White Wind Zen Community

A Community practising and teaching Dogen’s Zen since 1985

Every Breath You Take 48: Taking Up the Almsbowl

Dharma Talk presented by Ven. Shikai Zuiko O-sensei

Dainen-ji, April 18th, 2009

Taking up the bowl of this moment,
you can recognize it contains colours, forms, sounds.
There's the breath,
breathing you in and out...
Which lets you know, of course:
You're alive!
And you can choose to practise in this moment. 

The bowl of this moment contains spring,
it contains pigeons, and grackles, and black-capped chickadees,
bathing together in the pond water that has just melted. 

The verse, from "The Practice of Purity": 

Taking up the almsbowl,

"May all beings

Perfect the vessel of truth

Together with the activities of humans and shining beings." 

Well, what does this have to do with you?
You might have noticed a thought popping up of an Asian-looking person
with a saffron robe,
carrying around a clay or metal bowl.

We're all familiar with those kinds of images
because they are being used more and more frequently in advertisements to sell things.
But, the almsbowl,
a bowl with which a monastic could collect food or money donated by supporters,
was perhaps one of the very few possessions of monastics
and it was vital in certain contexts to their day to day life
because if they didn't get food,
they wouldn't eat.
It was one of the simplest,
but more important objects in the daily life of many Buddhist monks. 

What does it mean, in the context of this moment?
What is an almsbowl?
In this moment, in this monastery?
Well, we could go back and back... 

We recognize that alms are things that people give to support certain activities.
Now whereas in many cultures, alms were given by supporters to monastics
so that the monastics perhaps would do the work for them.
But that's not how it's done here.
When Anzan Hoshin roshi started teaching,
he was a wandering monk, let's say,
in this context, in the contemporary context of Ottawa, Ontario.
Students came, they sought the teacher out and provided places to practise,
provided what was necessary so that they could receive the teachings
and so that they could do the work.
So there's quite a bit of difference between the traditional understanding of "almsbowl"
and a contemporary interpretation. 

So then, at a certain point, Anzan Hoshin roshi,
who was working at the time,
was giving everything that he had
to create a place where individuals who did seek him out,
or who sought the teachings out,
would be able to come and practise,
receive the teachings and practise.

So students came along,
and presented what they could
to help out with establishment of this place of practice,
which was supported by the teacher.

I came along and much as I hated the fact that I would have to sit my butt down on that cushion
and go through wrestling with all the stories,
all the legends that we've made up about ourselves,
I had no choice, really.

It comes down to that, there was nothing else to do.
So, as monks do,
we give everything,
body, breath, speech and mind, funds,
to support and build the place of practice. 

A few years later, Jinmyo sensei came along... same thing:
the recognition that the only way the bag of bones could be useful for any of us
was to sit its butt down,
wake up,
teach others how to do the same.

Because let's face it,
the legends that we live our lives by in contemporary culture are falling apart.
They're based on the contractions of self-image
and we see the fallout everywhere that we look. 

Then came along Chunen angya.
Same thing:
recognition, basically, no choice.

Mishin godo.
Saigyo ino.
And students came and went, and donated what they could. 

But again a startling, a radical difference from the pictures, 
the stories about monks and the relationship with lay supporters,
whereas monks would take their begging bowl around,
literally for food and money,
so they could live,
here we have exactly the opposite,
where the monastics, the monks,
are giving what they have
as well as body, breath, speech and mind,
to build a place that could support the practice of others.

Because practising in this moment with the stories,
with the contractions into a sense of self that diminish us,
that make our life far less rich,
that damage what we do,
that damages others.
The practice of it,
the wearing out of that pattern,
those patterns of contraction,
is the only thing to do.
It is how we can bring benefit to all beings. 

But don't fool yourself into a little legend,
thinking that because of your efforts,
everybody is going to "ba-dang!" wake up!
Won't that be nice?
Whole world, everybody happy,
nobody's starving,
nobody's shooting each other in the head,
nobody raping each other,
nobody cutting off arms and legs,
nobody throwing babies in the heap...
like, don't hold your breath, okay? 

Just breathe,
notice the breath,
feel the whole bodymind
and feel whole bodily into this moment,
which is the only thing going on. 

Now, apparently this practice was started, we could say,
by one Gautama Siddartha, 2600 years ago, in Northern India.
As with anything, legends grow up,
and there was a legend around this particular man.
One of which is used when talking about the almsbowl. 

It is said, the story goes, a long long time ago,
a man began practising under a bodhi tree,
and a young woman offered him a golden bowl filled with rice.
She thought he was the divinity,
or the god of the tree.
He divided the rice into 49 portions,
one for each day until he would be enlightened...

Now, that's legend for you,
I mean, my question would be: how did he know, 49 days?
But, legends aren't true, necessarily,
they may have bits and pieces of fact in them,
but they're stories.
So he divided up 49 portions of rice
and then he threw the gold bowl in the river.
And that story was used to illustrate the concept of non-attachment,
the non-attachment to material things. 

Well in this practice,
non-attachment doesn't just mean gold bowls and Mercedes and Rolex watches, material objects,
it means attachment to all our stories about who we are and how the world is,
our attachment to the stories of self-image,
the legends we create when we follow the patterns.

When we follow the contraction of self-image
and allow attention to funnel into the stories,
we become a living legend.
The only problem is,
what we're doing is cutting off the rest of our life
because when attention narrows in on anything,
that thing seemingly gets bigger
and the rest of what is experienced in this moment—
seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, smelling,
the whole bodymind in this moment—
seemingly disappears. 

So, you're practising.
You can recognize that the place of practice
was created and supported by the efforts of those who came before you.
And when you contribute,
you are contributing to support the practice of others,
probably most of whom haven't been born yet.
That's quite astounding,
it's quite interesting and it is unusual.
But we don't live our life by legends,
although it is easier often,
to believe a legend,
to believe a fable,
to believe a story,
especially about ourselves,
than to actually
sit up straight,
feel the breath,
recognize the rest of what's going on in this moment with the whole body,
to actually do the practice of reality. 

And, when you contribute through the effort of your practice,
and the recognition that what you are being taught is priceless,
we're sometimes moved to contribute and help fill up that almsbowl.

Now, what's taught?
Well, as Anzan roshi speaks of in "The Primordially Awakened One, Commentaries on Dogen zengi's Kobutsushin": 

Dogen presents a way of thinking that is not lost in thoughts. He attempts to express in words a way of thinking that discursive thoughts can not really do. Discursive thoughts are the run-on product of a process of narrowing attention. They are an avoidance of our inherent capacity as intelligent beings to think intelligently and openly and from many different perspectives simultaneously. 

Well, don't we all need as much of that intelligence available as possible?
I'd say so, because increasingly, when we look around,
there's a lot of really stupid stuff going on,
a lot of legends created that are exposing themselves
and being exposed for what they really are: fables. 

Economies, policies, weapons, the way we treat each other.
Rather than calling it BS,
let's just call it fictions,
and wake up to the fact that the first thing to deal with
is that fiction that comes up about how you are and how the world is in this moment,
and to practise that moment of clearly seeing that process. 

So, with every breath you take,
you do have the opportunity to open to the richness that is your own experiencing in this moment,
and to help others to do so by your efforts. 

The verse again: 

Taking up the almsbowl,

"May all beings

Perfect the vessel of truth

Together with the activities of humans and shining ones." 

Psst [Shikai O-sensei whispers]...
If you want to hear more about humans and shining ones,
check out "The Wheel of Becoming".

That's a hint, that's all I'm going to say, but you might have some fun. 

Thank you for listening.