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wash your bowl

The Case

A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered this monastery. I beg you to teach me.” Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?” The monk replied, “I have.” “Then,” said

Joshu, “Go and wash your bowl.” At that moment the monk was enlightened.

Mumon’s Comment:

Joshu opened his mouth, showed his gall-bladder (true mind) and the depth of his heart. If this monk did not really listen to and grasp the truth, he indeed mistook the bell for a pitcher.

He made it so simple and clear,

It might take a long time to catch the point,

If one realizes that it’s stupid to search for fire with a lantern light,

The rice would not take so long to be done.


Jōshū Jūshin (Chinese: Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn) (778–897) was a Chán (Zen) Buddhist master especially known for his “paradoxical statements and strange deeds.” His formal name was Congshen. Joshu  is the name of a small town not far from Peking, where he spent his old age and from which he is named. He lived to be 120 years old. Joshu studied with Nanquan. After Nanquan’s death, Joshu  went on pilgrimage throughout China. When Joshu  was around eighty, he settled at the Kuan-yin monastery in the eastern suburb of Joshu. It is said that he was extremely ascetic in his habits. Joshu  was a very modest man, very kind and very simple. He used a very simple language.

One day, a monk asked Joshu,

– “I beg you to teach me.”

– “Go and wash your bowl.”

What did Joshu  meant by his answer? Maybe that the Zen practice  and everyday actions are the same. Thus, to be mindful is to practise Zen. What Joshu  was telling the monk was that the flavor of Zen was one with the flavor of the porridge. There is nothing special about Zen. Zen is about ordinariness. Zen is about everyday things.

But the monk fell into the trap that many had done, which was to think that there was some esoteric “secret” to Zen that was hidden to all but the Zen masters. Yet Joshu  was hiding nothing from the monk. Joshu ‘s reply put the monk back to ordinary daily life. There is no special effort required in Zen practice. Ordinary-mindedness is the Way.

Joshu was never interested in theological speculation; when he was seeing the false view he would exposes it as such, directly and immediately.

Maybe the state of mind of the young monk was one like: So, Oldman Joshu, here I am, a brilliant student. What more can you teach me?

Joshu knew that what was in front of him was a student with a mind full of personal ideas. And he knew that he was dealing with a ‘full cup’ archetype. He knew that the archetype is deep—deep in the mind, deep in the consciousness, and deep in the personality of the monk standing before him. He knew that the trouble with archetypes is that they are not devils that can be exorcised and got rid of. They are always there.

He also knew that the one thing he must do is to empty the cup. That the young monk was already overeducated. That he think he knows all about Zen. All about the sutras, the ancestors. All the holy books. He knew too much. That he needs to „un-know”. So Joshu  tests the student-monk to see just how „full” he is.

Did you finish your gruel? (Perhaps the young monk hears, Have you finished all your training as a Zen monk? Or, Have you completed koan study? Or, Have you experienced kensho—an intense realization?” Or, Have you mastered the sutras?

The monk answers, “Yes I have,” (Thinking, perhaps now Joshu  will acknowledge his achievements. Maybe Joshu will initiate me into the esoteric teachings of Zen? Why maybe I can even become his successor?

But instead, Joshu  says, “Then wash your bowls.”

His response turns us inside. Of course, it’s not about the learning of sutras, the passing of koans, the countless repetitions of prayers, recitation of Buddha’s name, etc. It’s the ground beneath our feet. It’s the food we eat as we eat it. It’s the eating. It’s the bowls we wash. It’s the washing. It’s doing what we are doing when we are doing it. When the food comes, we eat. When we finish eating, we hash his bowl!

Zen, or rather, the essence and actualisation of the Dharma, is about doing what is supposed to be done in the moment. Though Joshu’s question and instruction seemed out of point as replies to the monk’s request, what he uttered were really the best answers in the moment. Zen is not about doing or reaching towards something special or mystical. It is down-to-earth and practical, about doing what should be done in this moment – even if it is an ordinary, routine and so-called mundane task. When we look for something extraordinary, we have forgotten that the extraordinary enlightenment arises from taking care of the ordinary. To focus on doing what is appropriate in each moment with an ‘ordinary mind’, that is not cluttered or distracted with the unnecessary is Zen practice. Everyday matters done properly with mindfulness, compassion and wisdom would amount to good Zen practice – beyond just sitting well on the cushion during a meditation session.

The mystery of this mondo, for musing over, or rather, contemplating, would be why the young monk became enlightened and why we are not likewise so, despite having ‘heard’ the same words! Speculating or rationalizing, instead of realizing the mondo’s significance would not count, as this is the opposite of directly experiencing the mondo, like the monk did.

photo credit:   o-matic


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