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The Beauty of Empty Pots

I built some shelves for our dining room, and they have now become the home of a not-small number of cooking pots.

These are not the pots we use for everyday cooking, far from it. Some of them are only used once or twice a year when we can harvest vegetables from the garden. Others are used once every couple of months when we need to cook massive amounts of food for a family gathering.

In a perfect world they would be cleaned on a regular basis, along with the rest of our cookware. In fact, since they are serving something of a decorative role, one might even expect that we would polish them from time to time. But the truth is that they are somewhat neglected.

There have been one or two times when I was horrified to notice a layer of of dust collecting on them!

In those moments, I took them to the sink, gave them a good wash, and vowed to ensure that they would never reach such a sorry state again. Sadly, I have never been able to keep that promise.

Inevitably, life becomes demanding, things get busy, and the pots collect dust once again.

It is not a great state of affairs, but there is a bright side. Every now and again, each of them has their aforementioned time to shine. In those moments they help us to can beans, potatoes, and other vegetables that are then stored in our pantry. Or we use them to make a huge batch of spaghetti to help feed the aunts, uncles, and cousins who visit for a holiday.

In those moments, the pots shine. They are the center of our universe, and receive all of the love, attention, and care that we can muster. Of course, pots do not have feelings. But I imagine that if they did, they would relish all of the attention and enjoy the opportunity to feel useful.

It is the fact that they are able to remain empty during the times that they are not needed that allows them to be so helpful when they are needed. If we threw them out during the times that there was no big meal to cook or vegetables to can, we would be in a very sore spot when those obligations arose.

And if we filled them with just any old thing while they sat on the shelves, the pots would be filling a need—storage—that they were not made for, and emptying them prior to cooking would create a much bigger mess than is necessary. It is only by allowing the pots to remain empty for extended periods of time that we can ensure that they’re available at the important moments.

In his wisdom, the Buddha stated that desire is the root of suffering. There are many ways to interpret this teaching, but one that rings true to me is that we often suffer because we try to fill the metaphorical pots in our lives when they should remain empty on the shelves.

We speak when silence would be more appropriate. We spend money we do not have on clothes to fill an empty dresser drawer. We invite people into our lives who are not good for us because we do not want to spend our nights and weekends alone.

And this feels good temporarily, making use of every spare inch of our lives, but it quickly becomes a problem when we need that space to move, to grow, and to become our authentic selves.

Thus, we invite suffering into our lives by gathering up a bunch of things that we either do not need or do not require at that moment. The end result is a life filled with endless stress, confusion, and endless complexity.

This is why Buddhism encourages us to practice non-attachment. When we learn to practice discernment, looking at the objects in our lives with a questioning glance, it becomes apparent to which things we need to hold on. It also becomes apparent when we need to let things go.

It is not always easy to know when our pots need to be emptied, but there are usually signs. On days when the to-do list seems so long that we are not able to make a dent, that might be a sign that we should take some items off of it.

And if it seems impossible to keep our home clean and organized, that could be a sign that it is time to declutter, rehoming some of the unneeded items that we have accumulated over the years.

Our minds might push back on this practice, thinking that we are depriving ourselves of something. But the truth is that we are simply setting the stage for more excitement down the road.

Because today’s empty pot is the source of tomorrow’s family meal.

Namu Amida Butsu

Related features from BDG

Not Knowing
Buddhistdoor View: Cultivating Non-Attachment in the Midst of Pressured Living
Anam Thubten Rinpoche On Non-attachment, Being a Buddhist Gypsy, and Impermanence
Emptiness in Buddhism: Empty of What?

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