An alms bowl is a round, oval-shaped eating vessel used by monastics, with a flat bottom and a narrowed opening with which they receive offerings from human and heavenly beings. Its composition and size is described in the monastic rules, so that it holds the appropriate amount of food for the stomach. The rules stipulate that an alms bowl must be crude in form to not create greed, dark grey in color to not incite desire, and of a fixed size to encourage contentment.
Originally, having an alms bowl was an everyday necessity, but as Buddhism was transmitted to China the practice of making daily food offerings was not adopted by the Chinese laity. However, as stipulated in the monastic rules, alms bowls are still given when a monastic is ordained, though few actually use their bowl. The alms bowl still stands as an emblem of how all Buddhas, as numerous as grains of sand in the Ganges, practiced to end their desire. All those who receive the alms bowl should focus their mind to act with self-control and self-respect.
My name is patra in Sanskrit and yingliang qi in Chinese. In English, I’m called an alms bowl. In the early days of Buddhism, Sakyamuni Buddha and his disciples used me to obtain their food. They would go out with their alms bowls to get food for their daily meal. In ancient China, monks and nuns couldn’t get along without me. Even though there was enough to eat in the monastery, members of the community were not given any food without having their bowls. That is why monastics with their bowls were said to be exactly like clouds floating in the sky, for they did not need to worry about where their food would come from. It was said, “One bowl has held the food of a thousand families. A solitary monastic travels on his journey of a hundred thousand miles seeking liberation from the cycle of birth and death.”
In those early days of Buddhism, monks and nuns would take their bowls and go out begging for food. But over time the sangha became more established. Monasteries farmed or leased their own land, generating their own revenue. Monastics did not have to beg for the necessities of life, and, eventually, I was no longer used.
Chinese Buddhism originated, so to speak, from the practice of begging for food. But it then became self-sustaining by maintaining properties. The monasteries without properties had to generate income by accepting donations and offering to chant sutras and other Dharma services. This change from begging for food to managing land and properties and engaging in other raise money has led to confusion about Buddhism in the minds of many people.
During the Golden Age of Chinese Buddhism, bowls were not used just for begging and eating. Both the kasaya robe and I were used as symbols of Dharma transmission. A patriarch—familiar with the dedication, understanding of the Dharma, and education of his disciples—would choose his successor. As a symbol, the patriarch would pass down his robe and bowl to the next patriarch. Through this transmission, the new patriarch vowed to continue the noble task of liberating all sentient beings. Sakyamuni Buddha passed down his robe and bowl to Mahakasyapa. It was Bodhidharma, the twenty-eighth Indian patriarch, who brought Chan Buddhism to China, along with his robe and bowl.
After the fifth Chinese patriarch, Hongren, named Huineng as his successor, he asked Huineng to take his bowl and robe and travel to southern China. The Fifth Patriarch made this request because he knew his selection of Huineng as the Sixth Patriarch would be controversial. He wanted Huineng to leave until the matter was resolved. Huineng, taking his bowl and robe, followed Master Hongren’s request and traveled south.
One of Hongren’s other disciples, a monk named Huiming, had been a famous general as a layperson. He was upset when he heard about what was happening, and he pursued Huineng. He planned to take the robe and bowl away from him. When Huiming was just about to overtake the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng quickly set me down and hid himself behind a bush. Huiming approached me and tried to pick me up. Then a strange thing happened. No matter how hard he tried, Huiming could not pick me up. Humbled, Huiming said, “Master, I’m here for the Dharma, not for the alms bowl.” Master Huineng then revealed himself and preached the Dharma enterprises to Huiming, who, thereupon, obtained enlightenment. Although I am only a small alms bowl, you can see that I have played an important role in the transmission of the Dharma.
Here are some interesting observations about begging for food. Mahakasyapa never begged for food from the rich, only from the poor. He believed that giving the poor an opportunity to give alms was a blessing to them. Subhuti took the opposite view. He begged for food from the rich because he did not want to burden the poor. The Buddha had stated that true mind does not discriminate, and, consequently it is not right to limit the begging from either the poor or the rich. Ananda begged food from everyone. However, he was endangered by a woman named Matangi.
I was involved in the suffering and death of some people when I was in Maudgalyayana’s hands. Prince Virudhaka, the son of King Prasenajit of Kosala, had a personal grudge against the Sakya people and wanted to wipe out the entire clan. Maudgalyayana implored the Buddha to save these people, but the Buddha replied that he was powerless to change the Sakya people’s karma. Even so, Maudgalyayana was certain that something could be done. He used his supernatural powers to hide five hundred people from the Sakya clan in his bowl and sent them up to the heavens. When the slaughter was over, and the carnage assessed, even the Sakyans Maudgalyayana had tried to save had turned into blood. It was just as the Buddha had said. A person cannot save another from the karma that they have created. Good seeds produce good fruit, and bad seeds produce bad fruit. A small bowl like me could not save them!
In China, there is a famous legend that tells the story of how Chan Master Fahai subjugated a powerful white snake that appeared in the form of a woman. Though the snake was big and powerful, she was shrunk down to the size of an alms bowl, becoming just a small, weak creature. It is said that this legend grew from the story of Sakyamuni Buddha conquering the fire dragon using his alms bowl. From this story, you can see that besides being used for food, I have also been used to conquer demons!
In the past, some monks and nuns treasured their precious bowls. They would give up everything else except for their bowl and robe. Here is a story regarding Chan Master Jin Bifong, who, even after he had cleared his mind and seen his true nature, continued to treasure his jade begging bowl. At the time of this story, the master had lived his allotted number of years, and the King of Hell wanted him. On several occasions, the ruler of the underworld had already ordered little ghosts to catch Master Jin Bifong. However, each time that they tried, the master was in samadhi, a state of deep meditative concentration, and the ghosts could not reach him. The King of Hell became angry.
The earth god, upon hearing about this, suggested to the ghosts that, since the master was so attached to his jade bowl, they could trick him by shaking his bowl. Upon hearing the noise, Master Jin Bifong would come out of samadhi, and the ghosts would be able to catch him. The ghosts decided to carry out this plan according to the earth god’s advice.
When the master heard the noise coming from his precious jade bowl, he left samadhi. Opening his eyes and seeing the ghosts with iron chains, he realized what was happening. At that moment, he was able to free himself from the chains of greed and attachment, and he smashed the jade bowl to the ground. He told the ghosts to give him a few moments, and then he again entered into samadhi. In that meditative concentration, he spoke to the little ghosts: “If you want to capture Jin Bifong, you will need chains that can bind emptiness. If you can't contain emptiness, then you can't catch Jin Bifong." Here, I want to remind all monastics that they should free themselves of the poison of greed, even when it comes to their begging bowls.
Even after Master Jin Bifong's experience, people still have remained attached to me.
The monk Su Manshu, who was also a poet, would not give me up, even during the most difficult time of his life. When nothing seemed to be going right and he was living in poverty, he wrote this poem about me.
With worn out shoes and broken bowl, This unknown wanderer has crossed many bridges and seen the cherry blossoms through many seasons.
From these sentiments, we can see how attached he was to his bowl.
Theravada Buddhism has kept up the tradition of begging for food to this day. I hear people discussing the pros and cons of begging for food by members of the sangha. Those in favor claim that when holding their bowls and begging for food, monks and nuns are more accessible to ordinary citizens. Consequently, it is easier to explain and propagate the Dharma. Proponents claim an additional advantage of begging is that it is an excellent discipline to subjugate the false sense of self and practice humility.
Those opposed to the practice claim that begging for food is not a good idea, because some people might view members of the sangha as being lazy, living off the labor of others. I have found the arguments of both sides to be very persuasive and cannot decide one way or the other.
In Chinese Buddhism nowadays, I am not used much except for taking meals during ordinations. In Taiwan, there are monastics who may have never seen me. Since I am made from porcelain, I am sometimes called a “porcelain bowl.” During retreats, the monk in charge will ask those on retreat whether they want an iron bowl or a porcelain bowl. Anyone who does not reply with the words “porcelain bowl” is not allowed to take the precepts. Why is it, then, that today’s monastics have no special feeling for me?
Having sympathy in the heart,
one can benefit others.
Having understanding in the heart,
one can tolerate others.
Having patience in the heart,
one can work with others.
Having compassion in the heart,
one can liberate others.
Venerable Master Hsing Yun grants voices to the objects of daily monastic life to tell their stories in this collection of first-person narratives.
The Heart Sutra is a short sutra, commonly chanted individually or in groups, that contains the core teachings on prajnaparamita, or the “perfection of wisdom.” The sutra is short, at only 260 Chinese characters. Included is an English translation of the sutra’s meaning, followed by the Chinese characters and their pronunciation
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