03Mar Chris McDonnell: Meditation on A Bowl of Rice…

Chris McDonnell CT March 5th 2021

 

Carole King’s fabulous song Tapestry begins with these words:

‘My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue
an everlasting vision of the ever-changing view
a wond’rous woven magic in bits of blue and gold
a tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold.’

Those few words speak of the tapestry of our lives in a simple yet direct manner. There are high points and deep troughs, colourful days and drab occasions, tears and laughter – all come together to shape who we are, painting the picture of our brief lives.

How might we determine the consequence of our last twelve months of lockdown crisis, with all the pain brought about by viral infection? If we have learnt anything it could be summed up in one word – interdependence.

Day after day we have been faced with our dependence on others, medics in our health service caring for the sick, essential workers in our supermarkets, home delivery drivers bringing goods to our front door, teachers supporting home tuition and many more. Even in lockdown we are not self-sufficient, we need the help and support of others as we live through a radically changing pattern of life.

This interdependence was succinctly described in an email I received recently from the writer Jim Forest. He is currently working on a book based on his experiences with the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. It will be published by Orbis Books this April under the title Eyes of Compassion.

 

In his email Jim recalled an exchange between them regarding a rice bowl. I quote it here with Jim’s permission. ‘Thay’, pronounced ‘Tie’ is Vietnamese for ‘teacher’.

After supper one night, Thay held an empty rice bowl and said, “Jim, think of all the threads that are passing through this bowl. Think of the people who made it. Think of those who taught them their craft. Think of the people who played a part in learning to make a bowl that could last through many meals. Think of the people who dug the clay. Think of the fire that making this dish required. Think of the wood cutters. Think of all the meals that have been served in it. Think of the people who made the meals and of those who taught them their skills. Think of the farmers who grew the food we eat from this bowl. Think of all the light that has brightened this bowl. Think of the water that has washed this bowl, water that has fallen as rain and disappeared into rivers and oceans and risen into the air as clouds and then fallen again as rain. In such thinking you are only beginning to see this bowl. The whole universe is present in this bowl.”

 These few words struck me forcefully, so much so that I took the liberty of taking them out of their prose arrangement and reshaping them.

Meditation on a rice bowl

Thich Nhat Hanh

 

After supper one night,

Thay held an empty rice bowl

and said,

 

Think of all the threads that are passing through this bowl.

Think of the people who made it.

Think of those who taught them their craft.

Think of the people who played a part in learning to make

a bowl that could last through many meals.

 

Think of the people who dug the clay.

Think of the fire that making this dish required.

Think of the wood cutters.

Think of the people who made the meals and of those

who taught them their skills.

 

Think of all the meals that have been served in it.

Think of the farmers who grew the food we eat from this bowl.

Think of all the light that has brightened this bowl.

Think of the water that has washed this bowl,

water that has fallen as rain and disappeared into rivers.

 

Think of the oceans and the water risen into the air

as clouds and then fallen again as rain

In such thinking you are only beginning to see this bowl.

The whole universe is present in this bowl.

 

They tell a story developed round the simple rice bowl, a common enough pot in Vietnamese culture, handled day after day without a second thought.

Yet each line explores the back story that made this simple bowl available for everyday use.

Those directly responsible for forming the shaped clay that gives substance to the bowl, the skill of the potter, the craft of an artist acquired over many years.

But he didn’t work alone. Others dug the clay from the earth, gathered the wood for the fire that baked the simple small shape in the kiln, giving it permanence in order that it might fulfil its intended use.

Yet, when finished it remained empty until the culinary skills of the kitchen cooks prepared food to fill it for others to eat. The raw ingredients, gathered from the skill of farmers, transformed by their experienced hands in to a meal to feed strangers.

The text concludes with reference to the water cycle that all life on earth depends on. It tells of the evaporated moisture from the oceans falling as rain to earth for our nourishment and use. Truly as he concludes ‘The whole universe is present in this bowl’. In a few words he shows us simply and without fuss how we depend on each other in our daily lives.

Maybe that is the greatest lesson from the pandemic that has swept our world causing so much havoc and confusion. Our response has been to realize how much we depend on others in our time of need.

Thich Nhat Hanh has been living in recent years with a Buddhist Community in France, Plum Village. In 2005, the Vietnamese government gave permission for Thay to return home for a visit, a journey he was able to repeat two years later. In November 2014, he suffered a severe brain haemorrhage which resulted in his losing his ability to speak. He communicates silently using facial expressions, gestures nodding and shaking his head in response to questions. In October 2018, Thay, now aged 92, returned to Vietnam to spend his remaining days there. His home is in the Tu Hieu temple of Hue, the same temple that he entered when he was sixteen. His health is remarkably stable. When there is a break in the rains, he comes outside in his wheelchair visiting the temple’s ponds and shrines.

In her song Tapestry, Carole King sings of ‘a man of fortune, a drifter passing by’. May the words of this monk from another culture and a distant country, a drifter passing by, serve to remind us how much we need one another in our daily lives.