A long time friend in the Dharma wrote me recently. She wrote about the many surgeries on her legs and hips she has undergone, starting in 2004. She also wrote about the surgeries yet to come and about her present need for assistance to get about at all. My backpack days are defiantly history, she says. Perhaps you could come over to mainland Europe and visit us? Her message certainly put my little thoughts of wanting to put traveling behind me into perspective. I’d not thought of traveling being an offering to those who are not as mobile as I am able to be. Reminders to not become stuck in ones limiting thoughts and ways come in small packages, such as a friendly email like this one. Thank you.
Monks carry the Alms bowl, symbolic of practice generally. Of giving and receiving unconditionally all that passes through it, which includes difficult letters, emails that are a shout and phone calls which are wet with tears. Oh, and emails telling of the joy of training and ones that inspire and encourage too.
We talk about alms, both material and spiritual, having boundless merit, and that self and other benefit from making offerings. At first sight, encountering monks on an Alms Round for example, one could see this exchange as, the monks are fed by the householders and the monks offer spiritual blessings and Buddhist teachings. There is much more going on though, both on the round and in the life of pure practice. In the ultimate sense there is no one who gives or receives since they are one seamless movement. There is simply a field of merit open handedly benefiting beings. In the relative world, the one we live in, we can get caught up in our little thought and ways, of measurement and evaluation, of right and wrong.
Out on the Alms Round in Mt. Shasta a month ago I was struggling physically. We had been instructed to carry the bowl on the left side but somehow I was unconsciously trying to carry it on my right side. Half way round having walked already for one hour, I realized I was bending myself out of shape. It is simply not possible to carry something on both sides at the same time, so I paid attention and quickly my back stopped hurting. Now, which is the correct side? The left, the receptive side or the right, the giving side and does it actually matter? Today I ventured into our library to ask a question of our truly inspirational Librarian. (He is probably the only monk of our Order who reads this blog too.) While in the library I flicked through a periodical, as one does. And there was a photograph of a venerable Theravada monk carrying his bowl, on the right side!
My little mind is glad it discovered the traditional way to carry the Theravada Alms bowl. Of course the teaching of the walking of the Alms Round is that it is an offering, an extending of the field of merit of pure practice to all beings. At the end of the message, referring to this blog, my friend and spiritual benefactress said: Thank you for sharing the Little Big Things of your training and daily life! The teaching of the Alms bowl is one of those Little Big Things in terms of Buddhist teachings within our tradition. That’s the fathomless and finite coming together.
Yep, that’s the heart of it. Pure practice and daily-life are not separate practices.
BTW: The alms bowl that is given at monks ordination in our Soto Zen tradition is much smaller than the Theravada ones and are held directly in front when walking or standing.