When a Bowl is Not a Bowl

TeaBowlWhite:percy-pham-449167-unsplash

The most provocative of all realities is that reality of which we never lose sight but never see solely as it is.” Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose.

There is a Zen saying:

“Before enlightenment, a bowl is just a bowl.

During enlightenment, a bowl is no longer a bowl.

After enlightenment, a bowl is a bowl again.”

More and more these days, this expresses much of how I perceive the paradoxes and puzzlements I face in life.

The saying refers to those moments when the host prepares the tea for his guest. Each step is carefully attended to, unhurried and calm. To hear the sound of the hot water being poured into the bowl and how the tone changes as the level rises; to hear the sound of the whisk briskly stirring; to see the steam rising from the surface and feel its heat through the bowl held in one’s hands—these are each moments to be lived into with all our senses and to be remembered. In other words, the point is not to slurp down a cup of tea and rush out the door, but to see in the most common of moments a glimpse into the sacred beauty of life. It is also to grasp, with a shock of heightened awareness, that something we took for granted may be pointing us to a truth.

Here is a mundane example of how our perceptions change in other realms of life: I buy a book that catches my eye. The subject is within the universe of interests that I carry, and I think I would like it. I read the front, the back, the introduction, scan the table of contents and the first paragraph. And I buy it. Fickle beast that I am sometimes, my interest wanes and I put it on the shelf. A decade later I take it down; memory has stirred curiosity and I am entranced. I wonder why I hadn’t seen the riches of this book years ago. I study it fervently, underline and annotate it, commit passages to memory. In short, it has become one of the most cherished books in my library. Nothing has changed except my perception of its relevance and meaning to me—and that has made all the difference.

How does our perception change relative to the universals and the particulars? Jesus, in his suspension of the Sabbath law (Mark 2, Luke 6), teaches us to aspire to the universal (the love and care of others) over the particular (keeping the Sabbath commandment pure). How do we reconcile this? How should we work this out in practical terms? Do we ignore all Sabbath restrictions? Abandon the Sabbath altogether? What is the universal here? Is there a principle by which we can live?

We judge our theologies by several criteria. We ask if they are grounded in Scripture, by which we understand that the doctrine is not founded on a single verse, but multiple sources throughout the Book. We ask if they are carried by Christian communities down through the centuries, an argument from continuity and tradition. Sometimes they are not, like the seventh-day Sabbath, so we revert to the Scriptural criterion.

But we also ask what any given doctrine reveals about God’s character and thus, how that knowledge affects our relation to God and to others. In short, we want to know if this belief will make a difference in our lives. What is the “cash value,” as William James says, of our beliefs to our conduct and meaning for life?

The most basic universal principle from our side, the human response to God, is that freedom to choose to follow God is part of our learned spiritual behavior. In fact, we can say that freedom to choose is our human birthright. It’s always been a principle part of our defining identity as humans, and people of faith are bold enough to say that it is God-given. It took the Enlightenment to bring this into the foreground, against the resistance of religious and political powers who had a fierce determination to bring about their ends through any means possible.

Now we are in a post-modern era in which the very idea of truth is vulnerable. Our economy of truth trades on facts—usually those of science—and the gathering, collating, dissemination and testing by facts is our major industry. Because determining what is factual is arduous and costly, we rely on experts who have the time, the skills, and the interest to uncover the truth in many areas of life. Although a good scientist’s professional modus operandi is that current truth is only as good as its last iteration, when it comes to religion some seem to think that beliefs stated by committees should stand for eternity.

Part of the difficulty here is that theology, our human reading of God’s ineffability, cannot be verified or proven false in the ways that scientific propositions are. As Richard Holloway puts it in his Doubts and Loves, ”The reason theological dispute is so endless is that there are no empirical experiments we can appeal to that can obviously settle them, the way we might settle a dispute over the exact temperature of the boiling point of water.” And that is where religions pick up the weapons of coercion, guilt, and intimidation.

We return to the example of Jesus and the disciples, famished in a field on the Sabbath day. Raising the bodily needs above the ritual requirements, Jesus says nothing as the disciples pluck and eat the grains on their way. It’s only when the Pharisees confront him (were they keeping the disciples and Jesus under surveillance?) that he responds, upsetting their carefully honed arguments. David, he said, allowed his soldiers to eat the consecrated bread, even though only the priest may do so. Then he adds the statement that relativizes our theological maxims: “The Sabbath was made for the sake of man and not man for the Sabbath: therefore the Son of Man is sovereign even over the Sabbath.”

What this seems to affirm is that when human needs come up against religious requirements, human needs must take precedence. If there’s one thing that Jesus and God insist upon it’s the practical care of others. See that you care for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the disabled, says Jesus. Care for the children. I’ve come for the sick, not the healthy, he says. Of course, if we think we’re healthy and wealthy and in need of nothing, then we’re probably suffering from spiritual and social blindness—and we might not even know it if we’re incapable of seeing beyond our feet.

We have our particulars and they have their place. In religion, they help us pay attention to the details. Do we pray with hands raised and eyes closed? Do we tithe? Do we observe holy days and live modestly? Sweep away the details and we wobble from one religious fad to the next. But to make absolutes out of the details is to place formidable barriers between us and God. In those cases God can still get through to us, but the question is: when we see the barriers falling will we realize we are being liberated or will we think we’re being attacked?

***

So, in the end, after enlightenment, the bowl is just a bowl again. Once it was simply a means of holding the tea. Then it was the vehicle for clarity and insight, perhaps thought of as something miraculous because of it. Now, once again, it is a means of holding tea, not to be venerated but certainly respected for the part it played in opening one’s eyes. Without the bowl there would be no drinking of the tea, but without the tea there would be no purpose for the bowl. The tea is the purpose of the bowl, the bowl is the means of the tea, and together they provide the moment in which to be fully present.

Let us say that the church, as distinct from our spiritual communities, is the bowl.

There is another aspect to this which is even more important: The means to the realization of any truths, as important as they may be, are not the truths. The map is not the territory, the symbol is not the reality to which it points, the law is not the gospel—in fact, even the Gospel points beyond itself to the person of Jesus and the being of God. We too easily settle for that which can be categorized, quantified, and assessed. In the language of Paul Tillich, we turn the penultimate into our ultimate concern—whether it be the Bible, our personal faith, or our church. We look at the finger pointing at the moon instead of the moon itself.

Zen has a cure for that: if you keep returning to the bowl instead of going forward to the truth it’s pointing to, then you need to drop the bowl.

Photo: Percy Pham, Unsplash.com

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