I recently learned the sanskrit word for bowl, patra. During the Buddha’s time, monks and nuns took their patra on alms rounds. On their rounds, townspeople would scoop food into the monastic’s patra for their one meal of the day. Patra is similar to the English word for cup, because it can mean both the vessel itself and also a measure of quantity. Monastics also translate patra as Vessel of Appropriate Measure.
The Vessel of Appropriate Measure helps monastics know how much food to accept. When on alms rounds, even today, monks and nuns accept food up to the rim of their bowl, but not beyond. If their bowl is brimming beyond the top they give the excess food away. The patra is the measure which tells them they have enough. I was secretly relieved to hear that even monks and nuns struggle with knowing how much food to eat.
And I started thinking about how helpful it would be to have a Vessel of Appropriate Measure for my own eating and for other parts of my life. Wouldn’t it be great if I had a Shopping Bag of Appropriate Measure when I went into Bloomingdales? Or a Grocery Bag of Appropriate Measure when I went to buy food? Sometimes it seems as though I don’t know when my bowl is full, and patras might help me learn when to stop accumulating and start enjoying life.
“It is better to rise from life as from a banquet — neither thirsty nor drunken.” - Aristotle
Taking only a patra amount of something isn’t about punishing or limiting our happiness. The idea of the patra is to help monastics learn to know when they had gathered the right amount of food that would maximize long term happiness, or contentment. If we take too little, we will be distracted by our gnawing hunger. If we take too much, we will be too full and sluggish. This is true with everything, not just with food. Research has shown the law of diminishing returns with regard to material wealth. As we first gather the basics of what we need — enough food, shelter, clothing, and love — our happiness increases. But after we have reached a certain point –when our patra is full– happiness doesn’t increase much more even if we have ten bowls of food (or pairs of shoes), and happiness actually begins to decrease as we approach levels of excess.
So a patra is a simple reminder of how much we need in order to be happy and content. It’s what the Buddha called the middle way — gathering what we need without getting caught in the suffering brought about by craving what we don’t really need. Accumulating any more than one bowl, or patra, of anything may diminish our ability to enjoy it.