A Bowl Above My Head

Monks receive alms, Nyaungshwe, Myanmar

Monks receive alms, Nyaungshwe, Myanmar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently read a wonderful Raymond Lam article describing how Buddhist monks overturn their alms bowls, raising them above their heads when standing before someone who violates certain of their laws.

Bowls may be overturned in response to anyone who commits one of the following breaches:

  • strives for the monks‘ material loss,
  • strives for the monks’ detriment,
  • strives for the monks’ non-residence,
  • insults and reviles monks,
  • causes monks to split from monks,
  • speaks in dispraise of the Buddha,
  • speaks in dispraise of the Dharma,
  • speaks in dispraise of the Sangha.”

The overturning of bowls is an actual, public event that takes place in front of the offender.  It’s a last resort, signaling that a member of the community has become unworthy to even offer food. In a world of interconnection and interdependence it is a non-violent manner of excommunication.  A serious and silent moral condemnation.

According to Lam it says, “As monks, we depend on others to feed us. But even if we were to starve, we would not accept your feeding us. You are not worthy to even prostrate before us. Your crimes against other people are that grave.”

Initially I laughed at the picture of a group of monks holding their alms bowls upside down above their heads.  I also thought about other uses of the concept. Except not with bowls.

If turning over one’s alms bowl and holding high is a peaceful, non-violent gesture of protest then what are the day-to-day possibilities for those who seek justice, change or redress for a serious situation.  Perhaps such a gesture could come in handy at the dojo.

On days that I find myself feeling like the “etiquette police” I waste precious practice time trying to figure out how to deal with it, control my frustration, not be a jerk and get on with practice. I clutter myself  when faced with a less experienced teacher who is clearly going through the motions — something my students at the community college refer to as “phoning it in.”

In either of those scenarios, I am without a bowl but I wonder what would happen if the assembled community simply moved off the mat, removed our belts to our shoulders, and stared at the offender in silence?

It seems a better, more direct approach than  gossip in the changing room, walking away in frustration, or worse yet, bringing only half a heart to practice.   

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One Response to “A Bowl Above My Head”

  1. […] A Bowl Above My Head.  Why this post:  Because it’s always important to remember that it doesn’t take swearing, yelling, fist-pounding or making a scene to get your point across. […]

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