It’s such a simple exchange that it might have gone unnoticed:
A monk said to Chao Chou, “I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me.”
Chao Chou said, “Have you eaten your rice gruel?”
The monk said, “Yes, I have.”
Chao Chou said, “Wash your bowl.”
The monk understood.
Chao Chou is a late-eighth-century Chinese Zen master who lived well into the ninth century. He is said to have died at the remarkable age of 120. Several of his dialogues with students were recorded in various koan collections and subsequently annotated and interpreted by teachers right down to the present time. This particular conversation between Chao Chou and a monk is purportedly given just as it was, but the comment that the monk understood is editorial interpolation. I don’t know what the monk understood or how anyone other than the monk could claim that there was any understanding at all. In my own experience with the koan, I’ve chosen to make an originally simple exchange even simpler by dropping off the final editorial comment.
Washing a bowl is not something you understand, it’s just something you do. The problem for me with the claim that the monk understood is that it leads to speculation about what the monk understood, and this in turn has encouraged interpretations that attribute meaning to the dialogue. A simple line like “Have you eaten your rice gruel?” is turned into “What is the state of your enlightenment?” And from this it follows that the monk’s “Yes, I have,” becomes something like “Yes, I’m enlightened,” instead of simply, “Yes, I’ve had breakfast.” And worst of all—and the place where I depart from all such interpretation—is when Chao Chou’s “Wash your bowl” is taken as an instruction in purification, urging the monk to rid himself of the pride of enlightenment.
I was fortunate to train for a few years with one of the best koan masters I’m ever likely to meet, and he never allowed me to explain any of my responses. Nothing in his world stood for something else. Everything was just what it was in and of itself. He beat down every attempt of mine to make meaning out of Chao Chou’s response, until nothing of the koan was left to me except “Wash your bowl.” What did Chao Chou mean by “Wash your bowl?” he demanded. “Wash your bowl” was all I could ever make of it. My journey with this teacher was loosening my hold on the necessity to attribute meaning and explanation to the facts of my life.
To attribute meaning to an event or to a lifetime of events is an expression of dissatisfaction with things as they are. This is true of even the subtlest attribution. If I wash dishes as a practice in Zen mindfulness, I indulge my resistance to simply washing them in order to get them clean. I want the washing to be something more than it is, and so I give it spiritual significance. I want my life to have meaning, and so I complain to myself and sometimes to others if what I do and what I am appears meaningless. Well, our lives are meaningless if we take meaning for a coherent narrative plot of some sort. When we strain to make our lives otherwise, we’re merely telling ourselves a story. You and I don’t manifest in the universe as meaning, we manifest as living human beings. We’re not here to represent something else. We’re here in our own right. A human being, or a garden hoe for that matter, is complete in itself.
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