Encountering Buddha in A Teacup (1/2)

As is often the case with the incredible power of literature, I (re)found my spiritual starting point while I was reading ‘What makes you not a buddhist’ with my head on a stack of three cushions that leaned against the choesham (altar) and my feet elevated and rested on a sack of rice on the other end. My aunt was chanting some sophisticated mantras designed to ward off COVID-19 which she acquired through her WeChat group. The indecipherable syllables coming from her mouth morphed back and forth from a background rhythm to white noise that was soothing and seemed appropriate as I consumed the e-book on Buddhism.

However as I was nearing the end of my conversation with the text, I encountered probably the most memorable sub-chapter of the entire book; simply and elegantly titled, ‘The Tea and The Teacup: Wisdom Within Culture’. As I read on, it unearthed fragments of memories from my childhood and I observed in fascination, as I used to in Paro as a teenager, when the Bobcat dozers would come to dig the hard soil off of a cliff.

PHOTO by VeganHeart Always/Flickr

Here, Rinpoche uses the tea and the teacup as analogies for the essence of Buddhism and the cultural shells that contain the essence. Just like how the tea must be poured into something that holds the tea for us to be able to sip and enjoy, so does the truth of Buddhism; it was here that so many fragments that seemed disjointed started gathering together: the religious texts, the morning prayers, the pilgrimage to lhakhangs during auspicious days, even auspicious days themselves, butter lamps, incense sticks and the endless retinue of rituals and symbols.

Simultaneously at the very moment, I was also able to point out the various stages in life where my gradual alienation with Buddhism began. I looked back and estimated the countless hours spent performing evening prayers after school, to a point where I (and my friends) could recite a hundred and fifty pages of indecipherable scripture without the aid of the prayer book. I remember reciting the prayers twice as loud as I normally would when my dzongkha lopen walked past me to demonstrate my intelligence. I was proud of my achievement, which was validated by my lopen’s approving nod toward my direction.

PHOTO by brentolsen/flickr

Similarly, other such experiences come to mind; competing with my friends who had been able to retain the longest streak of offering choeba (water offerings) without missing a single day. Whenever guests used to visit our home, I would wait impatiently for my aunt to tell them, how much good merit I had accumulated and how successful of a man I was to be later in life. Even in school, as my teachers and friends praised my intellect, I would assume a (false) humility and remark how it wasn’t me but the good karma that was the thing to be praised. My intention to perform other similarly noble and karma-accumulating deeds was also strongly linked with the number of eyes that were on me as I completed the task, which I realize as I look back. A quote from Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian/philosopher comes to mind here, “Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards”.

However, just like the insects that abandon their shell as they mature, as soon as I left this system which lasted for a total of exactly six years, I realize how quick I was to abandon it as well. Presently any attempt to recollect even a single line of prayer is a pathetic attempt and I had been searching for the reason why, which I now realize was the obsession with the teacup and a total forgetfulness of the tea inside. Sadly looking beyond myself I also realize that the ones who contributed largely toward this undivided attention of the container also made sure that their creation were held in a similarly high regard. The endless cycle of morning prayers which led into the hour-long evening prayers which we couldn’t wait to get over with; not once do I remember anyone even trying to explain to us the meaning of the actions that we were strictly disciplined to perform with threat of the imposing stick that loomed over us all.

PHOTO by Karel Macalik

Presently I am already witnessing that such an obsession with the outer, i.e. the teacup is leading many of us to misunderstand our own religion as it increasingly becomes irrelevant within a world of self-advertising, self-promoting, entitled, tech-savvy, inattentive, instant-satisfaction-seeking, filter-packaging, change-seeking generation of smartphone zombies and walking-deads. To make matters worse, within our world where appetites and thinking have become broadened and quite sophisticated, any dedication of time and energy towards something that does not make sense seems to be ruthlessly dropped.

However, it is perhaps within this very space that we can encounter and begin to appreciate the tea which has long been left cold and become stale. Doesn’t our current predicament only go on to demonstrate to us that the outer is always subject to the law of impermanence? Would this somehow motivate us to search for something that is unchanging and timeless? Would this inspire us to go back to the words of Gautama Buddha and seek to (re)discover what was so incredible with Buddhism that it has withstood the test of time for 2,500 years? Or would we continue chewing on the porcelain teacup and expect it to quench our thirst?

Hands of a Tibetan monk holding a wooden tea cup. PHOTO by Braden Gunem/Flickr


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