Book of Serenity #39 “Wash Your Bowl”

I love studying Joshu (Japanese) or in Chinese, Zhaozhou (778-897). He has been called the silver-tongued teacher because his koans are utterly simple and profoundly deep and instructive. Joshu’s instructions are so simple and ordinary that they feel like they are barely there, but I still love them. It is their nakedness that deeply instructs the barebones of Zen.

I also would like to preface any explanation or unpacking of a koan by saying that no one person has the definitive answer. Your understanding of the koan and metaphor is equal to mind. They are instructions given in images or stories and not just intellectual directions. Once you have tasted your own understanding of a koan, the image and taste of the story can stay with you forever like a friend. I have found, however, that a teacher’s sharing of their relationship with the koan, often helps me savor the koan on my own.

This koan, “Wash your bowl”, I often use as the base of mindfulness practice. If we go beyond just the case story and use the whole of the commentaries in the Book of Serenity, the koan will also deepen into itself. The existential aspect of our teaching is deepened as we read the commentary. Form and emptiness or phenomena and noumena, meet in the present moment. This is the quintessential teaching in Buddhism. The sacred and profane meet in the Now! Are you there to meet it? That question is our practice. How is the universe participating in eating breakfast or doing the dishes? As Thich Nhat Hanh has so beautifully phrased it- can we see the whole universe: the sun, the rain, the field of oats, the farmer, the trucker, the grocer, the cook, in our bowl of oatmeal? This idea is the technical term in Buddhism — interdependent co-arising. In washing your bowl, the whole universe is present.

Let’s explore this.


A monk asked Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery: please give me some guidance.”
Joshu said, “Have you had breakfast yet?”
The monk said, “Yes I have eaten.”

Joshu continues, “Then go wash your bowl.”

This is the ultimate prescription for mindfulness. Be fully present to what you are doing and then when you are done, do the next thing. It follows the slogans:

“Do the next right thing.”

“Do the next appropriate action.”

Our admonition in Zen is to stay in the present moment’s activity. Often we can be that specific about our moments. Mostly though, the storyline of our life can become the foreground and we have to be a little coarser by saying a slogan like:

“One day at a time.”

Working with that slogan, I have found that one-day is too broad. I often split it down into; what am I supposed to do this morning, this afternoon, this evening? In working with this slogan I have found a secondary instruction:

If you can’t do something about your “worry” today,
Turn it over to the universe’s care.


If there is no action that can be done in this one day, let it go.

In order to let go or to turn something over, I have to have cultivated a lot of trust that there is a universal energy to rely on. Trust that cause and effect is always working and underlying my activity. Which means that if I take care of this one day in a wholesome manner, the effect of these activities will produce a positive result some time in the future (even if it is in the next lifetime! Katagiri Roshi would add and laugh).

Let’s continue this study with The introduction to the koan:

When food comes you open your mouth; when sleep comes you close your eyes. As you wash your face you find your nose, when you take off your shoes you feel your feet.

At that time, if you miss what’s being said, take a torch and make a special search deep in the night. How can you attain union?

Again and again, we find that we miss the mindfulness of the moment, don’t we? That’s what Wansong (1166-1246), the commentator of the Book of Serenity, was referring to when he says, “ if you miss what’s being said.” Many times we miss receiving the moment as it is. If you consistently miss your life as it goes by, please, Wansong beseeches us, take a torch and make a special search deep in the night. Our torch is our willingness and curiousity to explore our spiritual life. We must also be willing to go into a deep dark cave to search, blindfold and not-knowing. In the dark,  we wait for insight.

I often think of our practice and particularly sesshin practice (long intensive sitting retreats) as a way we take a torch and make a special search deep in the night. We have to push into our spiritual life to find its meaning. There is a lot of effort to become effortless; to become as naked as Joshu’s teaching. In Buddhism we practice vigorously and take our torch and search. Yet, simultaneously, we learn how to let go. We learn to trust the simultaneous working of the whole universe with our own intentions. We are encouraged to find an effort that is not focused solely on our own individual gain and self-centeredness. We learn to let go of our endless trying to improve ourselves and get what we want out of life, and learn how to receive and trust what is actually there.

How can you attain union? Wansong asks . What is the union that he speaks of?  This is the union of the ordinary moment and the universal energy of life itself. Our karmic storied life meets the Big Mind of universal energy in each moment. We could also say, union is trying and letting go intertwined, a strange paradox.  If our mindfulness is strong and steadfast, we can stay with this meeting of the so-called opposites. Katagiri Roshi called this the intersection of time and space, the truth happening place.  Knowing this intersection is knowing union.

Wansong wrote the Book of Serenity (made in 1224) as commentaries on a collection of koans which had a poem written for each story. This collection with poetic commentary was made by Hongzhi (1091-1157). Here is Hongzhi’s poem on this koan:

Breakfast over, the direction is to wash the bowl;
Opened up, the mind ground meets of itself.
And now, a guest of the monastery, having studied to the full-

But was there enlightenment in there or not?

If you are really at the union of the ordinary and the profound, the expression of this meeting seems effortless. Opened up, the mind ground meets of itself.  Meets of itself means effortless. Even for a very practiced practitioner who is someone who has studied to the full, the true discernment is this question – were you really present or not? And the next moment, present or not?   Was enlightenment there or not?  This is a question, we can continually ask. Are we here or not? Are we caught up solely in the story of the moment or can we see the moment as the universal energy itself? Are we opened up? The mind ground is always present, do we know it or not?

At the end of each commentary in the Book of Serenity, Wansong writes a line by line commentary on the case and the verse. Here is his line by line commentary on Hongzhi’s verse for this case:

Breakfast over, the direction is to wash the bowl – the opportunity goes by so fast it is hard to meet.
Opened up, the mind ground meets of itself – it’s not just today.
And now, a guest of the monastery, having studied to the full – as before, after eating gruel he washes his bowl.

But was there enlightenment in there? – One person transmits a falsehood, ten thousand transmit it as truth.

Each moment goes by so fast it is hard to meet. Dogen says that there are six and half billion moments (setsunas) in a day. Of course, its impossible to meet each one going by in superspeed as Katagiri Roshi would say. But it is possible to feel the mind ground meeting itself – to feel the suchness of our life and our moments.

Before studying Buddhism, as you enter the monastery, and after practicing and maturing, ( studying in full) you get the same ordinary instruction. Have you eaten? Wash your bowl. Yet somehow, after practicing, the instruction has deepened. Are you fully present or not?

The last instruction in this commentary is about enlightenment. To be present and feel the interdependence of the universe and form in our lives, moment to moment  is in itself a great accomplishment. But Wansong has even more to add. Is your accomplishment attached to a “self”?

I have taught a lot that Buddhism deconstructs the idea of a separate self. We are not an isolated unit that is independent. Rather we are interdependent and unified with the world. Wansong says, if you think you are a one-person unit, you are transmitting a falsehood. It is not possible to say “I am enlightened.”  It is not true that you are an isolated unit who is enlightened. To the contrary, if you understand that the ten thousand things and ten thousand beings become the self “the you”, then you have transmitted the truth.

(Translations of the koans from Thomas Cleary)