On this metal pot my life depends. It demands no ordinary faith but one that enables me to go anywhere trusting that I can survive as long as it is replenished.
This is not the first pot of my monastic career. On my ordination day, I received the traditional glazed ceramic bowl, heavy and easy to break. My relationship to it and the mindfulness I was to practise in handling it define the spirit of our early years of training. We gain expertise not only in the rules governing its use but also – as with our other requisites – learn to take meticulous care whether setting it out at the meal, eating from it, cleaning, carrying, or storing it.
At the end of these five Rains Retreats – the way our monastic years are reckoned – comes that special moment in the life of a nun. Even if she has cracked or broken her alms bowl – the mortification being punishment enough – she still remains eligible to receive the more durable stainless steel one that replaces it. That will be hers to use for the remainder of her life or until she disrobes.
Naturally, I was overjoyed the day I surrendered my ceramic bowl to accept the new metal one made ready for me – wrapped in a cloth harness and perched on its bamboo stand beside my sitting mat. In the hierarchal system of our community, the bestowing of the steel bowl marks a quasi-graduation from junior to intermediate nun – by which time we are considered mature enough to begin teaching. I felt quite ‘grown up’ to be using it – as if now, at last, I had ‘arrived’.
As renunciants, we abstain from luxurious furnishings or possessions. So the shiny stainless bowl would have to be fired to discolour it. But wouldn’t it be great if it were burnished evenly all around, and especially if the inside turned a topaz blue…
Three monks helped me locate a large oil drum that could serve as an oven and collect enough chunks of discarded wood to build a bonfire over it. I cleaned the bowl and set it face down on a grille inside the drum. Some shards of glass placed beneath it, their radiant heat chemically reacting with the bowl’s interior, promised that special blue finish.
By late afternoon, using soil to seal the crack between the ground and the lip of the drum, we doused our woodpile with kerosene and lit it. Once it ignited, we ceremoniously circled the bonfire and chanted blessings. It would burn through the night.
Still too dark in the predawn hours, I waited until after our morning meditation before slipping out to retrieve my bowl. Now copper-coloured on the outside, when I turned it over, my heart leapt to see a heavenly blue sheen.
As I carried it proudly back, the nun occupying an adjoining room – more senior in the robe and an expert at firing alms bowls – examined it. Peering inside she declared, “Very nice. Shame about the smudge.”
Once she mentioned the word ‘smudge’, I could see nothing else. All day my thoughts focussed on the streak defacing the lovely new blue interior. Obsessed with how I could get rid of this odious flaw, I found it difficult to settle my mind, let alone meditate.
Eventually, I concocted a way to refire my bowl on a smaller scale – in my room. Kneeling in front of my shrine with the bowl propped on a thick wad of rags, I decanted a small amount of kerosene into it. No sooner had I dropped the match than flames shot up, forcing me to retreat.
Strange black spots soon appeared on the inside accompanied by the stench of burning fibre. A patch of carpet hidden by the rags was melting! I raced to collect water and rescue it – and my poor bowl!
Once I had tidied whatever I could of the mess, I was confronted with the damage – an unsightly carbon pelage had affixed itself to the bottom of the bowl. Applying various solvents that I scavenged from our workshop, I managed to dissolve the burnt wool but now my bowl was visibly – and permanently – scarred.
Disconsolate and hoping for guidance from that same nun whose remark had propelled me on this course, I confessed the whole story to her. “Too bad,” she chirped, hardly glancing up from her book, “Too attached.”
Her perspicacity stung. At that moment, no amount of reflection or remorse would assuage my sense of humiliation and foolishness. Too embarrassed to join in our communal meal, I lingered at the back of the refectory. One of the novices solicitously asked what had happened. “It’s only a smudge,” she observed.
At last, I saw how I had been needlessly thrashing in the river of my own attachments. To live contented and at peace with the way things are, I have to let go perfection. This means honouring what I am given with unconditional gratitude.
The blemish on my bowl is an enduring – and endearing – reminder not to give so much credence to the opinions of other people. Nor to try to fix things because I can – or think I can. And, not to play with fire.
© Ayyā Medhānandī
This a post from Ayyā Medhānandī’s blog written while based in Penang. She draws on her experiences in a monastic community in England as a solitary nun in a coastal hamlet of New Zealand and as an urban nun perched in a ‘sky temple’ overlooking the Malacca Straits. Other posts from this blog can be found under “Penang’s Blog” topic category.