There is a wonderful medieval Japanese folktale that tells of a group of discarded tools and household items, thrown onto a pile of rubbish, who became animated spirit objects called tsukumogami. The tsukumogami, which included abandoned teapots, fans, shoes, scissors, rosary beads, pots, hammers, etc, were angry at their previous owners, who had failed to honour all their hard work by throwing them away, and so they wreaked havoc and mischief on their owners until they are pacified by a Shingon Buddhist ritual. The tsukumogami then became devout Buddhists and subsequently all achieved enlightenment.
It is believed that when they reach one hundred years of age, all tools and household articles become sentient beings. Therefore, there are many rituals held still in Japanese temples where you can offer your used tools and pray for their enlightenment. One lovely ritual, observed annually at temples and shrines throughout Japan on February 8th, is called Hari Kuyo and involves placing your used sewing needles into a block of tofu so that they might retire in a soft place after all their hard work.
In the Shingon Buddhist tradition, all things are said to possess a spirit and thus all things – humans, animals, plants, rocks, fabricated objects – are ‘alive’ and are all capable of being enlightened beings. This stems from the deeper principle that no thing in the whole universe exists as separate to any other thing – we are all completely interdependent. The great Vietnamese monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls this “interbeing“. And enlightenment is the deep realisation of the truth of this interdependence.
This belief that everything is alive is also very prominent in the worldview of First Nations peoples and accounts for their inseparable connection to Country, of which they are not only the custodians but Country is an integral part of their very being.
Many years ago, my grandfather made me a clock: he found the various pieces he needed strewn amid the discarded debris at the local shire rubbish tip in Shark Bay, where he lived in the far north-west of Australia. He found an old clock face, bits of metal to make the workings, some metal tubing cut to fit the clock face, a piece of wood to house it in, and the handle of a discarded sewing machine case.
Although my grandfather died in 1992, the clock remains as the manifestation of the actions of his body moving through the red dusty country of Shark Bay, amid the heat and smells and sounds of the rubbish tip; the actions of his hands manipulating tools, which he also found or crafted, as he fashioned the clock in the hot corrugated iron shed that looked out over the blue ocean on one side and the red desert on the other; the sounds of his breath as he sighed over mistakes or sang snatches of old bush songs.
All of my grandfather’s thoughts and actions and breath are the clock itself, not inside it, but of its very essence and substance. And when I received the clock from his hands, with gratitude and delight, I too became a part of that story, that being, that clock. And of course, in a very real DNA way, I am also my grandfather on a cellular level. And so my grandfather’s clock is a living being, that is at once my grandfather and also not-my-grandfather. The clock and my grandfather and myself all inter-be.
And as I walk past the clock many times every day, glancing at the time, I feel a deep gratitude when I hear his heartbeat tick-tick-ticking in syncopated rhythm with my own heartbeat as we continue to inter-be: my grandfather, the clock and me.
What if everything you interact with is alive? How does that change your relationship to the things around you: your phone, a cup of tea, the trees, the ants, your house, the clouds? Feel your breath flowing out into the living world, feel your breath drawing that living world back into your body. What does it feel like to inter-be with all the things present right now in the space around you?