Why A Monk Shattered His One Precious Bowl




If one desires to seize Jin Bifeng, unless able to use metal chains to lock empty space, and if empty space is able to be locked and held, then come to seize me, Jin Bifeng.

Chan Master Jin Bifeng

Once upon a time, there was a great Chan (Chinese Zen) Master named Jin Bifeng (金碧峰), whose practice of meditative concentration was very good. He was so proficient that he could enter a state without thoughts when he sat to meditate. With his consciousness not abiding anywhere in particular, no one could locate ‘him’ then. In tribute, the emperor bestowed upon him a purple-gold (jade) alms bowl. Extremely joyous after receiving it, he became unaware of his growing attachment to it. One day, as his worldly life span was about to end, King Yama, the lord of hell summoned two ghost minions to look for him. (Note that this is when one’s karma is either very negative and bound for hell, or complicated, thus needing assessment.) Though his meditating body was in the temple, the duo could not find his consciousness to apprehend him. After some discussion, they decided to seek the area’s Earth Deity for help. (Note that it is natural for there to be terrestrial guardian gods abiding in various regions.)

After learning why Jin Bifeng could not be found, the ghosts begged the Earth Deity to think of a way to locate him, so that they would not fail their task. With some thought, the Earth Deity revealed that as Jin Bifeng is not attached to anything, he is not encumbered by everything… other than his precious alms bowl. As such, if they could find the bowl, and just tap it lightly thrice, Jin Bifeng should exit from his meditation. Doing as instructed, when the bowl sounded, Jin Bifeng ‘awoke’ in his body, asking who was it who knocked on his bowl. Hearing the duo explain their cause, he internally lamented, of how, despite his years of spiritual cultivation, he was still unable to attain liberation from the cycle of birth and death. He also realised that his attachment to the bowl was the problem. Thus, he bargained to let him settle a few matters before leaving with them. Having consent, he swiftly threw the bowl onto the ground, shattering it into pieces, sat in meditation again, entered concentration, and escaped for good!

There are at least 10 important lessons from this story! [1] Even with good will, we ought to be mindful of what we offer monastics, lest the excessively luxurious distract them from furthering their practice. [2] So long as not yet truly liberated, even the calmest meditative concentration is just a long or brief respite from spiritually dangerous forces of habit. [3] It is possible to have defilements arise and grow so subtly, that they go undetected, even by great meditators, till the last moments. Subjects of attachment can switch quickly too. [4] Death is always approaching and it can creep upon us suddenly. [5] As even great masters might have complex karma, it is important to do our best to avoid evil, do good and purify our minds. [6] Even if there is little or no attachment to most, all it takes is attachment concentrated upon one thing, matter or person to say fettered to rebirth. [7] Our peace of mind is usually heavily conditioned by lack of external distractions, which means it is seldom, if at all, stable in the presence of distractions.

[8] Despite knowing we cannot bring a single prized possession to the next life, we still tend to cling to many physical items, which should be let go in good time. We each have our metaphorical ‘most precious bowls’ now. Not that we have to shatter them, but are we able to let go of them as swiftly as the master in time? Our bowls do not really need to be broken as they are not the problem, while attachment to them is the problem. The chains binding us to rebirth are not physical, but mental. [9] The negative effect of sounding the bowl reminds us of the wise rationale of ensuring loved ones do not crowd around the dying to tug and cry, which can severely disturb the body and mind, stirring up attachment and aversion, thus destroying peace of mind. It is difficult to ensure that there will be no last-minute distraction on the deathbed as we cannot predict our upcoming karmic effects. However, we can lessen the possible arising of such obstacles by doing good more actively to dilute our negative karma.

[10] Cases similar to the master’s, who could escape rebirth by realising the wisdom for self-liberation in the nick of time are rare, if even existent, in our current era far away from purer ancient times. In fact, this is why we are still stuck here. As it is extremely difficult to not be attached to anything at all, both now and on the deathbed, we might as well master Nianfo practice (of mindfulness of the name of Amitabha Buddha – ‘Amituofo’). This is to condition the mind to peacefully abide upon only Amituofo’s pure name for protection and blessings, so as to reach his Pure Land; instead of struggling to abide on nothing at all. Remember – even a single ripple of worldly attachment on the ‘lake’ of the mind will shatter any stillness, and bind one to the sea of suffering. The minds of most are erratic with many waves though. With connection to Amituofo, there will be physical and mental peace and bliss instead. Once Pure Land is reached, swift progress without obstacles towards eventual Buddhahood is guaranteed!

We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious. They stole it from us. Sneaky little hobbitses. Wicked, tricksy, false!

Gollum (‘The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers’ Movie)

Related Article:
Zen Master Ikkyu’s Broken Cup Meets Ajahn Chah’s Broken Glass

1 Comment

  • This is my favourite story. It reminds me to be always mindful because it is so powerful that one can escape from the cycle of birth and death.

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