"A Bowl of Nothing," by Meredy Amyx







A Bowl of Nothing

     If you're sitting straight-backed on a round cushion and looking at a glass bowl placed on the floor in front of you, you may find yourself thinking about a lot of things that don't come to mind at other times when you're not sitting and looking at a glass bowl. That's something I can tell you from my own experience.

     New to Zen meditation, I was trying to get the hang of just sitting (zazen). It is very hard, at least for me, to just sit—sit and not engage in discursive thought, sit and just pay attention to (but not even think about, much less concentrate on) my breathing. I can't say that I've got it yet, after more than a year of practice. And so at that time, before my teacher suggested that I was trying too hard and didn't need bowls or other objects to look at, I thought that this bowl would help me do what I was supposed to be doing. (I hadn't yet got very far in sorting out the notion of "supposed to" either.)
     What prompted me to try the bowl thing was reading the "112 ways to open the invisible door of consciousness" chanted by Shiva to his consort Devi and first written down in Sanskrit four to five thousand years ago, as transcribed and edited by Paul Reps in his wonderful Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Anchor/Doubleday, 1989). Number 34 says:
Look upon a bowl without seeing the sides or the material. In a few moments become aware.
     I thought that it would be interesting, and perhaps even illuminating, to do this literally. I also thought it would be nice to have either a smooth, gleaming brass bowl or a simple wooden or earthenware rice bowl. But realism prevailed, as it sometimes does, and I went to Cost Plus for one of those clear, spheroid glass bowls of the sort that you put colored glass pebbles in so you can stand cut flowers up as a table decoration. Not only was availability a consideration but, I thought, for a novice a clear glass bowl was already halfway to disappearing and would therefore increase the likelihood of my success.
     I didn't just grab the first bowl off the shelf, though. I looked them over carefully. And I thought about what I was going to try to do with the bowl. It seemed to me that a very large bowl would be much more difficult to not-see and that maybe I should work my way up. Also, when it came to making the bowl inconspicuous but not inaccessible in my already overcrowded bedroom, as opposed to having to explain why there was a big, empty glass bowl sitting around next to the closet door, a modest-size bowl would be easier to cover up discreetly. And finally, if I ever did think of using it as a table decoration, I wouldn't want to have to buy as many of those colored glass pebbles, at $9.00 or so for a little bag of 100, as it would take to make things stand up in a very large bowl.
     On the other hand, the smallest ones clearly would not do. The thickness of the glass in all the bowls, from the 12"-diameter ones to the 4"-diameter, was the same. In the smallest ones, the thickness-to-size ratio was much too high, in the same sort of way that the buttons and trim on a doll's dress look odd because they're proportioned to suit a full-size garment. The larger the bowl, the airier and thinner the glass appeared in relation to the size of the bowl, and thus, I suspected, the more readily I could meditate it into invisibility.
     I don't believe I'd ever contemplated a purchase with factors quite like these in mind. It made a singular experience of the act of selecting a bowl long before I put it on the floor and sat cross-legged on a zafu in front of it.    
     I settled on the 6"-diameter size as my best bet. Now I had narrowed my range of choice to about half a shelf of Cost Plus merchandise instead of three shelves, one each for the larger bowls and a shared one for the smaller. I then had to choose the individual bowl.     
     By now I did not even want to look around to see if any bemused Cost Plus employee was observing what must have seemed like an agonizingly deliberate selection process out of all proportion to the magnitude of the choice. We're talking about a $6.99 glass bowl of the sort they call a "bubble" bowl. Fortunately it was nowhere near Christmastime.
     One by one I took the 6" bowls off the shelf and rearranged them into two groups. Anything that contained an obvious defect—a chip, an irregular thickening of the rim—I put aside at once; any distracting imperfection would interfere with my devisualization of the bowl. All those not immediately rejected went into the second group for closer inspection. 
     As I examined the bowls in the group of designated possibles, looking for clarity, symmetry, and freedom from every other sort of flaw, I found myself thinking about ownership and possession. One of these bowls was about to become mine (if I could accomplish the task of picking one). In fact, the bowl that was soon going to be mine was already there on the shelf. I had only to identify it.
     Or did I mean recognize it? Was the mineness of it already in the bowl? What, if anything, about the bowl would change when it became mine? When did it become mine? Did it become mine at the moment that I resolved to make a purchase, and before I had found the one that I would ultimately take away with me (but that was already there on the shelf at this moment, while I was still trying to discover which one it was)? Did it become mine when I singled it out and consciously fixed my intentions of ownership upon it? Or did it become mine only when I had completed the transaction that involved exchange of money for the right to . . . to . . . 
     Precisely what was it that I was buying, anyway? I was no longer certain that I was buying a bowl. In what sense would I own the bowl? If my ownership produced no change in the bowl, then how, exactly, would it be mine? The very fact that I couldn't tell yet which bowl I was going to take, and that even after I had made my choice my bowl would look just like all the other bowls—no perceptible mineness about it—suggested that the bowl itself would not belong to me in any real sense.
     Right now the bowl was in the custody of Cost Plus. Did Cost Plus own the bowl in the same way in which I thought I was going to own the bowl? I didn't think so, because the purpose of Cost Plus's possession of the bowl was not to have it but to make it available to a prospective buyer and earn a profit on the transfer of ownership. If no material alteration took place, if no inherent effect of changed ownership could be discerned in the bowl, then it seemed to me that purpose had a bearing on the definition of ownership and the transfer of ownership. And what was it that I would be doing when that transfer took place?
     I would be standing at the counter, money in hand, preparing to leave the store. And when the transaction was complete I would be free to carry the bowl out of the store. My $6.99 plus tax would entitle me to transport the object from a location determined by the store to a location determined by me. I would secure the right to control the whereabouts of the bowl.
     Just to move it? Was that all? That didn't seem to cover it. Certainly I knew that as the rightful possessor of the bowl—a right granted to me by the store in exchange for cash, a right that I merely presumed the store had a right to grant, by successive transfers originating with whoever made the bowl out of materials he or she had a presumed right to employ—I was at liberty to use it and not just to decide its spatial position.
     Using it, then: what did that mean? Well, I could put things into it and I could take things out of it. I could also not put things into it and not take things out of it. Furthermore, I could put it into other things and not put it into other things, and I could take it out of other things and not take it out of other things. The list seemed to be growing quite long. But in fact, I saw, every one of those options was simply a matter of movement. I could move the bowl with respect to other objects and I could move other objects (over which I was presumed to have a similar right of positional control) with respect to it.
     I also could look at it, which was what I intended to do (and, of course, not look at it: this is about Zen, remember), and I could handle it, which, when I thought about it, was merely moving my hands and the bowl in relation to one another.
     Not one of those actions would have any effect whatsoever on the bowl as bowl.
     All right, then, what would? Well, I could break it. If I possessed the right to control the whereabouts of the bowl, then logically I possessed the right to decide that the entire bowl did not have to occupy a single location and that the parts of it could be distributed rather than integrated in space. But what did "entire" mean, and what did "single location" mean? What did "parts" mean? For that matter, what in the world did "distributed" and "integrated" mean? My head was starting to hurt. At this point I could not have said for certain what "bowl" meant because I did not know whether it would still be a bowl after I broke it. Was the entire object defined by its intended utility? If I did not use it as intended, would it not be a bowl?
     I could even, I suppose, melt it down and transform its components into something that would unequivocally not be a bowl, in much the same way that it had gone from not being a bowl to being a bowl in the first place. It would still be in my possession exactly as it had been when it was a bowl. But would my relationship to it have changed? Would it be mine in a different way then?
     Or was there no way in which this object ever could be mine? Did it belong only to itself, no matter who moved it, used it, or transformed it? Maybe it didn't "belong" at all. And what, indeed, was "it" anyway?
     By this time I was down to two or three candidate bowls and was running my fingertip around the rim of each to see if there were any chip, bump, ridge, or other imperfection. And I was beginning to realize that from the start I had acted upon the unexpressed intention to select the "best" bowl. I did not even dare try to think about what constituted the goodness of a bowl and why it was so, much less why, having defined goodness with respect to bowls, I should then assume that the "best" one was the only one for me.
     I had applied every physical test I could think of. The two remaining bowls were equal in every respect that I was capable of judging. How could I still not know which one was inherently mine? I gazed at the two of them, attempting to receive some sort of telltale spiritual vibration that would cause my own true glass bubble bowl to reveal itself to me.
     In the end I picked one arbitrarily and took it to the counter. Naturally I was gnawed by doubt that I ought to have taken the other one. (Not even I, whose first response to any proffered choice is "Why not both?", could mentally justify buying two bowls because I didn't know which one was the right one. I reminded myself that the idea of oneness was mixed in with all this stuff somehow and that I could hardly make a sillier mess of that than to buy both bowls.) Nevertheless, I played out what had by now become a ceremony of ritual significance in my mind, exchanging my tokens of value for the right to carry the bowl out the door.
     I got the bowl home, washed and polished it until it was as spot-free and transparent as I could make it, wrapped it in a soft cloth, and parked it by my closet door. When my customary evening zazen time came round, I carefully uncovered it and placed it in front of me where I could practice not seeing it.
     Over a number of days during my meditation time, I worked at not seeing the material, which was relatively easy, and then not seeing the sides, which was devilishly difficult. I could make the bowl dissolve out of my visual consciousness all right, could make it vanish into the floor and come up out of the floor and quiver into nonexistence, and I could even—I really did this—not set out the bowl and see it when it wasn't there. And all the while I continued to dwell on the questions of what the bowl was and of how it could be mine and even of what I was. I did not reach any conclusions, but the process of thinking about them felt like an instructive exercise in itself.
     At no time, however, did I actually succeed in seeing sheer bowlness, the emptiness not of implicitly enclosed space but of absoluteness without characteristics, that I think Shiva was talking about. I thought that if I could manage this even once, I would become aware, and then I would understand a lot of things that I didn't understand before. That, I supposed, would be an enlightenment of the kind that comes from Zen practice.

     About that time, I met with my Zen teacher, Les Kaye, and told him what I was doing. He said, "Forget the bowl. Forget koans. Forget all those things you are trying to do. You don't have to try so hard. You're not trusting enough."

     "How am I not trusting?" I asked, dismayed because I had been so pleased with myself for coming up with this whole thing (and that ought to have been a tip-off right there), never mind having made a major psychological investment in bowl-picking.
     "You aren't trusting what brought you to Zen practice," said Les, leaving me, as usual, to figure out sometime later what he was talking about.
     So I went home and wrapped the bowl back up in the cloth and put it in the closet. Whatever I was doing when I looked at it, I wasn't doing Zen. Probably one of these days I will get some little colored glass pebbles and put them in the bowl and stand things up in it.
     Ever since that day at Cost Plus, though, the experience of buying things, of using things, and of dealing with the things that I commonly believe I own has been a different one. I may not ask myself all those questions every time I pick out a bunch of bananas or buy my son a half dozen pairs of socks, but my sense of myself as an owner of things and my sense of objects as things that can be owned have changed. By extension, it seems to me, my sense of my relation to objects in the world has changed, and from that has grown an altered perception of a great many things. Maybe that is an enlightenment of a kind, even if it's nothing like what Shiva had in mind.

Copyright © 1995 Meredy Amyx.
"A Bowl of Nothing" was completed on January 21, 1995. Les Kaye is the abbot of Kannon Do, a zendo in Mountain View, California.