Zhaozhou’s “Wash Your Bowl!”

Last week I had to share my understanding of Book of Serenity Case 39 and defend it in dharma combat as part of a shuso hossen ceremony.  I am particularly fond of Case 39, and thought I would share some thoughts about it here:

Case: A monk asked Zhaozhou, “I have just entered the monastery: please give me some guidance.”

 Zhaozhou said, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

 The monk said, “Yes, I’ve eaten.”

 Zhaozhou said, “Then go wash your bowl.”

Zhaozhou Congshen— who was born in the 8th century and lived through most of the 9th— is one of the most beloved figures in Chinese Zen—he appears in 20 koans — more than any other Zen Master except Yunmen.

Zhaozhou studied with his teacher Nanquan Puyuan until his teacher died. At that time Zhaozhou was fifty-seven years old. For the next twenty-three years, he wandered from teacher to teacher and monastery to monastery growing his understanding. Legend has it he was eighty years-old when he first became the abbot of a monastery where he continued to teach a small group of students for another forty years.

His teachings are always short, pithy, and down-to-earth.  He never talks about  ethereal topics but speaks in a language that is direct, earthy, and rooted in everyday life. It’s as if he’s trying to convey through his very language that  Zen is not something magical or other-worldly but something right here, right now —something right in front of your nose and right under your feet in each and every moment.

Unlike many of the Zen masters who appear in koans, Zhaozhou never shouts at his pupils or beats them with his stick. Instead he uses simple language to point beyond language. Many of his koans have an element of kindness to them that we might call “Grandmotherly Zen.”

In this koan a student has come to the monastery looking for guidance.  Zhaozhou’s first comment is grandmotherly : “Have you eaten yet?”  What could be more grandmotherly than that? When the student replies he has, Zhaozhou then instructs him to wash his bowl. What kind of teaching is that?

First, it’s an instruction to pay attention to the present moment—what’s needed in this moment. See what’s needed in this moment and do what the moment calls for.  And do this moment by moment.  All we ever have is this moment. Last moment you were hungry and filled your bowl. Now that moment is over, and it’s time to wash it. Next moment you might be tired and it’s time to take a nap. The next moment there’s a student in front of you and it’s time to teach. This whole approach can be summarized as “do the next right thing.” But knowing what’s right means being intimate with the full intricacy of each moment as it unfolds.

Zhaozhou’s advice also is a call for taking personal responsibility for one’s life and owning it all.  It’s your bowl, take care of it;  If it’s your mess, clean it up.  We’re responsible for taking care of everything that falls within the small purview of our lives.  This is the Bodhisattva way.

And just when we’re in danger of thinking we understand everything Zhaozhou means, there’s a completely different way to understand this koan. “Have you eaten yet?” can be a metaphorical way of asking whether you’ve absorbed Zen’s teachings or tasted enlightenment yet.  Zhaozhou’s advice also seems to mean that whatever understandings you have are yesterday’s understandings—yesterday’s opening to awakening.  Don’t try to cling on to it—don’t let the stink of Zen stick to you. Don’t be puffed up about past realizations and accomplishments.  Zhaozhou’s freedom from the stink of Zen is evident in his poetry:

The cock crows in the early morning.
Sadly, I see as I rise, how worn out I am.
On my head are pecks of grey ashes.
Originally, I intended to practice to help save others.
Who would have suspected that instead, I would become an idiot?

To this way of understanding, “wash your bowl” is advice to let go of what was. Don’t hold on to it. Be ready for what the next moment has to offer. Every moment is a dharma door, an opportunity for a new understanding or realization, one that may be deeper and more nuanced than the one you’re tempted to cling to.

On a more personal note, I am, in essence, a lazy person.  As a youngster, my parents often had to remind me to do my chores.  As a college undergraduate, dirty clothes piled up on a chair until I had no choice but to do the laundry. In the same way, dirty dishes piled up in the sink.

I’m still basically a lazy person, but I’ve learned to be more attentive to what needs to be done, and even to enjoy taking care of it.  I’ve developed a more positive view towards doing the laundry and washing the dishes. That’s not to say I’m still not basically lazy.  My wife can attest to that.

One of my great pleasures each week is setting up the Zendo on Saturday mornings—putting out the chairs and mats, setting up the altar with flowers and incense, setting out the gong, mok, and clappers, putting chant books under the mats, setting up the tea service and boiling the water, making sure the Zendo is warm in winter and cool in summer, setting up Zoom for those who can’t attend in person.

It takes about 45 minutes to do all this. Other groups may have used the zendo room during the weekdays, and there are tables to be disassembled and removed, or they’ve borrowed our incense lighter and haven’t returned it and I have to search elsewhere for another one, or sutra books have magically disappeared and new ones must be printed.

Who could have imagined this would be a joy—everything put in order and put right—and not a chore!  A place for everything and everything in its place. But also, not being too rigid because there will always be surprises and imperfections.

This is an important part of the Zen way—to embrace and appreciate every aspect of our lives and not assume there are good parts and bad parts—parts to be enjoyed and parts to be endured. We’re here for the full catastrophe of our lives.  Let’s be whole-heartedly present for it all.