Can You Walk With A Full Bowl On Your Head?


– 净宗九祖蕅益大师

To truly be able to be mindful of Buddha [Amituofo],
let go of the body, mind [with stray thoughts] and the world,
[the practice of] which is [the perfection of] great generosity.

– Pure Land Tradition’s Ninth Patriarch Great Master Ouyi

In the Sedaka Sutta, the Buddha asked some monks to imagine a large crowd to had excitedly gathered around a beauty queen, who is highly accomplished in song and dance. As the uproar drew more, a man comes along. Like most, he desires to live for pleasure, while fearing death and pain. Yet, the crowd tells him to carry on his head, a bowl filled to the brim with oil, while walking between them and the beauty. At the same time, someone with a raised sword will follow behind, ready to decapitate him the instant one drop of oil spills. The Buddha then asked if the man will let himself be distracted, instead of being attentive to the bowl. The monks replied that it would be the latter. The Buddha concluded that they should cultivate such mindfulness immersed in their bodies.

The masses are indeed quickly and repeatedly intrigued by the fleeting, easily distracted by indulgence in the sense pleasures of sight (beauty), sound (music), smell (fragrances), taste (delicacies), (pleasing) touch and mind (in terms of thoughts of craving and clinging to the above). The man would had joined to be one of the crowd were there not the extraordinary challenge set for him. With the bowl that is so easily spilled precariously balanced on his head, while the potential punishment being so high and immediate, he could not afford even the slightest distraction from his task at hand. All else would be as if neither seen nor heard. Thus would he embody and express wholeheartedly single-pointed mindfulness, that cuts through all the clamour to guard his own life.

What great irony that the crowd might see this feat undertaken as entertainment instead of contemplating on the great matter of life and death! While it is alright to enjoy pleasures ethically, it surely becomes problematic if indulged in, till one takes them a false refuge, forgetting that they do not bring lasting happiness. As monastics are those who are to commit their focus on transcending the rounds of rebirth, this is why their worldly sense pleasures are minimised in experience. Every concert crowd disperses, as does every song and dance ends. Life is surely not merely about wanting an encore or a next better yet equally fleeting performance, that leaves only a dissatisfactory bittersweet aftertaste. Even the sweet becomes bland due to wanting more.  

While the full bowl parable’s scenario might seem extreme, it can accurately describe our situation now (and not just later), as we do not know when our life is going to ‘spill’ over, when death is going to deliver a fatal blow. Reflecting thus gives us a sense of urgency, to be more sincere and diligent in our Dharma learning and practice sessions. The ultimate prize that awaits is purely sweet and never bitter. Although there are many subjects for mindfulness practice, when truly dying, with limited self-power for ensuring a better rebirth, it is most skilful to be wholeheartedly mindful of a Buddha (e.g. Amitabha Buddha – ‘Amituofo’) instead of one’s failing body. This is how we can connect calmly, clearly and blissfully with him, to reach his Pure Land for the swiftest liberation!


With the ten thousand conditions let go,
with one thought [of ‘Amituofo’] upheld,
with [such] wholehearted mindfulness of Buddha,
in one thought[-moment] attain birth [in his Pure Land].

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