Of Brushing or Cleansing Our Teeth?

This is just another placeholder for future entry … 8)

1st December, 2006

Some of the folks who come across my desk may wonder why a toothbrush is on my desk and not in the toilet where it belongs. Most people either miss it or are too polite to ask, so I shared with the Youth Ministry in Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery during their YMers retreat.

You see, sometimes in the day, I would find a piece of food stuck in my teeth, or find my teeth too grimy for myself, and no amount of rinsing or flossing ( … talking about flossing, they are there on my desk too! 😉 ) will cleanse it. I’m sure we have that once a while … or maybe we don’t notice.

Routine and Normalization
Brushing our teeth has become a routine for most people. Its something we do, just like breathing. You just don’t really think about it. For those who have meditated, you will find that our mind tends to wander away while we try to focus on the breath (or whatever meditation object you use). It may wander to something that happened in the future, or something in the past. Or it may start spinning fiction about the past and future. Or it may get caught up with a sound, a physical sensation in the present and later continue to spin from there. It just never ponder about the teeth brushing that we do practically everyday of our lives ever since we outlived our cuteness are capable enough to do so. And why so? Why not? Well, to me, its because we don’t really do it with much effort, or we do it too unmindfully. Or maybe its because we do it everyday, and its become a routine.

Humans (and perhaps all sentient beings) have this capacity to filter out things that are insignificant. I call it normalization. Consider how we can more or less fake carry on a conversation in the midst of a noisy environment. We can hear the background sounds, but as my previous biased statement already stated, these background sounds are considered noise! While we hear them, we do not listen to their content, we filter them out, just as we filter out the humming of the fridge or air-conditioner, and become aware of its humming only when a power-blackout cuts it off and the absence of it indicates its prior presence! In the same manner, we filter out other events, things or even people, including our teeth brushing everyday.

Brushing vs Cleansing

It can be that it became too routine, and hence we filter it out or that we filter it out, so it became routine. Either way, it is currently filtered out and is a routine … at least for most. The outcome is that we end up brushing our teeth everyday, and not cleansing our teeth. Ok ok, I know what you are thinking. Cleansing is part and parcel of brushing our teeth. But do we consciously check our teeth to make sure its thoroughly cleansed and rework on those teeth that aren’t or do we simply go through our daily motion of brushing them and rinsing thereafter? Most people do the latter, though the mere mentioning of it here could possibly invoke a certain level of consciousness to take more notice on our teeth’s cleaniness, if only for a few days. So cleansing, or thorough cleansing is certainly not necessarily a part
of brushing our tooth.

Regularity

The third point is that of regularity. Most people brush their teeth at a fixed time. Either in the morning, at night, or both. Some also brush their teeth after every meal! Good for you folks! 🙂 For those who do only in the morning, at night or both, and not in the day after meal, it means that we are possibly leaving traces of food grim coating our teeth the whole day until we brush our teeth at night or the next day. Over time, with brushing and not cleansing, layers accumulate and after awhile, we need a major overhaul; we need to visit the dentist.

So what is this about? Its our Dhamma practise that I was referring to. Sometimes people who just learnt about Buddhism are more earnest about their practise, because everything is so new to them. They have to make an extra effort just to learn how to sit cross-legged, much less chant! But after some time, they either drift away or their practice becomes a routine, just like our good ‘ol “toothbrushing”. We start to normalize it once we do it regularly. Then it becomes routine, and that’s the better half. For others, they get bored with it and stop altogether.

We also don’t do a cleanse-check with our practice. We just do it. We should in fact check constantly to see if we are improving or not, whether our practice is helping us or not. Or in another sense, instead of waiting for our routine practice, we should check if our defilements are arising and should apply our toothbrushing practice and cleanse it there and then!

Just as toothbrushing should not be limited to day or night, toilets or dental visits, Dhamma practice should not be limited to just routine practice, a special day or the temples and monasteries or for retreats. Ok, maybe for others’ mental health sake, toothbrushing could be restricted to toilets, but let Dhamma practice be with us all the time. For did not the Buddha in his final moments exhorted so:
” And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: ‘Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!’ ” Digha Nikaya 16: Maha-parinibbana Sutta, Last Days of the Buddha.