Have You Washed Your Bowl Yet?

shallow focus photography of gray bowl
Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

If you are hungry,
why have you not eaten?
If you have eaten,
why have you not washed up?

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In the Zen tradition, a classic dialogue between a teacher and a student is called a ‘mondo’ (in Japanese and Chinese: ‘问答: question and answer’). It is considered classic as it is an illuminating exchange. Whether it is enlightening to one who hears it, however, depends on how deeply one connects to it. With Zen’s focus on direct experience of the essence of the Dharma in everyday life over looking for it in sutras, mondos are both records of realisations and instructional guides. One such mondo is called ‘Joshu washes the bowl’, as recorded in ‘The Gateless Gate’ by Zen Master Mumon (Wumen)… A new monk asks Master Joshu (Zhaozhou), ‘I’ve just entered the monastery. Please teach me.’ Joshu enquires, ‘Have you eaten your porridge?’ The monk replies, ‘I have eaten.’ Joshu says, ‘Then you had better wash your bowl.’ Upon hearing this, the monk became enlightened. The mystery of this mondo, for musing over, or rather, contemplating, would be why he became enlightened and why we are not likewise so, despite having ‘heard’ the same words! Speculating or rationalising, instead of realising the mondo’s significance would not count, as this is the opposite of directly experiencing the mondo, like the monk did.

Mumon commented on the mondo in verse – ‘It is too clear and so it is hard to see. A dunce once searched for fire with a lighted lantern. Had he known what fire was, he could have cooked his rice much sooner.’ So much said earlier, here are some speculated and rationalised possibilities of what Joshu and Mumon could be conveying. Warning! Mondo ‘spoiler’ ahead – though you might disagree!… 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. Joshu asked if the monk had eaten out of concern. The question itself was guidance that the monk sought – exemplifying how to practise the Dharma – by being caring, by expressing compassion, to a newbie too! Perhaps the monk didn’t realise this yet, as he answered conventionally, in a way he expect he should. The Master’s next response was an expression of wisdom, though also based on compassion, helping him to see more clearly what he should do – a skilful and direct instruction. There were no wasted words or efforts. So… why go wash the bowl?

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. Joshu’s replies was Zen in the moment too – what was appropriate there and then. 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. Now… we all have our food to eat when hungry, bowls to wash after eating, bodies to bathe at the end of the day… How Zen are you making these activities to be? Now that you have read this article, what is the ‘bowl’ you should ‘wash’ – that next appropriate thing to do? The way of Zen is so clearly before our eyes that we overlook it, as if foolishly looking for glasses while wearing them. If we lived and breathed Zen all this while, we would be Zen Masters already!

As Zen has no gates, nothing is not of Zen;
everything can be an entry point into Zen,
we can be enlightened by anything.

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  • Someone once said to me – wash your bowl! You cannot hear your own inner voice. I was in a space of allowing everything in without being mindful.

    I refer to this at times and it really helps me to come to the present moment recognizing it is all there is.

    Blessings and thank you.


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