“The word patra refers to the name of alms bowls that monks carry in various cultures to receive their portion for the day, an act that creates an understanding of interdependence with community and openness to the cycle of receiving and giving. The word’s origin in Sanskrit translates as “the vessel that never goes empty”. Whatever is received in the bowl is enough for the day, a reminder of the offerings of the present moment.” –The Patra Passage
You don’t see a vessel here. You must imagine it, as I did, leaving it in its box for the first month it came into my possession as part of the Patra Passage. I was honored to be part of the project. I thought the vessel was very beautiful. And yet I wanted to leave it in the dark for awhile, parked almost casually by the door, as though poised between coming and going. In fact, inherent in the Patra Passage is the idea of impermanence: yes, you take “possession” of this beautiful object for four months, but then you let it go and pass it on, and at the end of the year it will be sold and the proceeds contributed to charity. As much as I am someone who loves objects, and devotional objects in particular, I found myself resistant. I didn’t want to fall in love, and I didn’t want to give up an object of love. I would rather close my eyes in the morning and imagine it.
I would sit and start my meditation thinking of gold light, and the gold leaf within the bowl. I would run my fingers along the torn clay edge, and marvel at the indecipherable language placed flawlessly on its burnt arc. And then I would exhale and think about my email and how many dolphins had washed up on the shore of the Huffington Post and the sweater that had pilled after one washing and the annoyance of whether I should join the Cloud and why the milk kept going bad. The usual non sequitur burden of having a mind that has a mind of its own and never wants to be truly empty. When I took the bowl out of its box and placed it where I sit each morning it made no difference. My attention was not on the bowl. I tried. I thought about generosity and giving and monks and alms and having and not-having and I concluded that I am selfish. I lived with that thought like a very annoying fly. It is still there, and I cannot say that I have become in any noticeable way more sainted.
What I carried with me from the very first moment of the project was not the vessel, but a sentence, rather not even a sentence, just the phrase: “enough for the day.” In those four simple words is a riddle that I will not tire of examining, and turning over and over, and simply saying aloud. It deeply comforts me, and it brings with it simultaneously a large and noisy crowd of voices. Among them, “Accepting whatever you are given, that just sounds like lack of ambition. What about aspiration? What about Western Civilization? And bridges, for instance, or the subway system? Without dissatisfaction and realizing the not-enoughness how can there be change, or progress? What about revolution? And the right to vote? (And what about those dolphins, and that progress…..)”
and so forth.
Each moment the question and the answer changes, depending on what emptiness I am trying to fill or what fullness I am wanting to empty. Today I recalled a ritual of childhood that, in all its absurd hysteria, foretold the essence of this dilemma and its symbolic remedies. When the The Man of La Mancha came to Seattle my parents took me to see it and brought home the album. I was transfixed by my first musical, and equally by the soundtrack, which I memorized. At that time a full tank of gas came with a special offer of plastic bowls in aqua or orange, with a distinctive crimped edge. They melted easily in the dishwasher, but were ideal for cereal. My little brothers and I would race around the house holding forth our slightly warped bowls and singing at the tops of our voices “The Golden Helmet of Mambrino“, with the stereo at full blast. The “real” helmet of course was an ordinary brass shaving basin, which Don Quixote preferred to see as the Moorish king Mambrino’s magic armor of invulnerability. For Quixote the ordinary was not “enough” and it became preternatural in his imagining. We thought it was hilarious, to first offer the bowl, and then turn it upside down, cheerios and milk dripping, on someone’s head.
Thus do we project and imagine, and sally forth to make our version of the world, turning brass into gold and gold into injection mold plastic. The impossible dream is always shape-shifting and out of reach. This is the conundrum of modern ritual and ritual objects. They can be anything, at any moment, taking us from sublime communion to awkward resistance or perverse hilarity. Anyone who has attended a wedding or a funeral knows the familiar gamut of emotion and expectation. You may leave with a wedding ring or a funerary urn, but those who have gone before you have laid a groove to follow. New modern ritual does not have this groove. It is making it up. In this way it opens to uncharted moments of discomfort, connection and surprise. I welcome the adventure and the risk in this: we need new ways to embrace archetypal symbols and paths to transcendence — without invention we become immune to their transformative power.
Today I passed along the Patra to its next keeper. Frost and sunlight streaming, birds swooping and darting across the pond — a beautiful morning for tea and sharing stories and getting to know a rare and wonderful person. I, a Virgo with Chaos Rising, could not remember how to pack the vessel in its box, yet she knew exactly what to do. It will be safe with her. And now that it is finally gone I can see the emptiness around it, miss its golden arc, recall every calligraphic rune, and notice that the space feels dark, as though rubbed by ash. Perhaps now in the vessel’s absence the passage really begins its work. Now I can go out begging, empty, and see what the moment will bring.
Visit the beautiful and transformative artwork of the creator of the Patra Passage, Lynda Lowe here.
Read the Patra Passage blog, Enough for the Day
For further inspiration read this in-depth article about Lewis Hyde, author of “The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World”