My teacher, Shohaku Okumura, was supporting his zazen and translation work with traditional Buddhist begging practice (takuhatsu) on the streets of Osaka when a boy, about 10 years old, came up to him as he stood in his robes, holding out his bowl, and said, “You want money, don’t you?”
Okumura Roshi said he didn’t know how to answer the boy’s question, and it became a kind of koan for him. It was true he wanted money to support his priest’s work, but if money were his real object, there were much easier and more effective ways of making it than begging.
He also said he found it so moving that people put money in his bowl without knowing anything about him at all, except that he was a Buddhist priest: they had faith in his practice, in his life’s work and its value. His gratitude led him to constantly question his practice and whether he deserved the unconditional support he was given.
In this country, zen priests have no regular practice of takuhatsu, and we have to figure out how to support ourselves in a culture whose mainstream doesn’t particularly value what we do, no matter how many products are bought and sold with the word “zen”; the real religion of this country is capitalism.
When I practiced at my teacher’s temple, we had a five-day sesshin or retreat every month, plus zazen starting at 5 a.m., so it wasn’t possible to hold a regular job and follow the temple schedule. I supported myself by teaching English to foreign students at the university. Since most were East Asian, they understood when I had to take a week off each month to work and practice at the temple.
Many of the priests and other full-time practitioners visited a local food bank once a week. This organization wasn’t government sponsored, so it hadn’t erected huge bureaucratic obstacles to receiving food; you simply had to sign a paper attesting that you earned less than a certain amount, or needed help for other reasons such as illness.
It took me a long time to show up at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard. I had been encouraged to be very independent since childhood. I was embarrassed to need help. I didn’t think I deserved it, because I had made a choice that resulted in being poor, rather than having been forced into poverty by circumstance. I saw families waiting on line and felt guilty.
But eventually I realized someone had to do this job. Someone had to commit her life to being a zen priest, to manifesting the truth, to a different object of devotion than money. And I reasoned that I was a fair candidate for this calling, because the things I had to give up (having children, professional prestige, expensive possessions, financial security) cost me something, but they didn’t cost me what they would cost someone else. And because I trusted I could be a good priest someday.
After some weeks of standing in line for food, my doubt and embarrassment gave way to something else: an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Like my teacher, I was humbled by the fact that this community organization gave me food without knowing anything about me except that I needed it, and supported my practice without benefitting from it. Picking up my food each week became an exercise in thankfulness, and whenever I cooked or ate, I asked myself whether my practice was worthy of the food that nourished it.
My second experience of takuhatsu in America is the online medical fundraiser that an already very busy friend organized for me last week to help with the expenses of my Lyme disease treatment. She first proposed this a year ago, but my need had to overcome my resistance. I’m reluctant to ask for assistance even with small things like lifting a suitcase down from the overhead bin of a plane. Although I’m very grateful for the financial help my parents and my closest friend have given me while I’ve been sick, it’s also a challenge to accept even from them.
Widening this circle represents deep vulnerability, possible feelings of disappointment and rejection, and the perhaps even more threatening possibility of actually being helped, which again raises the question: Do I deserve this? Do I deserve it because I’m a zen priest? An ostensibly “good person”? Or simply a sick person who needs a little more help?
I told my dear friend that regardless of the outcome, this fundraiser would be good practice for me, and it has been: a roller coaster of feeling small and naked, loved and forgotten, embarrassed and deeply grateful. And always questioning.
If you’d like to have a look, here it is: https://www.youcaring.com/mollydelightwhitehead-823283. Please share it with anyone you think might want to help.
With my heart in my bowl, thank you.