I set off walking last Friday with a bowl full of offerings from Lusianna, Alex, and a growing network of friends. But a mere two miles later, they couldn’t have found me if they tried. For many, the important features on a map are those with names and symbols. For one seeking peace, it’s everything else. The blank spots are far from empty. They are where we go to find ourselves.
As beautiful and bountiful as the meals I received in Shelburne were, inevitably on Saturday morning my bowl and belly were empty. I had walked many miles the day before, not settling until I found a suitable resting place, and my body was sore and hard to rouse. By the time I got going, the only prospect for alms round was a small gas station, and I’d only be able to stand for half an hour before midday.
Standing off in a corner, I realized this small waystation was in competition with a bigger one up the road - and losing. There was no business. For twenty minutes I stood there practicing acceptance. It wasn’t so hard! I had been nourished well during my time in Shelburne, and I could go without for a day. The weather was nice, and I could return to my previous campsite for the day’s abiding.
I remembered a story from the commentary to the Pali canon - one of a lone dhutanga monk who didn’t get food on almsround. He retired to the open field where he was staying and sat in meditation. “I have no food,” he thought. “What if I sustain myself on joy, like the radiant deva’s?” And so he sat in oy and contentment, practicing samadhi. That night, when the weather turned cold, he wrapped up in his outer robe and thought, “I have no shelter. But there are these divine abodes. What if I stayed in these?” And so he practiced goodwill, compassion, joy and equanimity, and his heart was warm all night.
I started chanting the metta sutta and preparing myself to step back into the forest. You don’t have to believe me, but it wasn’t three minutes before the pumps were packed and my bowl was full - offerings from two strangers who gladly paused what they were doing when they realized they could treat a fellow human being to a meal.
I sat and ate in a nearby cemetery, contemplating what to do with the extra. I had been given enough for two days. Anyone intent on solitary life would have stayed and ate the extra meal the next day. But the monastic rules have us relinquish ownership - we cannot eat food we have stored for ourselves. We greet each dawn content with whatever is offered that day.
If I stored food I would have a guaranteed meal. But that meal would only feed the body. A gift, on the other hand, feeds the heart, and its nourishment lasts much longer. Every day, a monastic eats food not just to sustain their body but also to provide an opportunity for goodness. This is something you can experience yourself. Think back to a time when someone gave you something nice, even something small. Now ... while you dwell on it, don’t you feel full?
“If you truly understood the benefits of giving,” the Buddha said, “You would not let a single meal go by without sharing something.” As a monk who rarely has physical things to share, my time and consideration are my wealth, and relinquishment of preference is the act of giving.
The abundance in my bowl was an opportunity to share with a friend living nearby, Brenda, and when we connected we drank coffee, shared stories, and then I showed her how to do walking meditation on a path in the forest. She kicked off her shoes and took to it like a pro.
All of this came from not storing a day’s feast; came from a stranger’s generosity; came from a blessing chant; came from leaving a warm dry shelter and walking into the unknown.
When we understand what really feeds us, we step off from hunger and thirst. We learn to nourish ourselves on goodwill, like the dhutanga monk in the story, and we find that a feast is always prepared for us. You don’t have to be an ascetic to make each meal an offering. Just ask yourself - which is more important: eating, or being nourished?