Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Brittle Bowl

After being on retreat for three weeks, I'm catching up on medical appointments.  As I get closer to 60, I'm noticing all there is to do to maintain this human form.  Monday i saw my primary care physician, Tuesday my dental hygienist, and today I had my eyes examined, dilated, stained, and photographed and saw my ophthalmologist   According to all of these wonderful people who regularly examine parts of my body, I'm doing very well for my age -- as fit as can be expected.  But of course, this fitness comes and goes.  Cholesterol levels, blood glucose levels, weight and blood pressure rise and fall.  My father died at age 55 of a stroke after some heart attacks, so my physician is cautious with me.  My family history of gum disease always plays a role in my dentist's concerns about my gums receding, and my myopic, dry eyes need daily care -- glaucoma or a detached retina might be right around the corner.

According to a note to a koan in the collection Entangling Vines (recently translated by Thomas Kirchner in an elegant new Wisdom edition), the term "brittle bowl" is used by Xuefeng to describe the human body.  The Chinese word he uses literally refers to a "bowl that was fired from clay containing sand and that was therefore easily cracked or broken."  When Ying'an Tanhua asked Mian Xianjie of Tiantong, "What is the True Eye of the Dharma?"  (or, what is the eye of enlightenment that can discern the true nature of reality) Mian answered, "A brittle bowl."

Brittle indeed -- easily cracked, gone in a moment, in need of constant care.  And the only vehicle for coming to understand the true nature of this world -- capable of holding anything, nourishment of all kinds.  It doesn't always feel lucky to be born a human -- sometimes it feels like an intolerable burden.  But the promise of the brittle bowl is always present, ready to be filled and fulfilled.

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