Becoming an Empty Bowl: One Day in the Garden

Many years ago, before the turn of the century, after a long day of working in the garden that I was creating on my small plot of land in downtown Lebanon, New Hampshire, I lay down — flat on my back, directly on the ground. I was exhausted, not just from that day’s work, but from the several years of steady physical labor there in my yard. In those days, the 1980s, most of the time that I had off from my work as the administrative director, social worker, and bereavement care coordinator of Hospice of the Upper Valley, was spent there, in the work of gardening. As part of a team of community members, I was creating and bringing to life this brand new-to-the-medical-world palliative approach to care in the Upper Valley. This work, like the garden work, was definitely a labor of love, but like the garden work, it wasn’t easy. At the same time that I encountered and tried to come into wise relationship with coal pits, gravelly clay soil, and untended lawns, we at Hospice were grappling with a general lack of understanding and institutional resistance at many levels — even as we shared the pain and distress of patients and their families and advocated for their very human needs. I was so weary one day, I just lay down on the earth and stopped. And something amazing happened.

As I paused there, empty and alone, the garden rose up to support me. It may seem odd to say this, but I actually felt the energy of life growing, and it felt, in that moment, for me alone. As I experienced this buoyancy, I looked up and saw the beauty all around me, above me, actually, from my place down on the ground. I rested in it, savored it. I felt a sense of awe. It was so powerful and real, and I felt an immediate desire to share it somehow with others. How might I make this place, and this not-yet-fully-realized insight, available to others?

Then and there, I had the idea to remodel and insulate the old, unfinished tack room in the large barn on my property, to make it into a yoga studio. To get to it, people would have to walk by or through the gardens. They too might benefit from this organic energy and joy that I was now aware of. That very summer, I had finished a yoga teacher training program at the Kripalu Yoga Institute, and I had begun teaching in the local Carter Community Center in Lebanon. Within a day or two from that embodied pause, I had contacted a carpenter friend and hired him to build the simple yoga studio, where I taught for twenty-six years. Lots of people have been touched by the spirits of this land; and in turn, the land too was nourished by the growth of our calming intentions and energies. The yoga studio morphed into a Dharma practice center. The legacy of mutual care has been going on for close to forty years. It has also touched others who have lived here as well as friends and family who have visited. It continues to reach out, and still, at times, it seems again to be for me alone — especially in those moments when I feel alone, down-spirited or confused.

The direct encounters with four categories of life experiences impelled the Buddha to leave the known world of his native village and his carefully protected home in search of a way to live in skillfull relationship with the precariousness of our shared human existence. He was awakened and inspired by an embodied contact with Aging, Illness, Death, and finally, a wandering mendicant carrying an empty bowl. Jack Kornfield tells the story of his own Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah arriving in London with a group of newly trained Western monks — with the intention of establishing a new Buddhist order in Great Britain. In the beginning, they were staying in a residence in a suburb of London. When they went out on the street for alms rounds with their begging bowls, the monks would often return with nothing in them. People were not so used to the practice of feeding monks as they are in the Asian countries. Apparently, when they expressed their growing discouragement to Ajahn Chah, he reminded them of the Buddha seeing the mendicant with the empty bowl. He said that they now walked the streets with empty bowls because there might be a Buddha somewhere nearby, who needed to see an empty bowl in order to be inspired to begin their own journey towards liberation. He said that this was a far more important reason for begging than actually getting food put into their bowls, yet somehow these two were not really separate.

I have loved this story. It says something to me about the interpersonal value of being an empty bowl, like I was in the garden that day. Revealing our vulnerability can all forth another’s goodness. It can elicit love, compassion, and caring. It can give rise to a generous spirit.

Longer ago than that day in my garden, when I “gave up” and surrendered to a sense of deep weariness, I had been a patient at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover, New Hampshire — with the terminal diagnosis of acute Leukemia. Experimental chemotherapy protocols were only beginning to be developed and to show an effect on the illness. I was given a .01 percent chance of survival. Already I was very weak. I had arrived at the hospital after a couple of weeks of acute respiratory symptoms and was physically and mentally depleted — an empty bowl. I was totally dependent on the medical and nursing team for my survival, to the point that people had to help me eat, toilet, move, etcetera. Friends and family visited with their emotional support, their love and care, as well as practical help with my needs. This continued when I left the hospital. I’d been an independent person and accepting help was both very hard for me and very necessary.

In the earliest days of my five-week hospital stay, I felt awkward and afraid in accepting help; but one day, after a visit from my brother and his young family, I suddenly knew throughout my body something very difficult, yet very important to fully know. I sensed that I had become what I came to call a “vehicle for love.” I knew in that moment that giving and receiving are the same thing: they cannot exist independent of one another. The wisdom of the Dharma, the “knowing how deeply our lives intertwine” arises through such experiences.

I received so much practical support given to me in the years of my illness, and there were so many simple, kind, beautiful gestures of love: a friend came with a guitar and sang to me; another gave me periodic foot massages; I received a warm peach one night fresh from a tree; and so much more. I even was invited to attend the birth of a child. I was nourished with enough earth, water, warmth, breath, and space to live on for a very long time — for a lifetime, if I remember to remember.

A few years ago, after a disabling bicycle accident, I again became vulnerable, a very needy empty bowl. And again, I was blessed to be seen and cared for. For several months, I received and lived on the invaluable love and support from so many friends within the Valley Insight Sangha and my other circles of friendship.

Recently, a wonderful and remarkably competent and generous dear friend became very incapacitated. He was having a hard time in accepting help. He found it challenging, almost shameful, to receive all that his friends and family were offering — even though it was essential to his well-being given the circumstances. One day, we talked about the Buddha’s need to see an empty bowl and about being a catalyst for generosity and kindness to arise in another person, about becoming a vehicle for love; about the relational, reciprocal nature of care. This metaphor eased his heart and the clinging to his beliefs about who and how he was “supposed” to be. An element of what Buddhists refer to as self-view fell away: he could touch a very deep gratitude for everything he was offered.

As in all metaphor, there is a lot to explore in the Buddha’s vision of the empty bowl. The great teaching on emptiness, a profoundly liberative aspect of the Dharma, was perhaps intuited in that moment, as well as the initial stirrings of an understanding of Karma––one that recognizes the interpersonal connectedness arising through our actions. His teaching that the path begins and ends with generosity is there as well. Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes of this in his Meditations:

We go looking elsewhere in the Buddha’s teachings to find a rationale or a basis for a teaching on connectedness, but the real basis for a sense of connectedness comes through karma. When you interact with another person, a connection is made…. With generosity you create a positive connection, a helpful connection, a connection where you’re glad that the boundary is down, a connection where good things can flow back and forth.

What memories and insights might this empty bowl image open for you as you ponder your own life experiences? And how do you relate to the contented mendicant carrying his vulnerability so openly through the world? Have you ever had the experience of being vulnerable in such a way that you felt you were a catalyst for the love of others to grow and pour forth? Has seeing an empty bowl been a factor in your generosity towards others? Thinking of the Buddha’s four early so-called “heavenly messengers,” what might it mean to have an empty bowl woven into the vulnerability that is our own experiences with aging, illness, and death?

And now pause for a moment, relax, and perhaps take the poet Rumi’s advice:

Feel the motions of tenderness all around you, the buoyancy.

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