A Hundred Gourds 2:3 June 2013
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The Orange-robed Monk

by Owen Bullock

orange-robed monk –
in my begging bowl

Ozzie Nogg, Notes From the Gean #17

For me, this is one of the most important haiku. To even think about an able-bodied person using a begging bowl is a tremendous effort for some. How can enlightenment be found in the begging bowl?

Many of us have encountered syndicated and cynical begging in European cities. I’ve been taken in by it myself, such as the groups in Paris who pretend to be mutes and hand you what looks like a petition that turns out to be a pledge form for an orphanage which doesn’t exist. But there are situations of real hardship, too. I also met an Eastern European man who was crying on the streets of Dublin whilst begging. He had no shoes on his feet and didn’t know where to stay. Fortunately, a woman came by with connections in the social services who pledged to help him beyond the money proffered.

Most of us would have to undergo an enormous and awful process to beg. But the monk does this willingly and accepts the associations of the action. Surely this practice requires a lessening of emphasis on ego in general. Deflating the control over our lives that the ego commonly has seems to be fundamental to any spiritual discipline. It’s not that one fights the ego – that’s pointless, because one can’t win – but one can learn to sit beside the ego and watch it preen, pity itself, exclaim, rapturise and have tantrums. Eventually, the ego lets go to some extent. It is acknowledged, but not given authority to control life to the extent it did before. The monk who begs, despite all social detesting of begging, has relinquished much of the baggage that the ego encourages. One could also say that it is unworldly both to beg and to give. In other words, the monk enables both expressions of being outside this world’s rational norms by putting out the bowl. Perhaps food itself is a herald of enlightenment and merely to feed another, for no reason, shows an enlightened detachment.

Of course, my reading of this haiku is culturally slanted: there are places where supporting a monk who asks for alms is considered a normal aspect of religion. In this case, the enlightenment in the bowl of the haiku is fed consciously by those who donate; and they take something from it by supporting the holy man, as the relationship between monk and almsgiver helps both sides move closer to enlightenment. In some countries it is considered an honour for a family to send a son to a monastery. In turn, a monk carries out religious rites, including the saying of prayers, on behalf of the community, and accepts gifts of bodily sustenance in another exchange.

And what of the monk himself? – I’ve said little of his perception in the poem. Is he being ironic? The isolating of the word ‘enlightenment’ might support such a reading. Is the concept of enlightenment really ridiculous? If so, does the monk realise this? And is he then closer to something like enlightenment, such as freedom, having glimpsed the folly?

Attention to the detail of being orange-robed could indicate that it’s a young monk, new to orders and therefore to asking alms. Could enlightenment be as quick and easy as shedding worldliness by going begging, in complete contrast to the slow, studied spiritual progress one might expect? But can we ever shed worldliness, are we not perpetuating it even whilst asking for food to stay alive? The teasing humour that eventually seems to ooze out of this poem balances the more polarised questions and philosophical viewpoints. Maybe the monk is happy, and at the same time humbled, to be in this position.

The haiku about the orange-robed monk was published in a western journal, and the poet is American, so it may well be that he doesn’t hail from a traditionally religious culture but has converted to the time-honoured practices of one. In whatever cultural context, the writing offers a portrait of release and detachment which is, or threatens to be, sublime.


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