The Garbage Man’s Son

By Jo Mooy

Ordinariness is a genuine state of authenticity that gives us permission to do or not do anything.

When Mazu Daoyi, the most influential Zen Master of the Chan Dynasty, returned to his ancestral home for a short visit, his countrymen turned out in droves to see him. But an old woman who used to be his next-door neighbor said, “What’s this? I thought all the commotion was due to the visit of some extraordinary person. I see it’s just that little boy who was the garbage collector’s son.”

On hearing her words the master didn’t get upset. He improvised a lighthearted reply. “I advise that you never return to your native place—for no one can be a sage in his own hometown. This old woman sitting by the side of the brook still calls me the garbage man’s son.” In the reply, Mazu remains authentic and humble. Though revered and treasured as the greatest Zen Master across China, he accepts the fact that he’s still the garbage man’s son.

This story serves as a reminder to behold and embrace the ordinariness in life and, more importantly, in ourselves. When chasing unusual or noteworthy accomplishments, it’s so easy to be swayed by the glitter surrounding the accolades. Before Covid, most lived in a world of glitz and glamour and the attainment of wealth. That was before a microscopic virus reset the dial on individual consciousness.

The self-help articles preached how to get ahead or improve your position, your relationship, your career or your life, using “five, nine, or 25 advice hacks to success.” For others, the measure of achievement was how many likes, followers, or people they influenced. Fanning the fires of separation, the ultimate career advice in business was to be individually remarkable and to distinguish yourself high above everyone else.

When the pandemic sledgehammer fell, the hacks and followers and likes no longer mattered.

All the specialness we believed about ourselves was suddenly unimportant and, in hindsight, maybe silly. Even famous people were coming off their high perches. Turns out, no one was more special than anyone else. Instead of feeling separate, we were stuck together in a collective soup trying to get through each day without getting sick or making our neighbors sick.

The speedometer that controlled daily activity usually purred along at 100 miles per hour. The virus downshifted activity to a dull 35 miles per hour. A new normal cast a pall over the landscape. How do we live life in the slow lane? How do we distance ourselves from others?

How do I fill my empty days? Many discovered it wasn’t necessary to do 20 things a day because no one actually cared if you did them or didn’t. I asked friends or neighbors what they were doing, they replied, “Nothing! I don’t feel like doing anything. I just want to be quiet and alone.” They weren’t necessarily lonely. Rather they were sitting it out by embracing silence and stillness. It was an activity many were unfamiliar with and had to learn.

In pre-pandemic days the word “ordinary” had negative connotations. If you were judged “ordinary” it meant you were not outstanding or you were somehow less than a high achiever. After a year of managing the virus, it turns out that being normal was better than okay. In that normalcy we found ordinariness! Ordinariness is a genuine state of authenticity that gives us permission to do or not do anything. It especially removes all stigma associated with not doing anything. It allows us to be at ease and accepting whatever activities we choose to engage in. Or to not engage, if that’s what we choose.

In these exceptional times, where questioning our collective sanity often becomes a daily activity, ordinariness is an anchor in reality. Instead of vigilantly watching every nuance occurring on the national stage, ordinariness says you can disconnect the news feed and do something for yourself. For example, many found happiness in their gardens. Ordinariness said you can refresh your garden with new plantings. It also said you can sit and stare at the old plantings without any feelings of judgment or guilt that you must plant something new. Ordinariness is a remarkable new way to abide in the Zen practice of Wu Wei, known as the art of doing nothing.

In the state of ordinariness, one can instinctively sense how all things are entwined whether plants, minerals, animals, air, or spaciousness. No one and no thing was above or below. Each was simply a tiny cog in an indescribable and vast cosmic machine. When that realization struck, it was clear that ordinariness would not have been possible but for these exceptional times. Had we not downshifted the gears from 100 miles per hour we would have never found it or experienced it.

Another Zen Master, Suzuki Roshi suggested that chaotic times create an enlightened awakening to our real true nature. When confronted with chaos or during confusing times, he said: “The ordinariness of life creates enlightened activity and in that ordinariness, you gain access to your own awakened nature.” So, while enjoying the serenity of watching a garden, whether new or old plantings, you step into a world of stillness. As that expands, you will experience becoming more normal. In that sublime ordinariness and stillness, you will touch the remarkable spark that exists inside each one of us. Once touched, you’ll never forget it.

But remember, no matter what insights you learn in the stillness about life or about yourself, you’ll always be the garbage man’s son.

Jo Mooy has studied with many spiritual traditions over the past 40 years. The wide diversity of this training allows her to develop spiritual seminars and retreats that explore inspirational concepts, give purpose and guidance to students, and present esoteric teachings in an understandable manner. Along with Patricia Cockerill, she has guided the Women’s Meditation Circle since January 2006 where it has been honored for five years in a row as the “Favorite Meditation” group in Sarasota, FL, by Natural Awakenings Magazine. Teaching and using Sound as a retreat healing practice, Jo was certified as a Sound Healer through Jonathan Goldman’s Sound Healing Association. She writes and publishes a monthly internationally distributed e-newsletter called Spiritual Connections and is a staff writer for Spirit of Maat magazine in Sedona. For more information go to or email

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