I was reading Sue Bender’s Everyday Sacred on Sunday afternoon and really enjoying it. I had not come across the term “begging bowl” until I encountered it in this book. In Buddhist tradition, a monk goes out with his begging bowl and whatever is placed in it is what he has to sustain him for that day. It represents a gift for both the monk and the giver.
I looked up begging bowl, wanting to know more and found that it has a long tradition dating back to Buddha when a woman young woman found him meditating under a tree and offered him a golden bowl filled with rice. He took the bowl, divided the rice into 49 portions (one for each day until he reached enlightenment), and threw the bowl in the river.
This came to represent non-attachment to material things.
I like this idea because I struggle with our consumer society as much as anyone. I make a real effort not to purchase things–to refuse, reuse, and to do without. I have too much as it is, and I spend some time each week reducing the amount of clutter that already exists in my home. Living with two children ensures a certain amount of clutter will come in. I’ve taken on the responsibility of ensuring that some of that goes back out–hopefully in the form of donations and gifts, although some ends up in the landfill.
I thought I’d check out Bender’s other popular book, Plain and Simple. I looked it up in our library’s catalog–but no copy. I looked it up on Amazon. I was surprised that there were so many poor ratings, given how much I’d enjoyed Everyday Sacred. I scrolled down and found countless reviews with the same complaint: the book was focused on me, me, me (meaning Bender). She wasn’t able to balance personal examples with the books message.
Plain and Simple was a New York Times bestseller so normally I’d think that the reviewers here were a bit off. I mean, thousands of readers must have enjoyed this book so how could they be right?
But then I thought of how I felt when I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. To be honest, I didn’t read it–I listened to it as an audio book and I’ll tell you, that’s the only way I managed to get through it (by doing a dozen other things at the same time). I wouldn’t have bothered but I spent so much money on it I felt compelled to finish it, plus I kept waiting for it to get good. Again, how could so many people like this book when it was so clearly the narcissistic ramblings of a privileged white woman who wouldn’t stop whining about how HARD her life was. Right. Clearly she’d been living in a closet and hadn’t bothered to spend any time on the streets where she might see just how hard life really is for most people, people who have no hopes of running out on their estranged spouse and floating off to India, Italy, and Indonesia. There’s a moment in the book when Gilbert talks about the coincidence that all three of these places (that she floated between for a year) begin with the letter “I.” Well, duh, that’s because Gilbert is obsessed with herself. There’s nothing there beyond the “I” for her.
So I knew what the reviewers were talking about when they said that Bender was so caught up with herself and her problems that she couldn’t see beyond her own nose. Again, the ramblings of a narcissistic, privileged white woman who leaves her husband and spends months with two Amish families.
I do enjoy a good soul-searching so it’s not the genre that troubles me. What I find troublesome is how these privileged women feel that they can complain about not finding themselves and then can dump everything and run off to . . . indulge themselves.
I think these kinds of books are popular because there are so many of us privileged white women out here that dream of doing just this–bonking the husbands, the work, the routine, the needy children and running off to some exotic locale. I know I do–sometimes daily. Sometimes even hourly. I fantasize that I’m eating sweets from a little shop on the corner in Paris. Sigh. Or sitting high on the cliffs in Cornwall watching the seagulls. Sigh more loudly. Or attending cookery school in Ireland. Ahhh.
But for most of us, there’s not the money and there’s too much guilt to overcome. So we read about women who do it–who indulge themselves in just running away, and we fantasize. Oh for another life, that could be me. But it’s just an indulgence.
And it seems the antithesis of this idea of the begging bowl. Of being happy with what we have and glad for what we encounter each day in this world. For those who give to us and for what we can give to them in return. And for this idea of “just enough” that’s inherent in the begging bowl.