Every Breath You Take 108: Seeing the Alms Bowl Empty

Dharma Talk presented by Ven. Shikai Zuiko O-sensei

Dainen-ji, July 23rd, 2011

Seeing the alms-bowl empty,
"May all beings
Be open of heart
And without afflictions."

Now, an alms-bowl was for many,
probably millions of people over the course of the history of Dharma,
a very real object.
Monks in certain traditions were reliant upon the generosity of others for actual food,
and an alms-bowl was used to collect offerings from individuals
to support the activities of, say,
a monastery that may have been involved,
in other traditions as well,
in providing for the poor, and other acts of charity.

Today, in 2011, we don't really have an "alms-bowl",
but what we have and what's available are resources
that are given to support the activities of various undertakings.
But say, when we look into our metaphoric "alms-bowl" and see it empty,
the first thing that we may tend to do is to contract
and drum up all sorts of stories about how horrific everything is,
how the very building is going to fall apart because we have no resources
and we do then become, even individually, stingy,
stingy with our efforts
because so much of our energy is going into making up stories about what's going to happen.

And the stories we make up on any given occasion,
let's face it,
self-image, the contraction into a sense of self,
doesn't really require anything to start its activity of spinning from a contracted state
stories that do cause affliction,
not just to the individual spinning the story,
but like ripples in a pond,
little bits of horror to a greater or lesser degree—
and I exaggerate of course in this instance—
but they impact on others around,
they impact throughout whole situations,
causing affliction to a greater or lesser degree.

This contracting into a sense of a self
with a story about how things are
is not something that's confined to the Hatto,
it is not as if this only happens when you're sitting down facing the white wall,
then this would be something like confession, you know,
when you go in and you blurt out all sorts of heinous things that you may have thought or done
and become absolved
and then you go out and interact with the world again
in more or less the same ways because nothing has been resolved.

So when you're sitting in the Hatto or the Zendo looking at that white wall,
you're seeing how you are.
You are, as Dogen said,
looking into the self,
that formation of beliefs about who you are and how you are and how the world is,
turning it into what,
in a rather benign way we might call a "personality"
and we really don't question into very much in life in general,
but we sit in front of that wall
and we start to see when contractions of self-image come up
(and they don't have to be so called "big deals")
you can see contraction into a sense of "me"
and a story:

"Well, I should do something about this... but I don't want to put myself in a bad light,
so maybe oh everyone will just forget about it, I won't do anything."

So we complexify the situation because by not doing anything,
by not taking action—
which may put self-image at risk in its own view
because it never wants to be exposed for the lying, cheating fraud that it is—
I'm not exaggerating! [students laugh]
These tendencies are not who you are and face it:
we've all done stuff,
or had stuff happen to us that didn't really prop up who we might think we are.

Stuff happens.

Now, at the beginning of the sitting,
half way through the bowing round, finally,
something I'd been avoiding by flicking my toe underneath my kunsu happened:
The toe got stuck in a little space in the hem where the thread had started to unravel.

OMG! [students laugh]

So I thought: flick, flick with the toe again.

It did not come off.

I stood up and I could feel the fabric straining from the top to the bottom
and it's a really old kunsu,
so it could've been ripped
and I'd be left in front of the butsudan in my knickers. [students laugh]

Might have been fun for you [more laughter]
my only choice:
I had to lift my foot up and remove the offending hem, the offending fabric, from the toe.

So then: do I say something or not?
Well, it might have looked kind of funny just to reach out,
take the toe, lift the thing,
and maybe you all knew what was going on,
or maybe you all thought I was just in some sort of senile dementia,
I don't know! [giggles]
An informed populace can act more sanely.

So there we go.
Things can proceed.

So what would happen?
I mean there are all sorts of stories.
When we take any sort of action whatsoever,
when anything happens to us whatsoever,
we have to make choices as to what to do and
sometimes the choices we make tend to be less than useful
because we start to believe the stories we tell ourselves
about why we did or didn't take such and such an action
and that contracted action does in fact lead to affliction.

Now, this wish that's put forth:
"May all beings
Be open of heart
And without afflictions."

Well, that's nice. That's a wonderful thing,
and we can just let our imagination go and
if we were in a situation where all beings were open of heart,
so much could be accomplished. 

We know that because we live with it every day.

The cushions you're sitting on,
the floor that supports those cushions,
the whole building is here because of open hearts.

Now this is not some sort of miracle factory,
it doesn't mean that you won't die,
that's not what it's about.

Offer body and breath and mind and resources up and you won't get ill?
No, we'll never be in a situation where we have relics on the wall that are blessed
and that if people come and bow in front of them
and leave generous donations, they'll be healed.

Nothing like that.

But, what has been proven over and over again, that when we are open of heart to ourselves,
not just to others,
when we recognize,
"yes, we are human",
"yes there are things that can afflict us",
and when we focus on them,
or build up any sort of stories around them,
or try to pretend that they're not there,
or try to pretend that they mean something about who we are,
we're causing ourselves problems,
we're causing ourselves to create difficulties that weren't there before we started to create them,
and sitting in front of that white wall shows you that process
and over time,
patterns of self-image do wear out 
because they do have to be followed in order to be reinforced.

And it makes sense.
This pile or organic material that we call a bodymind has impressed upon it
all sorts of habits and patterns.
The bodymind itself does not decide whether something is useful or not
because when we're trying to run it,
when we believe that we are the Knower of that bodymind,
rather than the Knowing,
we take away from the bodymind a lot of its ability to function with its own intelligence.

So when we can release the bodymind to do what it does,
which is be the bodymind,
we as Knowing can experience the effects.

So sometimes we may have a lot of resources,
sometimes we may not have many,
there's always something that can be done.

I was reading a little item today, as a matter of fact,
which was saying that today with this heat wave we've been having,
that Hydro Ontario had been expecting that there would be a great increase in the amount of power used for various and sundry things.
But guess what, because of simple actions,
that apparently numerous people are taking,
the expected overuse did not occur.

So you know, every time you change a light bulb,
or every time you turn off a light,
every time when you leave a room you just take into consideration the use of resources,
we as a collective apparently, saved resources. [O-sensei claps in congratulation]

So it is possible.
But what we have to do as individuals is be mindful.
And we can be more mindful when we actually practise mindfulness,
and the practice of mindfulness is not leaving the Hatto and saying:
"Now, I'm going to be mindful, I'm going to notice everything!"
No, that would be the creation of a state,
that would be the creation of an image of a self that is strategizing
and trying to do an activity that it cannot do.

But, when we follow instruction and recognize that when we notice anything—
and this is a very difficult word for people to actually understand—


that's ANYTHING whatsoever,

any dharma,
any moment of experience,

what do you do?

You feel the whole bodymind in the whole moment.
You can start by noticing the breath,
and without making a list,
notice that you don't have to make a list to notice
seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, smelling, breathing in and out.

It's all there,
that's all knowns
and you're the Knowing of it,
so Knowing can practise,
no matter where it is.

And with that comes the ability to see things more clearly,
the ability not to believe your BS
about how you're too this or too that to actually pay attention,
to actually notice what's going on.

And you may note then that there's a big drop on the affliction meter,
because by not following usual habits,
you've gained some freedom
and when you continue to do that
when you continue to practise mindfulness by noticing this moment
and this moment
and this moment,

Who knows what can happen?

The verse again:

Seeing the alms-bowl empty,
"May all beings
Be open of heart
And without afflictions."

Now, sometime when that "alms-bowl", and be that a bank account,
or be that an alms-bowl, a literal bowl where we toss our change,
or be that whatever it is,
we may notice there's a little [sharp intake of breath]
perhaps a tiny little contraction in the stomach thinking:

"Oh there's not enough..."

As soon as you notice that:
notice the context within which it's arising
which is this mass of organic material
that you insist on calling "me"
which is wrapped around the breath,
which has already presenced itself enough to Knowing
that that moment of contraction is actually seen.


Stand up straight,
feel the feet,
feel the hands,
and that happens in a space of time which is shorter
than it takes to say it.

And if you notice that you're saying it,
well, practise again
because you've noticed something about how experiencing is in that moment.

So once again:

Seeing the alms-bowl empty,
"May all beings
Be open of heart
And without afflictions."

Do what you can.

Enjoy yourself.

Thank you for listening.