Wash Your Bowl

Wash Your Bowl


This week Roshi led the investigation of Mumonkan Case 7 “Wash Your Bowl”  The case is short and is provided below …


A monk said to Jõshû, “I have just entered this monastery.

Please teach me.”

“Have you eaten your rice porridge?” asked Jõshû.

“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.

“Then you had better wash your bowl,” said Jõshû.

With this the monk gained insight.



After reading the koan, Tesshin Roshi commented that Soto Zen in the us is heavily dominated by highly educated white men, and noted that more work needs to be done in bringing in women and diverse ethnic groups into Zen.  As an aside, this is important for Zen study because the Sangha operates best when all the different “karmic packages” people bring can be explored and understood.  Our practice is about existence in all its multitudes.  


Roshi next mentioned that the typical Zen student in the US has been conditioned for “getting stuff done.”  Our culture rarely rewards one for simply sitting still – rather it rewards “achievement.”  As such, we rush from challenge to challenge always trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else and potential failure.  However, all of this motion does not help us to really understand who we really are.  This is where Joshu comes in!  Joshu is telling the monk to focus on the simple things in life.  Not everything we do is grand and will make the history books.  There is value in the simple day-to-day activities of life.  These day-to-day things are what actually makes us human.  Wake up, wash your face, make a meal, clean up, smile – this is your true self!  These are the activities when you are not putting on a mask and trying to impress anyone.  It is often said that one’s true nature comes out when nobody is looking.  Do you keep your bowl clean? – even if nobody is around?


Roshi next continued on this theme of needing to be the “expert” in all situations.  We tie our identity to what we know and on how we are better at certain things than other people.  In this koan, our monk has some accomplishment.  He has been accepted as Joshu’s student, after all.  Perhaps Joshu will give him the keys to deeper Zen practice.  He will become an expert – perhaps the next roshi!  Well, Joshu does give him the keys – “go wash your bowl!”  Luckily our monk did have the seeds of realization and his ego was punctured and he realized Joshu’s message.  Do we realize Joshu’s gift?


It is said that Zen praises the “Beginner’s Mind.”  This is the mind which says that knowledge is not our identity and it is safe to be curious and not to know.  When your ego needs to believe you are the smartest person in the room, there is no room for the immediacy of experience.  The only thing that matters is protecting the ego’s reputation.  In our modern culture this is called the “imposter syndrome.”  It is when we are so scared of being discovered as not knowing something, we are afraid to even try.  How can we progress if we are too scared to take chances.  Again, here is where Joshu comes in.  “Wash your bowl!”  Exist!  Be yourself!  Do the day-to-day things as best you can and you will be surprised how far you can go.  


Roshi wrapped up the talk by reminding us that it is our practice which trains the mind to focus on the immediate lived experience.  Zazen allows us to quiet the ego and worry less about preconceived notions of success.  Zazen conditions us to find the magic in every moment.