I stumbled upon this sculptural group at Koh Mak temple. The woman with a broom struck me. I haven’t seen many images of women in Buddhist wats (apart of apsaras and devatas, who play a rather decorative role, or Mahayana deities such as Guan Yin, or numerous female figures in the narratives about the life of the Buddha). And although I’ve seen a lot of sweeping and cleaning at the Buddhist monasteries, I’ve never seen a sculpture of a sweeping woman in any of them.
I started to think about the meaning of this figure. It reminded me another sculpture, the one of a Girl with an Oar, that used to adore “parks of culture and recreation” in the Soviet Union (both represent a female holding a kind of long stick). I thought that as the Girl with an Oar is a symbol of Soviet totalitarianism, so the Woman with a Broom may well be a symbol of Theravada Buddhism (which is, in turn, an essential element of Thainess).
An oar/paddle, apart of the reference to athletic activity, signifies power, authority and control. The Girl with an Oar has been perceived as an image (howsoever banalized) of a young Soviet female who is beautiful, healthy and strong. There have also been implicit but powerful sexual connotations. The first version of the sculpture, created in 1934 by Ivan Shadr, represented a 12 meter naked girl with elongated proportions and erect nipples standing in a victorious pose reminiscent of Venus, Athena and other antique goddesses, gods and heroes. The reference to classicism did not save it from sharp criticism: it seemed too self-sufficiently sexual. As Mikhail Zolotonosov notes in his analysis of the sculpture, Shadr “found a successful symbiosis of the antique and the athletic codes embodied in the image of a phallic woman”. The oar, upon which the girl leaned, reinforced phallic connotations – similar to the spear, stuff or trident of her antique prototypes. However, the self-sufficiency of the “phallic woman” has a reverse side: dependence on what she is not. As a dictionary of symbols says, “having only one oar and being motionless, or trying to row with only one oar, may depict the need for a partner or mate.” In political terms, the Girl with an Oar is ready to fight for victory and ready to follow the party line.
If the oar is a means of transportation and a token of authority, then the broom, pragmatically and symbolically, is about cleaning, that is, removal of everything unwanted, be it physical dirt or mental defilement.
In many cultures, the broom is closely associated with womanhood. Thus, the Chinese character 婦 (fù), which means married woman or wife, consists of two elements: the woman radical 女 (nǚ) and the element 帚 (zhǒu) signifying a broom. However, the broom is not only an indication of the marital status and housekeeping chores but an attribute of a deity. “The broom often symbolizes wisdom and insight. … The goddess Sao-qing niang-niang (i.e. ‘the woman who sweeps everything clean’) is often represented as a woman with a broom; she is the goddess of fair weather, as she sweeps away clouds and rain”(Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought by Wolfram Eberhard).
In the symbolism of the broom, the secular and the sacred are closely interconnected. “The broom was also a critical item in a woman’s repertoire of household tools, since sweeping was a powerful, sacred act. Even the gods engaged in sweeping. Toci, the mother of gods, for example, was portrayed with a broom in her hand; Quetzalcoatl, one of the most important Mesoamerican deities, swept the roads in preparation for the rain gods. Filth and debris symbolized chaos, disorder, and danger; hence sweeping was an act of purification and a preventive against evil elements penetrating the center of the Aztec universe, the home. According to Louise Burkhard, “A woman with a broom in the hands was at the intersection of chaos and order… [with it she could maintain] the proper balance between her ordered center [the home] and the disorderly periphery [the battle field] that threatened to engulf it.” Since the broom also accumulated filth, it could be used as a source of contamination. In short, a woman’s broom was both a defensive and offensive weapon; it was associated with a man’s sword” (Women in the Crucible of Conquest: The Gendered Genesis of Spanish American Society, 1500-1600 by Karen Vieira Powers).
Similarly, in Buddhism, the broom is equated to vajra, a powerful weapon on the spiritual path. “The phrase “Who is mindful of the Buddha” is a regal, precious vajra sword. It is also the phrase “sweeping broom” recited by Kshudrapanthaka. Someone may say, “Why is it called both a regal, precious vajra sword and a sweeping broom? Since it is a regal, precious vajra sword, it can’t be a broom. Since it is a broom, it can’t be a regal, precious vajra sword.” It depends which end you use. One end is a regal, precious vajra sword and the other end is a broom. One end, the regal, precious vajra sword, which can slice through gold and cut through jade, cuts through your emotions and severs your love. Being able to cut off ignorance and afflictions makes it a regal, precious vajra sword. The broom end is like your mindfulness of “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” Just as each time you sweep the floor it gets a little cleaner, so too, sweeping with “who” sweeps away a lot of your lust. What the vajra sword cuts through is lust and what the broom sweeps away is also lust. It’s your thoughts of desire, your emotional love, and other such problems” (Chan: The Essence of All Buddhas by by Hsuan Hua).
The broom is tool of the mind and sweeping a form of meditation. “… while we sweep the floor, if we concentrate on using the broom, we are in fact meditating. The mind is with the activity and not wandering. The mind is not imagining things or creating undue worries”(Sensual Pleasure are Painful by Ajahn Suchart Abhijato). “In the two Buddhist traditions …, Theravada & Zen, sweeping is an established form of practice, as much as vipassana or zazen. … Whether in a temple, at home or work, mindful sweeping can be an excellent way to cultivate mindfulness. The mind becomes concentrated on its object – the broom – and hence both are more useful tools” (Zen & the Art of Sweeping).
There is an inspiring story about a Buddha disciple (sometimes called the Broom Master) who attained enlightenment through sweeping the floor and chanting a mantra “Whisk off the dust and clean up the trash” (variants: “Remove all dust, remove all dirt”; “Sweep away the dust, get rid of the lust”, etc.). As Zen master Ting-chou explained: “Leaves don’t just fall on the ground, but they also fall in our minds. I am picking up those that are in my mind. Eventually, I’ll clean up all of them.” Or, as said the Buddha himself, “O monks, do away with passions. When the dirt of passion is removed the Way will manifest itself.”
The body-sweeping or body-scanning technique used in Vipassana aims at the purification of sankharas through objective observation of sensations in the body, which, in turn, leads to elimination of karmas and attainment of enlightenment. There are Many Ways to Sweep but, if sweeping is done right, “No one sweeps, there are no paths to sweep, and there is no dirt to brush away”.
The Woman with a Broom is juxtaposed with a sculptural composition consisting of mushrooms, lizards, and a naga which meanings overlap: vision, wisdom, power, good luck, and protection. Unlike the Girl with an Oar who embodies the totalitarian interplay of authority and dependence, domination and submission, she cleans the ground for equanimity and the end of suffering.