Renunciation

One of the more powerful statements of the Renunciation is the Begging bowl or alms bowl. It forms one of a set which monks use for formal meals. These  bowls are called oryoki in Japanese and this translates as the bowls that hold just enough. Monks receive these at ordination as one of what are called their requisites. It is part of a set of nesting bowls and are all tied up with cloths for spreading over the lap, one to lay out over the pure place on a tan for the bowls to sit on and an absorbent drying cloth. There is a small bag for the cutlery and also a stick for cleaning the bowl. The uncovered end is used for placing a small piece of food from the begging bowl on for the Hungry Ghosts. So what has this to do with renunciation? Well, it is the cleansing of karma. The cleansing of karma looked at this way is renunciation. The willingness to look at our lives, now, today and see what it is we are clinging to.

The begging bowl on the one hand is what contains the food we eat which has been donated. That which has been given freely as alms to the service of the Buddha. To hold out our bowl monk or lay is to lay ourselves open to receiving the dharma. It shows our connection to the food that we need to sustain us so that we can do this work. Old Chinese monasteries had a direct route from the firewood which was used to heat the the food which was mostly if not all produced on their lands. All of you who have gardens and raised beds and grow some of your own produce will of course know that there is a deep connection with the cycle of growth this way. During formal meals in the zendo monks hold out their bowls and food is placed in it. They eat everything having first taken a small sample from the bowl and offered it to the Hungry Ghosts. At the end of the meal the washing up water is served and the bowls cleaned thoroughly and the water also offered to the Hungry Ghosts. The bowl is then dried using the drying cloth. This is the formality of the actions and of course the formality includes with in it the spiritual purpose.

The bowl is the body and the food the dharma that we ingest. The cleaning is the cleaning of karmic residue which is then returned from whence it came. The careful attendance to the cleaning shows that we need to be equally meticulous and careful over observing karma. The cleaning of the bowl is also similar to this in that if we over think or are too mindful in a self-conscious way it gets in the way. We fall over ourselves because to much of us is involved. When cleaning the bowl is more about us cleaning and thinking about what it all means and trying to do it properly it is usually a sign that we are more important than the doing of it. I’m sure we can get out of the way completely here, we are involved and we are taking care. It is good to reflect on merit here and that the doing and cleaning are universal and not so specific to us doing it. It isn’t to do with not thinking. It would be hard to do any of this without engaging the thought process it is just a different type of thinking that is involved. Someone many years ago told me about their experience cutting an onion. Their perspective was that no thinking was involved and that it was a pure action, in other words it just flowed and that there was no intermediary. I found that difficult to concur with then and still do. Let us not be afraid of thinking. One is thinking when picking up the knife, when peeling off the skin of the onion and also discarding the waste. On another occasion, which may shed some light on this, I was on a two-month retreat in a hut. It was breakfast time and I was preparing something to eat. I became aware that yes much of this was routine and very little analytical was involved. It was very much as the previous person was saying but also I became acutely aware that I could trace each movement. The salt, the oats, the pan etc. were where they always were, I didn’t have to figure out where they were and yet I was conscious of picking it up and adding to the pan etc. These are thoughts yet they don’t get in the way of the flow. In sitting as we all are aware there are thoughts, they come and go. They don’t get in the way unless we interact with them. When the thoughts become aspects of why, what and me then they can become more troublesome.

I said earlier that the eating and cleaning are done in the service of the Buddha and in this it encompasses everything. So thinking is in the service of the Buddha if kept to that which isn’t just I. Quite often I’m not aware that I am musing on something. One door opening and closing on itself like those swing doors you see in Cowboy movies. Or like a soup that is simmering and slowly and gently softening the ingredients and absorbing the herbs and seasonings to make a combined flavour that becomes digestible. We must all have experienced going on a walk or sitting in an armchair and some thought arises but we haven’t really been in control of the process i.e. thinking it through. Nevertheless we can move forward in a way that can be surprising. It is as if we wouldn’t have got there by actively thinking it through to a conclusion.

All of this is a part of renunciation. The bowl is filled we silently and carefully eat, it is digested and a transformation takes place beyond our conception. Nothing is rejected all is taken in. Rich, plain, sweet, sour. The dharma also in all its combinations and flavours. The begging bowl that is our lives also doesn’t discriminate. Here we live by simply knowing that each moment is full. We can live in repose by looking deeply into that which wants to add and fill up from a well that is outside of ourselves. Renunciation is possible because there is no hole to fill. We re-join that which is replete. To renounce is to express fearlessness as our lives unfold. We can see through the limits we have imposed on our potential. To judge ourselves and our efforts is to claw back that which has dissolved in the renouncing. This we all can do here, now, today. Whether we have grown our hair or not we can all gently and confidently turn towards that which is facing us. Only we can do that for ourselves, and in doing so do it for all living beings.

We need to find what this life is and express it fully. All sorts of memories and judgements may arise which can sow seeds which turn into great doubts. Just look at the arising and let it be. There is a frightened self there that will always be hanging on and trying to grab it all back. Leave it alone and the grip will loosen over time.

To follow the ways of the Buddhas and ancestors is to learn how to listen and follow. Just watch when it all tightens up and we cling to a known form or way of being and responding, and can’t hear the teaching of the moment. Eating swallowing and digesting is teaching us this in a very ordinary way so it is with our other everyday situations. Whilst our pain can be unique to us in some way we can only fully experience it if we know it isn’t only ours and that it is a shared experience, a common experience of being alive. If compassion is to be compassion then suffering isn’t owned like that. Look around on any given day at any given moment and you will not be far from a mirror which is showing us the way.

The Buddha showed that there is an end to suffering and that the end was expressed through a thorough understanding of the eightfold path. The activity of our lives is the expression of this. The eightfold path like the Precepts shows that how we live expresses to the world that there is a way to renounce that which binds us. To give to this is to free ourselves in the way of the buddhas and ancestors.

So when you next eat or drink maybe bare in mind that one of the beauties of buddhist symbolism is that they are there right in front of us on an actual material basis. These are not empty symbols but ways of living it. What it expresses and its expression are not separated.

I have recently been attempting to express something of the teaching in ways that are in the form of fiction. As a way of putting these experiences and insights into an everyday context. It is from the point of view of someone who has overtime found ways to renounce but how this is, is at this point in the story kept open. So as way of an experiment and because it seemed to fit I would like to share a couple of paragraphs of a longer unfinished piece. It is work in progress so please bare that in mind but then so is any dharma talk.

This talk was given after the Renunciation Festival January 2022