Picking Violets with Ryokan

Takuhatsu, or ritual begging, is an ancient and noble practice among Buddhist monks in Asia.  In exchange for material goods, the monks offer spiritual teachings.  From a Buddhist perspective, the material and spiritual worlds interpenetrate and enhance one another.  We can’t live in either the material OR the spiritual world.  We must constantly strive for balance between the two.  Living only in the material world brings a sense of meaninglessness.  Living only in the spiritual world lacks grounding in the daily realities of a human being- we need food, clothing and shelter to survive.  What does it mean for these two worlds – material and spiritual – to be in balance?

Zen Master Ryokan was a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk who is well revered for his poetry and his love of life in all it’s simplicity.  He lived in the 18th century in a small hut where he wrote his poetry and played with children, spending much of his days in solitary meditation.

Ryokan went to beg for food one day.  He was out for a long time.  He met no one that could give him anything, though he passed by a field with some violets which he picked to put in his alms bowl.  He came back late to his hut with an empty stomach and wrote with much joy that he had received violets in his begging bowl.

As I reflect on this story and its relevance to me, I feel relieved.  Some days I work so hard and I see the fruits of my labor, a fair wage for a good day’s work.  Other days I have nothing to show but “a few violets in my begging bowl.”

For fifteen years I lived a very simple monastic life, taking care of the temple, growing food, cooking, cleaning, learning from my teacher, and organizing retreats.  My “payment” was just right.  I received room, board, and a monthly stipend which took care of my health insurance, car insurance (my car was already paid off prior to entering the monastery), repairs, and gas.  The generosity of my sangha enabled me to have savings.

This past year many things changed when I left the temple.  I was paying rent for an apartment, and being supported by a different kind of community – the hospital, my supervisors, and my colleague chaplains.  Similar to my life and work at Mount Equity, I exchanged spiritual teachings for material goods.  Everyday I worked in the hospital, I met people who were in desperate situations.  Many had serious addiction problems, were suicidal, were dying, or experiencing the trauma of death in their family.  Many patients, when in such a state, absorb spiritual teachings like a sponge absorbs water.  I felt very fulfilled in my role, serving as a reminder of the spiritual world. 

However, the Chaplain program was a one year residency.  The year came to an end.  I have no job at the time of writing this, no source of income.  This lack, where there was once plenty, tests my spirit.  I put out applications for chaplain jobs and have either been told that the position has been filled, or have received no responses at all.  I feel somewhat like Ryokan, begging for sustenance and wondering what on earth will fill my “begging bowl” today.

Furthermore, I am like a stranger in a strange land.  I recently moved from Pennsylvania, where I had been residing for twenty years, to Iowa.  I moved, in part, to be with my partner, Sara, and also to begin life anew, as a Zen teacher.

Since I’ve been in Iowa many “violets” have appeared in my “begging bowl.”  I have been welcomed by a very loving family.  Sara’s parent’s have allowed us the use of  their home until we find a more appropriate place to live.  I have been warmly welcomed to the Des Moines Zen Center by the teacher, Eido Espe, and sangha.  I’ve been meeting wonderful people everyday – neighbors and old friends of Sara.  I’ve been invited to teach meditation and Yoga at the Ames Yoga Center.  I’ve been invited to lead sesshin at the Nebraska Zen Center by Nonin Chowaney.  The most beautiful among these violets is the precious time I am spending with Sara before our wedding on September 21st.  These are all of the violets that appear in my begging bowl.  How wonderful, how delightful to be well taken care of and supported by the universe.


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