100 Possessions: Monk’s Bowl

monksbowl-c200It may come as a surprise to some, but not all of my possessions are uber-practical. Some commemorate my travels, give me pleasure to look at, or remind me of how I’d like to live.

This monk’s bowl is a recent acquisition, purchased on my December trip to Thailand. In Bangkok, there’s a tiny neighborhood called Soi Ban Baat (Monk’s Bowl Village), where residents have been making alms bowls for monks for generations. Although most such bowls are now made in factories, a few artisans continue the tradition, beating out the bowls by hand. They’re made of eight strips of metal, to symbolize the Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

While meandering around (ie. getting lost) in Bangkok on New Year’s Day, my husband and I happened upon one of these artisans. She was hammering out bowls right in an alcove off the street, and looked as if she’d been doing so her entire life. Fascinated, we stopped to watch her work. After a while, she came over to chat with us (her English, though limited, was much better than our Thai!), and offered to sell us one of her bowls.

Now, I’ve traveled to over thirty countries in the past few years, and I rarely ever bring back souvenirs. I’m perfectly content with my digital photos, and a handful of foreign coins. Something has to really speak to me to gain a ride back in my tiny bag. And this something did.

I’ll tell you why: on January 1, it’s Thai tradition to spend the day visiting Buddhist temples and making donations of food, necessities, and money. It’s considered both charitable, and a way to ensure happiness, health, and good luck for the coming year. So being in Thailand, that’s exactly what we did.

On approaching one of the temples, we heard a persistent clanging noise coming from inside. When we entered, we discovered the source of the sound: 108 metal monk’s bowls stood in a long row, and a line of people filed past them, dropping a coin into each one (108 is an auspicious number in Buddhism). Intrigued, we took our places in line and participated in this lovely ritual. I thought it was a beautiful way to symbolize the act of giving, and set a tone of generosity for the coming year.

So, back to Soi Ban Baat… With that experience fresh in my mind, I took the unusual step of acquiring a souvenir. Not only did I appreciate the beauty of the bowl itself; I loved the Buddhist ideals it represented, and welcomed the opportunity to support this artisan’s way of life.

But don’t worry—it won’t become a dusty knick-knack. In the same spirit as the Thai temple, we’re using it as a reminder that giving should always be at the forefront of our lives: it’s collecting our spare change and spontaneous “donations,” that (when full) will go to our charity of choice.

The point: minimalist living doesn’t mean swearing off every non-practical possession. In fact, the beauty or symbolism of a material object can be a positive influence on our lives. It can bring back memories, delight our senses, and remind us of our ideals and values. It’s simply a matter of being mindful of our choices.

I’d love to know what non-necessities have earned a place in your lives–please share in the Comments!

(This post is part of my “100 Possessions” series, in which I explain why each item I own deserves a place in my minimalist life.)

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

41 comments to 100 Possessions: Monk’s Bowl

  • Laura

    What a lovely story and bowl!
    Minimalist are not robot-protoypes. We have our individual personalities, stories, memories, which need to be presented in our homes. One of my non-practical but uber-emotional items is a little handmade wooden elephant. It was made in the town where I used to live, and was given to me by a close friend about 15 years ago. I immediately thought that I want my future children to play with that toy, and with similarly simple, wooden, “warm” toys. Fast forward a good few years, and it was great to see my children playing with the elephant. Now, the elepant is back to its “ornament” status on the shelf, but the kids occasionally still take it off to play with.

  • meg

    I have a wooden bunny-shaped coin bank that my son and I named the Munny Bunny. When it got full we’d empty it out (via removing the cork “tail”) and have a treat night, usually burgers and a rented video. Sometimes we’d have to raid it for necessities like school supplies during especially tight times. Times are tight again and my husband and I use it for having coffee out once a week. During better times, though, it’s been used for making donations as you do.

    • Amy

      That sounds lovely! Great use for a money box, and a sentimental one at that :) enjoy your coffees :) good excuse to make time for a treat! x and MissMinimalist, i’m glad that these things bring you so much joy to look at and remember :) x

    • Hmm, maybe I should be on the lookout (either in my current possessions or outside) for something similar, the old ice cream container which is holding spare change is just not pretty or sentimental in any way!

  • crunchycon

    I’m an American, but spent part of my childhood in the UK. As a four-year-old, off I went to a girls’ public school, where all the students were given a paper-mache bank shaped like a house. The idea was to gather money all year round; once or twice a year, the money was brought to the school, totalled up, recorded on a paper pasted to the back of the bank and donated to the Dr. Barnado’s Homes charity for children. Though the bank is too elderly to hold any coins, I still have it and treasure it to this day (48 years later – no doing the math).

  • I’d never part with my favorite choral scores, especially the Brahms Requiem, or my original Julia Child cookbook from the early ’60s. They’re all pretty tattered, but I love them.

  • What a lovely story – and a lovely bowl, and a lovely way to use it in the spirit in which it was originally made. I find Buddhist monks and their anti-materialist, peaceful lives extremely inspiring – and this post makes me even more desperate to get rid of my agoraphobia so I can make these kinds of memories for myself in the future!

    I like to donate my extraneous money too – though rather than collecting it in a tin or bowl, I make a ‘spontaneous’ donation every time I go online and find my bank balance looking okay! I choose a charity pretty much on the spot – there are so many to support, doing such good work. I don’t have a lot of money, but I don’t need that much either – I’d rather it went somewhere it can be used to help someone…

    Anyway, sorry for the rambling (sadly my growing minimalist skills don’t extend to commenting!), and thanks for another brilliant, thought-provoking post!

  • Celia

    A few years ago, I spotted the most beautiful picture frame in a local craft store- black, thin strips that intertwined in a very oriental, Frank Lloyd Wright kind of way. It was more $$ than I had in my shopping budget, and I had no NEED for it, so I passed it up. But it haunted me. For weeks. I kept dreaming of that frame, and laughing at myself because I had nothing that needed framing. What use would an empty picture frame be?? Eventually I decided to go back, and if the frame was still there (it had been the only one of its kind in stock), I would take that as a sign. It was. And on clearance. And there was a huge sale that day with a coupon for some big percentage off your total purchase… :-)

    Not that long after, I fell in love with a print by a local artist at an art sale/auction. When it was still there, unsold, on the fourth and last day, I bought it. And wouldn’t you know? the picture and the frame are perfect together, like they were always intended for each other.

    Every time I see them on my wall, they bring me such happiness and contentment. :-)

  • Not quite in minimalist fashion, but still useful, I like to “collect” either a coffee mug or a sweatshirt hoodie when we travel to memorable places. I work from home and the hoodie is my daily wear so, they get used, and I get to enjoy my coffee and think about the places we’ve been. So much better than something to just sit on a shelf!
    3 ways to reduce stress in your life today

    • JMK

      When we travel we choose a small item (often a key chain) to remember the place. We convert it to a Christmas tree ornament with a ribbon, and then every year after we relive our travels in December. Then they are packed away and seen again with fresh eyes the following year.

  • Lan

    Wow, congrats Miss Minimalist. I am so glad you purchase a monk’s bowl, because it is a very sacred object. I grew up with devoted buddhist parents, but I was not that into buddhism until my parents passed away recently. I realize that it’s my duty to carry on the tradition, and that is to become a very devoted buddhist like my parents. I have studied buddhist text for about 2 years now, and I find that nothing I ever read before (used to love reading science discovery) as sacred as the text in the buddhist religion.

  • Nice post. I enjoy your blog. My house is pictured next to the word “clutter” in the dictionary, but over time your blog has helped me avoid that Hoarders show anyway. Thanks!

  • That is an amazingly beautiful bowl!! I think it’s wonderful that you brought it home in your “tiny bag!”

  • Sarah

    I rarely bring souvenirs from my (nowadays non-frequent) trips apart from tea or sweets. I do keep some non-necessary objects in our home like a beautiful Marimekko glass bowl(a sea blue Mariskooli) and two elves(that are dolls) made by a Finnish artist and craftswoman. Come to think of it, there are more such items in our home at the moment, but these three beautiful things I plan to keep even if I let others go.

  • heather

    I have a bobble head of my favorite radio DJ’s, a small copper Armadillo figurine and I have a huge glass candle holder with glass rocks and my favorite beachy candle in it. Surround yourself with the things you love. : )

  • Airy

    I also own a monk’s bowl. Aside from my small collection of Japanese tenugui cloth, it is the only other decorative item I kept with me when I packed up and moved from Japan to Brazil.

    I bought the bowl years ago while visiting a friend in Bangkok. I originally gave it to my parents as a souvenir, but when I later found it being used as a forgotten candy container, I cleaned out its sticky insides and asked if I could have it back. I realized then that this was something that held emotional value for me – not only was it a memory of a wonderful time I had with a friend, but also an object that represents my ideas of an uncomplicated, minimalist life.

    I keep the bowl on display on my bookshelf. There are times when I pick it up and study it while in the middle of packing for a trip – not to take with me, but to kinda… visualize myself, you know, as a monk, with nothing more than the robes to cover me and the bowl to use to collect alms (or to use to pray, or to cook rice). Whenever I do that, I tend return to packing with a more minimalist perspective in mind and I often pack much lighter as a result.

    When friends ask me why I keep the bowl empty, I pick it up and show them why: I balance the bottom of the bowl on the flat of my palm without holding it firmly and then flick the rim with my other hand. That makes the bowl emit a deep, peaceful echo that it never fails to make my spirit feel a little lighter.

  • I am really into textures. Especially soft. I embarrass my family by feeling clothes as we travel through stores. So, I always need to own something really soft but it does not need to be the same something all the time. At various times it has been an especially soft stuffed animal, a favorite shirt, a velvet pillow, etc. Right now it is a chenille lap rug I use when cuddling up in my chair. Perhaps it’s my way of keeping the sometimes harsh world soft and cuddly.

  • jennifer

    Beautiful words Francine.
    Your words sing when you write like this.

  • Ariel

    Nearly all off the ‘nicknacks’ I own (not many, mostly a couple of glass bottles and kitty figurines) are either things I saw every time I went to Grandma’s and later kept when she died, or things I have purchased while living in Ireland, which I miss every day (back in the States). I also have a replica of the Bastille key, since my birthday is 14 July (Bastille Day), and the teddy bear I was given at birth, which kept both me and my brother company for many years.

  • Sean-Thomas

    i sorta made the OPPOSITE decision. i bought this really cool soapstone container to burn cone incense. beautifully made, i came to the conclusion that i could just as easily have used a small chine bowl that i already had to do the same thing! i learned my lession and now, that little china bowl – that i came so close to junking – now has a more treasured place. and the new soapstone container?? it’s getting gifted!

  • Paintings–I love to be surrounded by them (but not to the extent that I feel like I’m in a museum). In particular–a custom painting of the view from the spot where my husband proposed to me, a painting from the town where we got married and a gorgeous painting of Montmartre from a vacation in Paris.

    I prefer to have lots of open floor space, but I love to have a lot of art on the walls. Visually, that does not stress me out the way extra furniture or things on the floor do. On the contrary, I find the paintings to a be a comfort.

  • I have a little…not really a bobblehead doll, it’s a little Japanese toy, solar-powered, and when it’s in the sun the head rocks gently back and forth.

    My mom gave it to me for Christmas a bunch of years ago. I opened the box and just gave her a ‘seriously, what IS this?’ look. I couldn’t help it! But she just said “Take it home and put him in the sun, just wait and you’ll see.”

    I don’t usually hang onto knicknacks and I frankly thought she was nuts. But he just sits there, smiling, his head rocking gently back and forth, and he’s so _soothing_. He’s come along while I moved from Pennsylvania to Colorado, and he’s still with me in Tennessee, and he’ll stay with me when I move into an RV and only have space for about five things.

    He’s just so…calming. Right now he’s sitting in the window above my desk, rocking his head back and forth…

  • Inpiring post…

    While my house is not anywhere near minimal yet, I have a couple figurines that I will not likely ever part with…

    1 – Little resin figureine 2″x3″, was meant as a cake decoration. It’s 4 little rabbits in human clothes sitting on a log – it was the xact picture of our little family when the kids were 1 and 3 y.o. – the time I bought it.

    2 – Angel figurine… I was totallly fascinated as it looked exactly lie my youngest daughter. She could have been the model for it!! She wears an orange dress which is my daughter’s favourite colour, holds an ice cream and is with a littel dog that is the same colour as ours.

    Like you, I don’t typically bring back souvenirs… other than pictures, a few shells, or the odd shirt.

  • This is a beautiful post.

    Minimalism for me doesn’t mean having an empty living space. It means clearing away the clutter so I can see and appreciate those few key items that truly do have importance in my life.

    One of my most prized possessions is a worn conch shell that I found on my first trip to the Caribbean. At the time that I found it on a remote sandy beach it looked to be one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I spend many years traveling and working throughout the Caribbean and this conch is the only item I still have from that time. It reminds me of all the amazing memories I have from that period in my life… although, to others who see it on my bathroom shelf, it’s probably just another shell. That’s what makes it mine. :-)

  • Dawn Gorman

    I read this post, which made me want one of these bowls. Then, I looked around to see what I could mention in my comment as my item, and realized that despite all that I had been getting rid of lately, I still had a lot of stuff sitting around, and none of it had the sort of significance that your bowl has. So I got up from the computer and removed several knick-knack items to the out-going box in the kitchen. More will head there in the next few days. One thing that stayed is a 1″ x 2″ frame with a picture of my dad sitting in his favorite chair and smiling one of his sweetest smiles. Thanks Francine, for once more assisting in my minimalist journey.


  • Dawn Gorman

    Nothing like a little motivation (see previous comment)I read your post about an hour ago, and I have put more than ten things in my out-going box! I may keep going in this direction on this rainy day. Fantastic!


  • Kayleigh

    That is a truly beautiful bowl. I want one.

  • I’m down to only three non-necessities in our home.

    But the one I will not part with is my model of the HMS Beagle, the ship Charles Darwin sailed on.

    My dad made if from scratch. Just for me.

    Thanks Dad!

  • such a beautiful story francine. i have quite a few very treasured pieces in my possession from jewelry to art and photos – they keep me from labeling myself a minimalist but none of them are valuable moneywise, just full of sentiment.


  • Jae

    I have just discovered this site and I love it. I was divorced 4 years ago and had to go from a 3 bed house to a 1 bed flat. I’m still struggling with clutter, but I’m getting there My non-necessity that gives me so much pleasure is the box of empty cartons and packets I’ve saved up for my grandchildren to play with when they come to visit. They are 4 and 6 years old and although I have no toys at my house they always want to come and play with Granny’s box of stuff. The beauty is that once they outgrow it all, out it goes.

  • We kept, packed and shipped in one of our 2 5x5x7 crates to Hawaii a couple of fancy artsy bowls that when living in San Diego and Taos, NM we just looked and displayed as “no touch” items. After all they were expensive and given as gifts.

    Now that we are here in Hawaii with one of the items we use these two bowls are used almost daily. One keeps our fruit either grown from our own trees, from the local farmers markets, or from one of the grocery stores selling locally grown produce in it on the counter for easy access. The other one we make and serve salads out of at least 4 days a week.

    They are beautiful bowls and it’s really fun to actually use them.

    Aloha Wags!

  • Phill

    I have a “big beam” flashlight that was my grandfather’s. It was made in 1953, and uses one of those monster 6V batteries. It still works, and it stays on display but ready to be used in an emergency. Reminds me of him everytime i see it or use it. It was really the only thing i kept of his.

  • OnMon

    Beautiful post! I learned long ago that I love sentimental stuff and dwelling on memories from trips, but I’ve managed to keep my clutter down by only collecting tickets. I use a miniature lunchbox I bought in high school and keep tickets from every movie, concert and play I’ve seen since I was 16, and many train trips and plane trips that were special to me. Looking through it I can suddenly spin off years of stories or fond memories: who I was with when I saw “Amelie” or the Faint, where I was going when I took the train from Glenview, Illinois to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There’s a mini-flyer for an anarchist booksale after-party in Montreal and at French telephone card and metro tickets I used to carry around when my family lived in Paris when I was 10. It’s not organized or neatly packaged but that makes foraging through it and reminiscing even more fun.

  • Brittany

    I saved three small, very worn stuffed animals from my childhood: a grey rabbit, a yellow duck, and a light brown bear with a rattle inside. There are many photos of me dragging these animals around the house and feeding them with baby bottles. I always hoped to be able to give these to my children some day, and now that I’m four months pregnant, the day is finally approaching!

  • […] feel like a failure if you love stuff (Miss Minimalist has a great example of this).  Minimalism isn’t all-or-nothing, but a flexible life-style […]

  • Michelle

    I purchased a small, lovely box while I was visiting the British Museum in London. The top of the box is made from kimono fabric. I keep all of my movie ticket stubs inside of the box. My movie tickets stubs are my only “collection,” but I love that they tell a sort of history about me and about popular culture. My oldest stub is from when I saw “Ever After” in middle school. My most recent stub is from “Saving Mr. Banks.”

  • […] to acquire.  And sometimes we DO need things, whether it be functional furniture, item updates or happy things like art and accessories.  (For example, I love frame collages like the one below, and I’ve […]

  • Tina

    That’s why I collect silver earrings on my travels. They take up little room and I keep them and wear them.
    The rest of my “collectibles” were either inherited or bought at thrift shops, rummage sales or garage sales.
    I’m trying for less environmental impact. Whenever I read your blog, I give away at least 5 things. You have had a great impact on my life. Thanks.

  • Tina

    I travelled to spend a week with my sister in law who has advanced Alzheimer’s. I took a very small suitcase about half full. She is a larger woman than I am and I have been wearing one of her cardigans and in the evenings an old flannel shirt I found in a bedroom closet. My brother has a lot of note pads he got as junk mail which I will bring back for my mother to use and also to give to a friend who can use them. I will look for worn out or torn clothes to bring back for art projects. I also look for ripped clothing for the buttons because I usually buy buttons at rummage sales.

  • Tina

    I get free magazines at the library, tear out or copy what I want and return the magazines. From our travels, I buy silver earrings or bring back the small maps that are free to tourists. I find myself right now with 8 magazines to return, 3 pages torn out and a lot of ideas for future projects.

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