When a Bowl is Not a Bowl

The most provocative of all realities is that reality of which we never lose sight but never see solely as it is.” Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose.

There is a Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, a bowl is just a bowl. During enlightenment, a bowl is no longer a bowl. After enlightenment, a bowl is a bowl again.”

More and more these days, this expresses much of how I perceive the paradoxes and puzzlements I face in life.

The saying refers to those moments when the host prepares the tea for his guest. Each step is carefully attended to, unhurried and calm. To hear the sound of the hot water being poured into the bowl and how the tone changes as the level rises; to hear the sound of the whisk briskly stirring; to see the steam rising from the surface and feel its heat through the bowl held in one’s hands — these are each moments to be lived into with all our senses and to be remembered. In other words, the point is not to slurp down a cup of tea and rush out the door, but to see in the most common of moments a glimpse into the sacred beauty of life. It is also to grasp, with a shock of heightened awareness, that something we took for granted may be pointing us to a truth.

Here is a mundane example of how our perceptions change in other realms of life: I buy a book that catches my eye. The subject is within the universe of interests that I carry, and I think I would like it. I read the front, the back, the introduction, scan the table of contents and the first paragraph. And I buy it. Fickle beast that I am sometimes, my interest wanes and I put it on the shelf. A decade later I take it down; memory has stirred curiosity and I am entranced. I wonder why I hadn’t seen the riches of this book years ago. I study it fervently, underline and annotate it, commit passages to memory. In short, it has become one of the most cherished books in my library. Nothing has changed except my perception of its relevance and meaning to me — and that has made all the difference.

How does our perception change relative to the universals and the particulars? Jesus, in his suspension of the Sabbath law (Mark 2, Luke 6), teaches us to aspire to the universal (the love and care of others) over the particular (keeping the Sabbath commandment pure). How do we reconcile this? How should we work this out in practical terms? Do we ignore all Sabbath restrictions? Abandon the Sabbath altogether? What is the universal here? Is there a principle by which we can live?

We judge our theologies by several criteria. We ask if they are grounded in Scripture, by which we understand that the doctrine is not founded on a single verse, but multiple sources throughout the Book. We ask if they are carried by Christian communities down through the centuries, an argument from continuity and tradition. Sometimes they are not, like the seventh-day Sabbath, so we revert to the Scriptural criterion.

But we also ask what any given doctrine reveals about God’s character and thus, how that knowledge affects our relation to God and to others. In short, we want to know if this belief will make a difference in our lives. What is the “cash value,” as William James says, of our beliefs to our conduct and meaning for life?

The most basic universal principle from our side, the human response to God, is that freedom to choose to follow God is part of our learned spiritual behavior. In fact, we can say that freedom to choose is our human birthright. It’s always been a principle part of our defining identity as humans, and people of faith are bold enough to say that it is God-given. It took the Enlightenment to bring this into the foreground, against the resistance of religious and political powers who had a fierce determination to bring about their ends through any means possible.

Now we are in a post-modern era in which the very idea of truth is vulnerable. Our economy of truth trades on facts — usually those of science — and the gathering, collating, dissemination and testing by facts is our major industry. Because determining what is factual is arduous and costly, we rely on experts who have the time, the skills, and the interest to uncover the truth in many areas of life. Although a good scientist’s professional modus operandi is that current truth is only as good as its last iteration, when it comes to religion some seem to think that beliefs stated by committees should stand for eternity.

Part of the difficulty here is that theology, our human reading of God’s ineffability, cannot be verified or proven false in the ways that scientific propositions are. As Richard Holloway puts it in his Doubts and Loves, “The reason theological dispute is so endless is that there are no empirical experiments we can appeal to that can obviously settle them, the way we might settle a dispute over the exact temperature of the boiling point of water.” And that is where religions pick up the weapons of coercion, guilt, and intimidation.

We return to the example of Jesus and the disciples, famished in a field on the Sabbath day. Raising the bodily needs above the ritual requirements, Jesus says nothing as the disciples pluck and eat the grains on their way. It’s only when the Pharisees confront him (were they keeping the disciples and Jesus under surveillance?) that he responds, upsetting their carefully honed arguments. David, he said, allowed his soldiers to eat the consecrated bread, even though only the priest may do so. Then he adds the statement that relativizes our theological maxims: “The Sabbath was made for the sake of man and not man for the Sabbath: therefore, the Son of Man is sovereign even over the Sabbath.”

What this seems to affirm is that when human needs come up against religious requirements, human needs must take precedence. If there’s one thing that Jesus and God insist upon it’s the practical care of others. See that you care for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the disabled, says Jesus. Care for the children. I’ve come for the sick, not the healthy, he says. Of course, if we think we’re healthy and wealthy and in need of nothing, then we’re probably suffering from spiritual and social blindness — and we might not even know it if we’re incapable of seeing beyond our feet.

We have our particulars and they have their place. In religion, they help us pay attention to the details. Do we pray with hands raised and eyes closed? Do we tithe? Do we observe holy days and live modestly? Sweep away the details and we wobble from one religious fad to the next. But to make absolutes out of the details is to place formidable barriers between us and God. In those cases God can still get through to us, but the question is: when we see the barriers falling will we realize we are being liberated or will we think we’re being attacked?


So, in the end, after enlightenment, the bowl is just a bowl again. Once it was simply a means of holding the tea. Then it was the vehicle for clarity and insight, perhaps thought of as something miraculous because of it. Now, once again, it is a means of holding tea, not to be venerated but certainly respected for the part it played in opening one’s eyes. Without the bowl there would be no drinking of the tea, but without the tea there would be no purpose for the bowl. The tea is the purpose of the bowl, the bowl is the means of the tea, and together they provide the moment in which to be fully present.

Let us say that the church, as distinct from our spiritual communities, is the bowl.

There is another aspect to this which is even more important: The means to the realization of any truths, as important as they may be, are not the truths. The map is not the territory, the symbol is not the reality to which it points, the law is not the gospel — in fact, even the Gospel points beyond itself to the person of Jesus and the being of God. We too easily settle for that which can be categorized, quantified, and assessed. In the language of Paul Tillich, we turn the penultimate into our ultimate concern — whether it be the Bible, our personal faith, or our church. We look at the finger pointing at the moon instead of the moon itself.

Zen has a cure for that: if you keep returning to the bowl instead of going forward to the truth it’s pointing to, then you need to drop the bowl.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Photo: Unsplash.com / Percy Pham

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8971

Thanks for your thoughts Barry. For the most part I agree with you and perhaps with clarification more,… all.

“What this seems to affirm is that when human needs come up against religious requirements, human needs must take precedence. If there’s one thing that Jesus and God insist upon it’s the practical care of others. See that you care for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the disabled, says Jesus. Care for the children. I’ve come for the sick, not the healthy, he says. Of course, if we think we’re healthy and wealthy and in need of nothing, then we’re probably suffering from spiritual and social blindness — and we might not even know it if we’re incapable of seeing beyond our feet.”<<
Here, I would like some clarification. Here, I would like to note a difference in “religious & civil” judgment.
I.E. "Leviticus 19:15- ‘You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly. NASB.
So some, no doubt will use, “when human needs come up against religious requirements, then human needs takes precedent” to support their own socio-political- economic view on all as a “civil right” as they see it.
So, while the concept may be valid as to how some religious laws may/were suspended in the light of a true physical need, it is also true that Jesus warns that, "Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent. Mt.5:25,26.
So, there are differences in perceived actions of how religious and civil might view a need…and the bowl is full again.:slight_smile:

1 Like

Thank-you for another essay with some rich thoughts, Barry.

I do have something that I would like to add in your example of the tea ceremony. The ceremony is a slow and languorous…meant to acclimate the individual to the here and now, focussing upon the present moment. This is where a religion with such apocalyptic leanings can easily fail its adherents. With the emphasis in the future…the present loses much of it’s potential to teach deep spirituality in the moment. The present is always more important than the future.


Kim, I suggest the present moment is not “always” more important than the future. It is because the future is often/usually “in the here and now” determined by choices in the present that care must be taken not to merely consider emotional actions or for that matter cognitive without consideration of the emotive. Present/future relationships are not mutually exclusive as to outcomes. Poor choices as well as good affect the future.

1 Like

The present moment is ALWAYS more important because it is the only time we are actually living in…not the future. We do not know that we are going to be alive in the future or what it might bring to us- so the present is always more important. Most Westerners do not understand the concept of “living in the present” which is evidenced by your comment.


I have actually lived in Asian cultures for 8 yrs…primarily Buddhist, Hindu and also some time in a Muslim country. I definitely know what living in the present means and I also know If you live your “present life” without consideration of past history & future consequences, I suggest you will often shoot yourself in the foot…maybe before tomorrow even if it may not come.

This was not what I was saying…" If you live your “present life” without consideration of past history & future consequences". If you lived in those Asian cultures then you should have understood the concept of “living in the moment”.

Kim, thanks for your comments. I haven’t been fortunate enough to attend a tea ceremony, but I’ve seen some in documentaries. I admire the ritual and the intention. I think that Adventism has something important to add here, in that the Sabbath, rightly understood, is an anchor to the Earth and a celebration of the present, sort of a counterbalance to the future-leaning 2nd Coming emphasis. The Sabbath is a commemoration of creation and thus of the earth; it’s a call to Exodus and liberation; it’s an invitation to rest (the world will continue to turn without us for a day!); and a day for family and friends. All of that and more. So, we can speak with confidence about the Sabbath as it works to give us a place on Earth, and as we look to the 2nd Coming–whenever that might be.

1 Like

Completely agree with your thoughts…the balance needs to be there and so often it is not.

1 Like

Patrick, thanks for your questions and insights. I have no argument with your distinction about civil requirements because the essay was focused on Jesus’ suspension of religious requirements when they conflicted with simple, human needs. I don’t seem him as overturning the Sabbath, but putting it in perspective. He was a Jew, he worshipped on the Sabbath, he preached in the synagogues on the Sabbath, he thought it to be a holy day. But I see him trying to place the emphasis on “right” behavior where it belongs–to make a difference in people’s lives from day to day. Yes, he thought we should pay our taxes and try to avoid going to court, perhaps because our focus should be on matters of the kingdom and not on getting entangled in these things.

1 Like

“Harmonizing opposites by going back to their source is the distinctive quality of the Zen attitude, the Middle Way: embracing contradictions, making a synthesis of them, achieving balance.”

  • Taisen Deshimaru

I attempt to live in the moment daily. But some of those moments even in Buddhist thought require the middle way.

1 Like

If this works for you…it is great.

That, I suggest is the “middle way” within the framework of SDA thought.

1 Like

I really believe the Adventist essentials of Sabbath and 2nd Coming are the foundation for a full philosophy of life. My PhD dissertation at Claremont was about the Sabbath as a symbol of solidarity and a blow against evil in the world. It’s a theme I continue to mine and I hope to write more about it in the future. It’s also why I continue to be an Adventist. As you say, there is a “middle way” for SDA thought!

How do you see the SDA essentials as the “foundation” for a full philosophy of life? If you can encapsulate them. I see Adventism more as a fear-based religion and would be interested in your viewpoint. Certainly there could be a “middle” ground for SDA thought…but I have rarely seen it happen.

1 Like

Very briefly, I see the Sabbath as rooting us to this Earth, as I said. It also is about liberation from injustice and oppression (Exodus), and it celebrates rest and re-creation. The Sabbath is the canvas given us by God to create what our best intuitions and hopes can be. We’ve got the brushes and paints and the imagination. The 2nd Coming is a corrective to hubris (the idea that we can “finish the work”, “save the world,” or build the kingdom of God—without God). As such, it is inimical to Last Generation Theology that Ted Wilson and others claim. There’s more I could add, but not here. When we attempt to coerce others in this religion then it is one of the best examples of fear-based religion, as you say. Wilson’s latest moves to force compliance only reinforce this. But cut loose from coercion and fear these essentials are rich and profound ways of being here on Earth, working for justice, worshipping God, and hoping for the redemption of the world. End of sermon!


Thanks Barry, perhaps in your dissertation research you ran across this excellent article by Reformed scholar Merideth Kline published in the WTJ. " The Intrusian and The Decalogue." Many reformed scholars recognize the value of sabbath as a part of the Creation ordinance but do not necessarily demand it as a worship day regarding the New Testament obligations to the gentiles.
Secondly, sabbath, as you have pointed out can simply become a day of tradition and burdens.
Another point, how does that relate to SDA’s who do not believe in a creation week? There are numerous evangelicals that worship on Sunday “Resurrection day” that still hold to a creation week. As Kline says, creation provides the pattern for eschatology…may I suggest both beginnings and the now and not yet…ultimate end"

I appreciate your input and understand it perfectly. You are very “poetically” philosophical and have explained the current state of affairs with TW at the helm. Fear based and not what should be. It has driven out too many and will drive out others. Perfect love casts out fear…we have a long way to go.

1 Like

Thank you once again, Barry. As I think I’ve said in the past, you have a knack for putting words to things that I instinctively realize within myself but have difficulty attaching language to. It surprises me, yet it doesn’t, that even with an article such as this the discussion almost immediately reverts back to “requirements”. It’s as if requirements are what we know therefore when an article like this reaches in momentarily and tweaks something deep inside we immediately revert and attempt not only to quantify and qualify it for ourselves but for others as well. @bearcee


When I first accepted the Sabbath it was life-changing. I was 15/16 and it gave me a new family. There had always been just three of us - mom, dad, and me, as we travelled the world looking for “home”. We were, what then was called, “displaced persons” - war refugees. The Sabbath gave me a whole new identity - family. I learned the HOW of Sabbath, ways unique to my new family - the more unique, the more embracing.

Once I had my own home - husband - children, the Sabbath gave life FORM. Back then, the entire week was constructed around the Sabbath - I sort of worked my way backwards from the Sabbath just ahead, where Friday had its chores to be finished for the week, and Thursday through Sunday had their own functions in order to prepare for the Sabbath ahead. I liked that. It made the Sabbath rule the week, leading up to it. That was great, even profound, I thought.

…then I read Genesis again - why - don’t we know those first chapters by heart… Something caught my attention. GOD rested on the seventh day and blessed that day, and sanctified it, but He never assigned it to Adam. Now, I knew God didn’t get tired from creating, so I found that “rested” is also translated “ceased” - simply put, God stopped working. AND HE BLESSED THAT SEVENTH DAY.

The science, I admire - find extremely interesting - and trust to heal us and inform us - and use everyday, tells me this universe runs on laws that are responsible all we experience; and tells me those days we read in Genesis most reasonably took way more than “even to even”. I found in this revelation a brand new meaning for that SEVENTH DAY. It is “the day” the Lord has made - it is every day that came from the hands of God - the creation God found to be “good” - and He blessed THIS DAY as holy time. It has no “even-to-even”. the Sabbath has no end time, no matter how many sunsets come with them.

And finally, when I found the actual source of the REST I crave - the invitation, “COME, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST”, I had finally found home. I call this THE EVOLUTION OF THE SABBATH.

If we are to live in the present; if today is important, then we can’t place all of God’s blessings on just “one day each week”, which gives us just 52 sanctified days a year. God blessed 365.25 days a year, for us to live in holy activity - even work is holy when it’s aim is to care for our families - to meet our responsibilities. How different is feeding the disciples in a wheat field, from feeding our families? How do we honour this Sabbath REST…by trusting in the grace of God through what Christ has done; by giving up on making all our selfless acts about our own salvation.