A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?
The monk replied, “I have eaten.”
Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.
too often, we enter situations with preconceived notions of how things are... how things should be... we have so much knowledge about the world, we often fail to actually learn anything new.
wash your bowl.
the Joshu speaking to the monk, in the story above, makes a very profound statement about the student... many people who hear this story fail to find enlightenment, as the monk did... they hear the words, and they think about the bowl... but they don't realize Joshu was answering an unasked question.
the monk, in his first statement, asked a question in the form of a demand... "Please teach me," as gentle and pleading as it sounds, is a demand... Joshu has no obligations to teach him... but the demand, when examined, is a request... the monk should have said, "Will you teach me, please?"... Joshu, being more skilled, recognized this for the question it was.
so, how does one answer such a question?... Joshu could have said, "Yes, I will teach you," and begun extolling the virtues of zen and monastic life... but that would be futile... the monk, Joshu knows, comes to the monastery with life experiences... he was not hatched from a giant egg, like Robin Williams, fully formed and no experience... life, no matter how simple, is a harsh teacher... lessons have been learned... with experience comes some form of wisdom, whether right or wrong... with each day, we make assumptions based on our previous days' experiences... they color our expectations of future days... they color our experience of the present.
wash your bowl.
to answer the monk's question, Joshu begins with a lesson... and the lesson begins with a question, "Have you eaten your rice porridge?"... on the surface, this is a nonsensical question, having nothing to do with the education of the monk... but it sets up a precedence... he wishes to be taught... but has he finished what he started?... has he completed his education, and is he willing to begin learning again?... the porridge is a metaphor for life's lessons.
to which, the monk assures Joshu that he has eaten his porridge... at this point he, like so many, is thinking of his meal and the bowl.
Joshu then finishes his instruction by instructing him to "wash your bowl"... but what does he mean?... and how was he enlightened?
first, understand that, in Joshu's lesson, the monk is the bowl... the rice porridge, being his life experiences, has been consumed... it has made him what he is... the monk, like his bowl, is dirty, fouled by the life he has lived... the crevices of his soul are tainted by the experiences he has gathered as his daily meal... he, like his bowl, needs to be cleaned, refreshed... if the bowl is not clean, it will taint anything you place into it... you need a clean bowl if you wish to eat something unspoiled by the previous meal... likewise, the monk needs refreshed.
he needs to clean himself of his own life experiences... to learn something new, without being poisoned by previous experience, you must remove all trace of those experiences... you must taste the new experiences without them being soiled by anything outside of what it is.
wash your bowl.
like the monk, we are all guilty of not washing our bowl... we come to a feast of knowledge with bowls overflowing with the residue of past meals... often, the residue is so thick, we can hardly place another morsel into our bowl... new experiences flow into and out of our bowls, each reminiscent of the one before.
i have gotten fairly esoteric with this, so i'll speak plainly... when you fry food in oil, the oil retains some of the flavor of the food being fried... if you first fry fish, then fry chicken, your chicken will taste faintly of fish... if you continue to reuse this oil, it will quickly become spoiled... but the oil cannot be spoiled by itself... it is turned rancid by the flavors previously passing through it.
so it goes with our lives... our daily lives flavor our conceptions, and expectations, of the world... each day flavors the next... and the next... and every day after that.
wash your bowl.
it is attributed to Socrates the paradoxical "I know that I do not know"... what he is saying is similar to the enlightenment the monk found... first, you must understand that you do not have all of the answers... then, you must cleanse yourself of preconceived notions before you can begin to understand anything, great or small... even before you can "wash your bowl", you must first understand that it must be washed.
and thus, he was enlightened.