Friday, 4 September 2015

Zen pilgrimage walk: Generosity and living from the bowl

I recently got back from a 4-week pilgrimage walk through the country, which I did as a Zen monk – carrying no money, just living from my alms bowl. In the first article in this series I talked about why I would even do such a thing, and last week I discussed the pain in my feet and how I dealt with it.

This week I'd like to talk about one of the most beautiful aspects of the experience – how I lived from the bowl and some of the incredibly generous people that filled it along the way.


On day two I found myself in the centre of Bournemouth in the town square, just at the end of the gardens leading up from the beach and pier. I'd been walking along the sea front in beautiful sunshine and the whole place was buzzing with people eating ice creams. I'd been given enough food when I left for my first day of walking, so now I needed to gather some food for the onward journey. I'd headed towards what I thought was the busiest shopping area to stand with my bowl for the first time.

Bournemouth square
I sat down on a wall at the edge of the square trying to assess where the best place to stand might be – at the edge or right in the middle? – in front of the cafe or a little away from it? Once I'd selected a spot I thought "right, let's do this," but my body didn't move. "Ok, really, let's get on with it..." – still no movement. What was the resistance? I dropped my attention into my body and realised that I was essentially worried what people might think of me.

That whole day I'd been walking along with my robes flapping in the sea breeze and my big hat shielding me from the sun, thinking "aren't I special, look at me, I'm a monk, bet you've not seen anything like this before...!" Although this egotistic self-importance did dissipate (mostly) in the weeks following, that day it had been quite prominent, and it made for a big contrast between that and having to stand there because I was in need of charity. I was worried because I was putting myself in a place of vulnerability, indicating that I had nothing and needed help.

But really, who was I to ask for help...? I hadn't really got nothing – surely, I had a bank account with money in it and a flat back in London... Well, actually, for this walk I didn't. I'd handed my wallet over when I'd become a monk, and for this journey I had only the robes I was standing up in and a few other bits in the rucksack. If I didn't get any food from holding my bowl I would go hungry. It was as simple as that, and the reality took some time to sink in.

So I got up and walked into the middle of the square, adjusted my hat and held out my bowl.

Of course nothing happened for the first 10 mins. Just lots of legs walking past!

Alms round

As a Buddhist monk you're not supposed to ask for food, or even really make eye contact with anyone when you're on your alms round. Traditionally monks might walk together in a long line from place to place, shop to shop, or known donor to donor, collecting offerings in their bowl. In Zen, the alms round is called takuhatsu (taku meaning 'holding up' or 'requesting', and hatsu meaning 'bowl' – read this lovely article about it here). Obviously, on my pilgrimage I was by myself, and since this isn't a Buddhist country I found standing still in a busy place with lots of footfall worked the best. After I'd selected a suitable spot, I would stand there quietly, simply making the gesture of holding the (empty) bowl in front of me. My hat came down far enough so that all I could see were people's legs (and a few curious kids), and by obscuring my face it anonymises the giver and the receiver – I couldn't see who was coming to offer something until they came very close.

The alms bowl
After some time someone might put some money in the bowl. Some people even thought I was one of those standing statues!! Since I wasn't allowed to accept (or even handle) money, I would say "thank you, but I'm afraid I can't accept money". As you might imagine, most people were a little taken aback by this and asked what I was doing then holding a bowl! I would say something like "I'm on a pilgrimage walk and I'm just collecting a bit of food for my journey, so if you'd like to offer food I would be very appreciative". Since we live in a society where the giving and receiving of alms is not really understood, I had to try and explain what I was doing whilst doing my best not to "ask".

Some people might then take their money and just walk off, some might say sorry that they didn't have any food, but a few took their money and came back a few minutes later with something. Every time that happened it blew me away.

On that first day in Bournemouth a chap came up to me and put some money in the bowl. He looked South American – I can remember is face distinctly. After I told him I couldn't take money he said "ok, give me 10 mins". He then came back with a shopping bag of food, including sushi, some crisps and water, and then just walked off. He didn't ask me what I was doing or why – nothing. It was beautiful, and I remember standing there in tears. He just gave.


Many people have asked what kind of food I was given. Over the weeks I received all sorts of things. One that first day in Bournemouth I got a McDonalds cheeseburger! Standing close to a Greggs one morning someone gave me 4 hot sausage rolls; standing near to Waitrose I got prepared salads, quiches and gingerbread biscuits. One very kind policewoman in Loughborough offered me her snack of Halva prepared by her cousin that day. Standing near a Tesco Metro I got good old British white-bread sandwiches. One time a lovely little 6-year old (and her dad) gave me 10 apples!

Only one day did I struggle to get enough to eat after standing for more than 2 hours. The rest of the time I found people to be incredibly generous; and thoughtful – that chap in Bournemouth wasn't the only person to get me sushi (nice Japanese connection!).
Something similar to what I would've looked like

Occasionally (less often that I would've predicted) someone would strike up a conversation about Zen. One chap in Huddersfield said he'd walked past me holding my bowl while he was on the phone to his mum, and just had to come back and ask me what I was doing – he said he felt something different about me and was intrigued. We talked about his attempts to meditate while at university and how he wanted to get into it more (and off the weed). On another occasion a young guy came up and, after introducing himself as being part of a Christian group, started asking me what I believe in and how I practice. He left insisting that I take a pamphlet on the wisdom of the Gospels.

Living out of the bowl

Living from the bowl was one of the most humbling experiences I've ever had. I was entirely dependent on the generosity of strangers, and had to eat just whatever they gave me. But I never once went hungry, and even had a fairly balanced diet.

Peoples' generosity blew me away and it left me thinking, would I be so generous if the situation were reversed?

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

Ever had a similar experience? Leave a comment below, I'd love to hear your thoughts on meditating on pain.

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  1. Mark - thanks for sharing these, have read all 3 posts and really interesting - especially dealing with pain and how people react to the bowl. Hope you have another post coming soon?! Jane

  2. Glad you've been enjoying them! I'm working on the next one right now.

  3. wow! I don't know which would be tougher ... the pain from walking so far/long or the 'uncertainty & difficulty' of obtaining your food/fuel for the day.
    I'm both amazed and encouraged that you did not go a day without getting something to eat - especially here in the UK where we are just not used to seeing monks do this. The vast majority of the population must have no understanding of this at all. So it's moving to read of the experiences of generosity from random people along your journey.