Broken wooden ladle buddha is a metaphor used by a Japanese zen ancestor to describe the inseparability of the Buddha, you, me and all of creation. Buddha refers to an enlightened individual, but it also denotes all of reality, the inconceivable, dynamic workings of the universe at this very moment. Buddhists often use the term thusness to represent this ineffable quality of present moment reality. Buddhists universally practice meditation to realize and manifest that dynamic unfolding.
The metaphor goes a step further and implies that there’s not a jot of difference between me, you and all of creation. It’s all simply the unfolding present moment. That goes against our usual perception of things. Am I really the magma in the core of the earth as well as the gaseous explosions of the most distant stars to say nothing of all the creatures that have resulted from evolution? The zen ancestor would say, “Most certainly. And more.”
For me the metaphor captures the:
- interconnectedness of all life and all that exists
- need to squarely face and compassionately embrace our own and the world’s suffering
- profound futility of demonizing any aspect of our present situation, whether it’s the Koch brothers or Asian carp, Barak Obama or CAFOS, our individual addictions and neuroses, or caucasians, African Americans, Muslims or indigenous nations
I think the point the zen master was making is that you, me and the greater-than-human world are inseparable and, simultaneously, broken and whole. Buddha is both broken and perfect.
This is how the metaphor works for me:
First, a wooden ladle is a simple and elegant tool. In the 13th century it was found in every home, shop and temple and on every farm, ship and caravan. It was used to take a bath, quench a thirst, mix ingredients for a meal and wash clothes. It was relied on for sacred tasks as well, for instance, to bathe a newborn baby or the body of a parent after death.
Quotidian, ancient and simple, elegant and practical, a wooden ladle provided a means to gracefully move the most precious of gifts, water.
A ladle in some form must have been one of the first human inventions.
Second, wooden ladles functioned even when broken. Even when the bowl of the ladle was split due to years of expansion and contraction, once soaked it would swell-up and regain its capacity to carry water; with a broken handle it could still function. Sturdy, utilitarian and awesome. Ask any Finn who has spent time in a sauna.
Third, by adding buddha to the metaphor this simple tool becomes the universal, equivalent to all of reality: the perfect and universal in the most workaday of implements. But here’s the point: the universal and perfect can only manifest in the broken particular of the present moment.
We are broken wooden ladle buddhas: imperfect and run-of-the-mill as well as miraculous and awesome. The same goes for Homo sapiens as a species.
The earth, by which I mean the planet and the thin sphere of life that envelopes it, is likewise a broken wooden ladle: run-of-the-mill, concrete and everyday as well as inconceivable and miraculous. It, too, is broken.
From a global perspective it’s very easy to see the brokenness: climate change, species extinction, unimaginable pollution of air, land and oceans, human population explosion beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, today’s slavery and unhealed, centuries-old wounds inflicted by earlier enslavement, seemingly endless wars, social dysfunction, hunger and poverty. The list goes on and on. Endlessly.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed and depressed.
However, I find strength in broken wooden ladle buddha.
Buddhahood or thusness is inherent in, and inseparable from, the brokenness we all experience. One and the same. No duality. Good guy and bad guy are not two – or, if they are, it is only when viewed in a broken mirror. It’s delusion to think you can embrace one without embracing the other. At least, I think that’s what the zen master was trying to convey.
We are called upon at this particular juncture to do something to heal brokenness from a position of brokenness. We are called upon to cultivate wholeness and unearth holiness.
Scholar and activist Joanna Macy has called this moment The Great Turning, “the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”
To do that I believe we have to:
- compassionately embrace our brokenness and humbly accept the world’s suffering – so much of which we, as the greatest of invasive species, have created
- deeply – deeper than our intellect can penetrate – embrace the inconceivably complex causes that have led to our situation
- with awareness manifest the astounding awesomeness of the present moment in our every thought and action
There is literally no other time. There is no other place. There is no other being.
That’s what’s behind the name Broken Wooden Ladle [Buddha]. That’s what the zen ancestor was saying. That is, simply, what it means to be human.