The soteriology of cleaning

Hello, friends! I’ve been trying to find an answer to this by searching the texts but, well, the Canon is huge and I don’t know where or how to look.

My question, in short, is: Did the Buddha ever speak in the EBTs about the role of cleaning (or of maintaining worldly possessions in good shape) in the path? I know Zen monks have made cleaning a part of their practice but, of course, this being an EBT site, I’m interested in the EBT perspective.

My thinking is this: If we see impermanence in everything, then is there a point to cleaning? But then, if we have messy surroundings, it’s an additional burden on the mind, right?

My understanding is that there are detailed protocols in the Vinaya for keeping the monasteries clean, but did the Buddha ever speak on why? Is it merely a practical matter (i.e. keeping the mind unburdened)?

I’d appreciate any answers,
Much Metta.

P.S. I must admit that my question is motivated by curiosity as much as by me wanting to hack myself into liking doing house chores :joy:


How about this? SuttaCentral * Ekottarikāgama 20.12

Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was staying in Śrāvastī, at Jetṛ’s Grove, in Anāthapiṇḍada’s Park. Then the Venerable Mahāpanthaka said to his younger brother Cūḍapanthaka:

“If a person is unable to keep in mind the rules of moral conduct, he should return to the lay life and wear the white robe of a layman.”

On hearing these words Cūḍapanthaka went out of the gate of Jetavana Monastery and stood aside weeping. While the monk was standing outside the gate, with his immaculate “divine eye” the Exalted One saw him beside himself and weeping bitterly. Rising from his quiet abiding and seemingly taking his walking-exercise, the Exalted One went out of the gate of Jetavana Monastery and asked Cūḍapanthaka, “Why, monk, are you weeping bitterly?”

“Exalted One,” replied Cūḍapanthaka, “My elder brother wants to expel me, saying that if a person is unable to keep in mind the rules of moral conduct, he should return to lay life … and that he should not stay here. That is why I am weeping bitterly.”

“Do not be afraid, monk,” said the Exalted One, “I will see to it that you will realise the Highest, Full and Complete Enlightenment; you would not become enlightened due to your elder brother Panthaka.”

Then the Exalted One took Cūḍapanthaka by the hand, returned with him to the vihāra and had him sitting down on the spot and holding a bamboo broom, saying to him, “What do you call this object? Pronounce the word for it.”

Now Cūḍapanthaka managed to pronounce “bamboo”, but he could not remember the word “broom”, and while he managed to pronounce “broom”, he forgot the word “bamboo”.

Venerable Cūḍapanthaka continued enunciating “bamboo broom” for several days. Consequently the defects in his pronouncing “bamboo broom” were gone, and he thought to himself, “What is this dispelling like, and what are defects like? There is a defect when there is grime on a slate roof, for instance, and getting rid leads to cleanliness.”

And again it occurred to him, “Why has the Exalted One given me this lesson? Now I should think about this matter.”

This train of thought occasioned further thinking, “Now there is also dirt on my body; I am myself an illustrative example; what is getting rid like, and what are impurities like?”

Then he reflected, “The impurities are the fetters of mental defilements, and getting rid corresponds to insight-knowledge. Just now I am able to sweep away these mental defilements with the broom of insight-knowledge.”


In AN 5.234 “Very Helpful”, a resident bhikkhu is very helpful to a monastery if he repairs what is broken and split.

Also, there is a dukkhata in the Vinaya somewhere, whenever monks allow monastery property to fall into disrepair from lack of proper maintenance of it. Having said this, have I ever once in my life heard any monk actually confess this Dukkhata? No.


I love cleaning! It is one of my favourite things to do (but I can forget if busy or distracted). Also I have allergies which really affect me if there is dust. Dust mite caca is highly allergenic, you probably don’t want to live in that stuff in any case.

It’s in the commentaries somewhere that having clean things will help your meditation because a lamp burns brighter with clean oil and wick. (As referenced by Ven. Rerukane Candawimala Thero in Shasanavataranaya). It’s in the Visuddhimagga as “making the basis clean”. Sorry it’s not EBT, but it’s still lived tradition, like Ajahn Chah’s “toilets on the path.”

I think the theory is that if you see pure things, the emotions surrounding that will be purer. Maybe this concept can only be stretched so far…kind of a Buddhist version of ‘sparking joy’? There was something that Ven. Shengyan said that stuck with me…it’s ok if your clothes are old or patched, but not if they are dirty.

Also it is stated in the Jatakas (reference?) that a jackal will lie in its own filth, but a lion won’t. (I find this inspiring).

The khandakas give very detailed instructions on how to clean a room, starting from the top down (reference?). This is part of the monastery “vatta” (duties) of which there are 14.

Anyway…cleaning is something you live through doing it. The books will only get you so far. :wink:


One of the duties before a Patimokkha recitation is that the Sima hall must have been swept. The Patimokkha cannot proceed until this duty is done.

It’s also a dukkhata to not properly sweep and clean a kuti before leaving it (like for good), putting the shutters back over the windows, stacking bench on bench, folding blankets and putting them where vermin won’t get them, etc. This is in the spirit of maintenance of the kuti for the next monk who will occupy it in the future. Like you have to “pay it forward” to the next monk. And likewise, when you get assigned a new kuti, you should find it relatively tidy, not a mess, from the occupant before.

Also, if mold is growing on a wall (which totally happens in the tropics, as it’s so moist), then it’s a dukkhata to not clean it, and a wet cloth is suggested to do so. Mold-cleaning chemicals weren’t discovered yet, such as bleach, 5% hydrogen peroxide, or isopropyl alcohol. This dukkhata is found in the Vinaya commentaries somewhere.

Note that killing moss or lichen (let alone other kinds of plants) were confessional offences to damage or kill by monks, as they were thought of as being “the home of a being” (bhutagama, in the case of moss), or “the home of a seed” (bijagama, in the case of lichen).

But mold? No Vinaya protection. It’s a dukkhata to not kill it (and the ancient Jambudipans seemed to have the sufficient common sense to know it wasn’t good for your health, even though their technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to see the microscopic spores, which indeed are bad for your respiratory system when you inhale them).


Hi, I would like to know what cleaning products were used by the sangha in the early days. Cleaning body, bowls, robes, and dwellings?

I would like to also know what fabrics were used (apart from cemetery rags) to make monastic robes, and what fabrics are used now? How did the white-robed disciples keep their white robes spotless without bleach?

Also sharing a link to recent interview on ABC Drum about impact of artificial silk on our environment.

( From ecologist perspective, environment is all things and life around us. The term ecology is based on Greek word Oikos which means Home. So we contemplate our planetary Home and how to maintain our little homes, so we don’t spoil our big Home, that we all share.)


Thanks, :slightly_smiling_face: :dolphin: :fish: :whale:


I’ve never really understood the whole “If everything is impermanent, then what’s the point of X?” concept. I’m not trying to pick on you. It’s a fairly common thing.

It’s like asking whats the point of breathing in if you just have to breathe out again.

This chapter on duties is worth a read, but it deals mostly with the ways of cleaning, not the deeper philosophical ideas behind it.


For body cleaning they used bath powder. Tooth cleaning; tooth sticks. You will see the simile of the bath powder in many Suttas.
In the khandhakas you will find all sorts of information about how the monastics lived. They seemed to have used lye for various things. Maybe a combination of lye, ashes and urine where used for laundry (though this is speculation).

In the Robe Khandhaka the buddha allows the following cloth

“I allow wool.”…“I allow six kinds of robe-cloth: linen, cotton, silk, wool, sunn hemp, and hemp.”

These days robes are mostly cotton or polyester. Though I have heard of a sanxhati being made of wool suiting for a monk in New Zealand.

There are very detailed and methodical instructions on how to clean a kuti in the Duties Khandhaka. It mostly instructs just to clean with water and ‘elbow grease’.


They could make homemade brooms. Teak floors could be polished with coconut shells.

I can tell you this: soap wasn’t invented yet. But a mixture of ashes and oil was conceivable, say for cleaning a mirror (AN 3.70).

Before and after eating out of one’s alms bowl, boiled water was ideally swished around in the bowl, as a means of sterilizing it a bit, and getting the oiliness from the greasy curries to dissolve. The bowl also had to be sunned (let the sun shine on the inside of it for a few minutes), which is a dukkhata for not doing in some monastic communities.

Allowable cloth were things like linen, cotton, hemp, jute and silk. The Vinaya has a list of allowable clothes, and they are all relatively cheap fabrics.

So what did they use for toilet paper? Smooth sticks!

There was a fine clay which they rubbed on themselves while bathing in the river, which came packed in a ball. A strange Vinaya rule has it that the bhikkhus couldn’t bathe more often than once every two weeks (while residing in the lower Ganges Valley). Yes, I said “more”, not “less”. Having said this, using a sauna was apparently pretty normal, and there is no such 2-week restriction on the use of a sauna.

So how would they clean a throw rug? With a pressure washer and detergent? No, just by shaking it and beating it outdoors. There was no limit as to how manky a throw rug could get, as bacteria, mites, and other too-small-to-see creepy crawlies weren’t discovered yet.

So what about the tropical fungus that would grow under their toenails? No cure that I’m aware of. Quite possibly they would have it for life, and that was just tough cookies. They had foot baths, where said creepy crawlies would be flourishing profusely (but at least you’d get the mud and dust off your feet).


Living tradition is fair game?

Atisha Dipamkara (circa 1000 AD) bring the tradition way of Six Preliminary Practices to Tibet. It is still practiced within Gelug Sect. I dont know if it also influenced other sect.

Six Preliminary Practices is a set of things to do before actual meditation. The first practice is to clean the meditation room.

The oral tradition said, Atisha learn this tradition from his teacher, Dharmakirti of The Island of Gold. (Now widely assumed to be Sumatra Island, Indonesia)

The explanation to this practice usually cited the story of Culapanthaka/ Cudapanthaka. The Tibetan have longer variant of the story, I think it is from Divyavadana or Mulasarvastivada Vinaya. In that variant Culapanthaka clean the whole temple, from roof to floor, and also clean monks’ shoes, and gained enlightenment in that way.


As I like to say at the worksite, “Job ain’t done till you’ve cleaned up!”

Also, one of my favorite suttas uses cleaning as a simile:



Ven. Pasanna was right re cotton and polycotton, but n.b. the weight of the cotton is different to what is sold in the West. There are three cotton weights: light, medium and heavy. It’s the medium cotton which is most suitable for lower robes and bathing cloths. Otherwise there can be leg-cling phenomenon.

Having three robes made of cotton or polycotton is not actually that great of a setup for anywhere outside the tropics & swapping my cotton sanghati for something more substantial (repurposed flannelette) was one of the better life choices I have made.

Flannelette is also amazing as sanghati material.

Greek washing powder recipe from 300BC: Cimolian earth - Wikipedia they would have done something similar in India. Other options include pretreating by stomping in aged urine.


My sanghati is 2.2kg of cotton broadcloth. Beautifully warm in winter. The other nuns with there 800g cotton sanghatis think it’s madness but I wanted functional over decorative. Winter alms round in Adelaide was my main gauge.


Wow, my sanghati is 1kg and I thought it was massive. Yours must be like a portable igloo made of cloth. :slight_smile:


I think this has always been a source of confusion for me, and perhaps it’s at the root of my question about cleaning, as well as other questions I have.

To me, it comes from the assumption that once one reaches Nibbana (presumably, according to my reading of the texts), one becomes perfectly equanimous, unattached to any worldly possessions, or feelings, or states of becoming. If that’s the case, then I would assume that one would be unaffected by something so small as messy surroundings. But then, I am not enlightened (very obviously). So I am affected by messy surroundings.

But putting aside the issue of enlightenment for a moment, there’s also this Sutta, where the Buddha explains how a monk’s requisites are to be used for the continuance of the body (presumably because the continuance of the body makes the Path possible), and protection from heat and cold and mosquitoes. But then, in the very next section, the Buddha explains that heat and cold and mosquitoes are to be endured. So what and how much is one supposed to endure? Is one only meant to endure the unavoidable but do whatever one can to prevent it from arising otherwise?

And my confusion also applies to the matter of health and medicine, etc. The Buddha instructed monks to endure the racking pains that come with illness, but he also instructed monks to do things for the sake of their healths, like using medicine and (as I understand now) cleaning! Aren’t good health and a clean space states of becoming and feelings one can become attached to?

Very confused, as you can see :joy:

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It’s good to remember that until about 150 years ago there were few interventions for acute illnesses. Enduring pain as the Buddha speaks about it isn’t setting aside cures just to learn from the pain.

This is one sutta that gives us a glimpse of how an enlightened being exists in the world:


I thought about this response, and I remembered that I had somehow forgotten about the teaching of the Middle Way. I would think that purposely ignoring disease, or a messy house, or subjecting oneself to heat or cold or mosquitoes, could be considered the extreme of self-affliction.

So my understanding is now that one does whatever one can to stop pain and suffering, or a burdened mind; and whatever one cannot stop, one simply endures (and I imagine that, here, the teaching of old Kamma is complementary).

Thank you for your comment on ancient medicine. I think it helped me understand better (I hope).


The attitudes towards cleaning in the backgrond culture are not irrelevant to this conversation. Westerners oftentimes have a praiseworthy attitude towards cleaning which goes: “cleanliness is Godliness”.

Good for the Mahayana for enshrining cleaning as being something which would be pretty much sacrilegious to not do. I feel that this has helped them to attract many Westerners to their religion, thanks to this compatibility with Western culture.

If Westerners visit a Theravada temple, then look in a bathroom and find it all nasty and grotty, they very well might never return, despite the eloquence and refined demeanour of the monks there, in proclaiming their lofty doctrine. For many Westerners, the lowly, worldy dhamma of bathroom cleaning comes before the high Dhamma in a formally-preached bana or desana, in it’s weightiness.

Virtually all Western Theravada forest monasteries, which are run by Westerner abbots, or Westernized ethnic Asian abbots, are sensitive to the “cleanliness is godliness” background value of many Westerners, and ensure clean bathrooms, lodgings, kitchens, workshops, etc. They would risk alienating members of their congregation if they didn’t!

If predominately, culturally Asian Theravada temples wish to attract more Westerners to become repeat visitors to their temples, they would do well to “know the assembly” (as the Buddha famously did, see AN 7.68), and care more about public sanitation. I’ve been to several such places who are woefully below the standards and expectations of Westerners, and Westerners rarely visit those places, let alone come back again repeatedly.

One more than one occasion, while travelling from monastery to monastery in Asia (and I won’t say where), I would carefully pack a bottle of 10% hydrochloric acid Toilet bowl cleaner (as part of my nomadic monk kit), and several pairs of nitrile gloves. When I was assigned lodgings, I would proceed to the bathroom, find the toilet a nasty abomination of filth, then drizzle that acid gel all over the toilet, rubbing it around with my hands (with the gloves on). In a matter of seconds, ZING!, the shining, gleaming, immaculately clean toilet appeared from under its mantle of filth.

Same goes for grotty, black-colored footbaths: use more than one entire bottle of 10% HCl toilet bowl cleaner, and a toilet brush, scrubbing slowly, but firmly. Don’t let it splash on your bare feet, or it’ll leave a chemical burn that will take like 2 weeks to heal!

Same goes for marble benches that are covered in mold. 10% HCl gel is your friend, rubbing it all over with your hands, wearing nitrile gloves with no holes. Very carefully, swish with a clean pail of water afterwards.


Exactly! See MN 2 for the full details:


Thank you very much for confirming that this is the right way to view it.

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