negative to something that’s positive, then your quality of life will improve.

Matsumoto is a man of his word: he practices what he preaches.