White Wind Zen Community

A Community practising and teaching Dogen’s Zen since 1985

Every Breath You Take 109: Seeing the Alms Bowl Full

Dharma Talk presented by Ven. Shikai Zuiko O-sensei

Dainen-ji, July 30th, 2011

Did it ever occur to you that every fart and burp and exhalation that's ever been done
by any air breather anywhere on the planet any time
is part of the air that's breathing you in and out?

[O-sensei and students laugh] Am I wrong? Huh?

What? You thought maybe these things didn't happen?
You thought maybe they didn't return to the air from which they came?

Wake up!

Smell the... coffee!

Coffee! [more laughter]

It's a very strange thought but it's true.

So that very breath redolent of everything that's ever passed on this earth
is part of your experience right now
and a very important part.

Without that breath that's being pulled into the bodymind
by the actions of the muscles of the respiratory system,
by the expansion of the lungs
and then as that happens,
the breath before is emptied out and goes as an exhalation back into the mix which surrounds you as you sit right there.

It's in front of you,
behind you,
to the sides of you,
above your head,
it's in this room,
it's in the hallways,
it's in the Zendo,
it's everywhere in the monastery,
it's in the grounds,
it goes through the trees,
the birds breathe it in and out,
the birds: breathing it in and out,
the squirrels: breathing it in and out,
the raccoons: breathing it in and out, so there it is,
this great mess,
this great chaos of life.

So you might as well notice that breath around which all these cells,
not even the same
one to the other,
some of them not even human exist in and on and as this thing we call the bodymind.

So there you are,
what are you going to do?
Well, when you notice anything at all,


(that's an all-inclusive word),


any dharma,
any moment of experience,

practise the fact that
you're being breathed in and out,
the bodymind is interacting with the context around it,
the bodymind is interacting with itself,
and you
as the Knowing of all of that,
take that moment of noticing any dharma,
any known,
and practise the whole bodymind
in the whole moment.


And I mean this: tell me a virtue.
Shout it out, anyone, use that breath, send it out over your vocal chords.

Student: Patience.

Seeing the alms-bowl full,
"May all beings Completely fulfill
All the ways of virtue."

Patience is a virtue.
We understand that,
we've been brought up with for one thing,
a kind of sexist little verse which I'm not going to say,
about who has patience and who doesn't.


What does it mean, patience?

Well, it means taking a risk, actually,
recognizing that many components must come together in any moment
so that anything at all can get done,
and sometimes pushing is the worst thing that you can possibly do.


it means waiting,
letting things take their time.

Student: Generosity.

Yeah, helping fill the alms bowl.

How about another one?

Student: Equanimity.

Maintaining, not going off-centre.

Anything else?

Student: Honesty.

Honesty, yes.
Honesty: being able to see what a situation is,
what's unfolding and being able to tell,
in the best possible way,
what is necessary to make something clear,
to take responsibility for one's self,
not being pushed into self-motivated actions.

Another one?

Student: Wisdom.

Wisdom, yeah.
Being able again,
(see they start to all relate together: patience, equanimity, honesty, wisdom,)
being able to sit or stand,
depending upon what's going on,
and see how each thing is related one to the other,
being able to see that you can't take them apart,
that each informs the next one
so having the wisdom,
the understanding that there are many points of view in any situation,
to take that into account when any decision is made,
to recognize through your generosity
through willingness to take into account the needs of everyone else,
the needs of the larger,
and to do what's necessary,
and patience: to take the time to see,
to take in as much information as possible before making a decision.

Hasty decisions are often required
when there's a need for something to happen very quickly in order to save life or limb,
but when we are in harm's way or someone we know or may not know,
someone, something some being is in harm's way,
we don't have the time to think about it,
but we find that what happens is right,
taking that risk of action because when the motivations of self-image are out of the way,
doing what's necessary to be done can happen very quickly.

Any other virtue that anyone has ready to pop off the end of their tongue.

Student: Discipline.

Discipline, the willingness to learn,
(which is what the word means,)
which means stepping past the songs of self-image that can be so seductive.

"No, you don't have to get up, oh you can sit later..."

So the willingness to recognize that in order to learn,
in order to maximize the intelligence of the bodymind,
we can through understanding the process of perception and cognition,
give generously to these moments of self-image the treatment that will maximize,
take the best advantage of that process of perception and cognition
so that we can make and take actions that are wise.

Now what does this have to do with alms-bowl?
Well, when an alms-bowl is full,
when there's enough to provide,
we can take the time to look into more and more clearly moments of experiencing.
When there's a need,
when the hive is all focused on filling that alms-bowl,
or repairing this portion of the hive that's broken,
there's not the time to actually look into moment to moment experience.

Oh sure, we, through having discipline will take the time to show up for a sitting,
because after all,
self-image which can lurk even there,
doesn't want to be seen as a slacker.

But we start to understand through the bodymind
that this practice is not something that is only to be done in the Hatto,
but that the bodymind learns on the zafu in the Hatto and in the Zendo,
in the formal practice spaces,
the bodymind is learning that it has the permission, as it were,
to step past its usual habitual patterns.

And when we are not distracted by the needs of the hive,
well we actually have the time to notice how we are when we're walking up the front path,
when we're walking through the front gate,
when we're walking in different areas of the building.
We may start to understand since we are freed from that urgency,
that we can practise
and we should
when we notice these habitual contractions of [in a high voice]
"Me me me me me me me me me me me me me me me meeeee!"
Self-image calling out its siren refrain,
we start to notice we're not the only person in the room.

Well, well, well.

Out of that starts to come more and more understanding.
It's interesting too,
we know that when a group of people is pulling together as in say wartime Britain,
with which most of us are familiar if not first hand, then through stories,
that people actually will say,
the old folks who were actually participants will say that it was the best time of their life.

Now that may strike us as weird
but there was a common purpose
and we do seek purpose.
Self-image wants purpose.
"What's my purpose?

What's the purpose of my life? What's the purpose of life?"
Well, life basically has no purpose.

There have been lots of cosmologies created to give a sense of purpose,
to provide the answers that self-image seeks.

"What can I do, say or give so that I'll be alright in the afterlife?"
That's a very common story.

Well, we don't have a common story.
We don't have a story at all.
What we have is right here,
right now.

Your purpose?
Well you might have individual stories about what it is.
You might come here because you want to change something.
You might come here because you want to know what's going on really.

One thing that you may all have in common
is that there were these moments when there was a recognition that there was more to be known
about the reality of being a human being
than was provided by the stories about being a human being
and what you should do when and to whom.

So eventually you found your way to this zafu.

And the alms-bowl is full,
you have enough to eat,
you have a roof over your head,
and are basically pretty safe.

Now mammals,
mammals learn when they have full bellies they don't have to forage for food,
say, because there's plenty,
they don't have to worry about where they're going to stay
because they have a secure place.
They have time for fun, and that's what they do.
More and more human animals, oops,
human beings,
we often don't like to be associated with those with fur and feathers,
we don't like to accept the fact that we're very closely related to the larger primates,
but the larger primates when they're full of food,
when they have a secure place,
what do they do?
They play and they explore.
Squirrels play and explore.

Now human beings,
when they have that alms-bowl full,
tend to have a lot of leisure time and as we can see in the everyday social culture,
when there's plenty,
people often go looking for plenty more because it's not very long before they go:
"What the? What am I doing?
There's gotta be more than all these clothes,
all of these shoes,
all of these drinks,
all this screwing around,
all this jumping up and down to music,
there's gotta be a bit more."

So they keep seeking.
they keep seeking.

So we can I think say,
from the feedback that those who've studied social culture are receiving,
that indeed we're in that kind of a situation where plenty has bred a lot of discontent.

Now, you look at the movies 
and what we see is a burst of movies that say one sex in particular can get into all sorts of trouble,
go to all sorts of places,
trash all sorts of other people's dwellings,
do all sorts of horrible things and then
go back home and be welcomed
as if what they did was really cute.

And the sex that is opposite to them will roll over 
and praise them for being so,

oh, how can I say this without pointing a finger?

So testeroney!

I think you know what I mean.
So you watch the culture and that's one of the messages that people are getting.

But there are those who are not satisfied with that.
There are those who are saying
it's not even funny,
it's actually really sad, and
some of those are people who are actually coming up with that particular product...


Alms-bowl full:

"May all beings
Completely fulfill
All the ways of virtue."

Well that would be nice but nothing ever gets completely done,
and sitting right here,
this moment is full,
it is completely fulfilled.

When you notice anything at all,
that's the moment when you sit up straight,
feel the whole bodymind in the whole moment
and practise because the way things are going,
it certainly wouldn't be surprising let's say in five years, ten years,
some of you will be sitting facing students who've come to say to you:

"What's going on? There's something wrong."

And you'll have to,
if you choose to take those steps,
answer them.

And the best way you can answer them 
is through your own experience
and understanding of the possibility of opening past 
the fixations and patterns of a culture 
that has never experienced the empty alms-bowl,
when it's always been full. 

It's a dirty job, but hey,
somebody's got to do it.

Thank you for the risk you took
in actually allowing that breath to push out over the vocal chords
and come up with some words that are commonly understood to be virtues.

I'll say the verse again
as you're breathing in that air filled with squirrel farts, badger breath
[O-sensei and students laugh] methane...

Seeing the alms-bowl full,
"May all beings
Completely fulfill
All the ways of virtue."

Thank you for listening.