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Chao-Chou: "Wash Your Bowl" The Gateless Barrier: Case 7

The Case A monk said to Chao-chou, " I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me." Chao-chou said, have you eaten your rice gruel?" The monk said, "yes, I have." Caho-chou said, "Wash your bowl." The monk undestood.

Wu-men's Comment

Chao-chou opened his mouth and showed his gallbladder, his heart, and his liver. I wonder if the monk really heard the truth. I hope he did not mistake the bell for a jar

Wu-men's Verse

Because it's so very clear, It takes so long to realize. If you just know that flame is fire, You'll find that your rice is already cooked.

When we come to practice what do we bring with us? When you present yourself to a teacher, what do you show?
Here we have the story of a monk who comes to Chao-chou asking for instruction. Staightforward enough, you might say, but in a way, a challenge to Chao-chou: "What do you have to offer me?"
Chao-chou turns the question back to the monk, " Have you eaten your rice gruel?" A seemingly polite inquiry; the host is looking after his guest. But more subtly, Chao-chou might also be asking, " What have you gotten so far? What kind of state are you in? Are you hungry or full?"
The monk replies, "Yes, I have." To say we're lacking something is to fall into a ditch; to say we've accomplished something is to fall into another. In this story, the monk comes in with some sense of accomplishment. Nowadays, it is just as common for new students to come in and display their problems; what they think is wrong with them, what they think they're lacking that they're hoping Zen will provide. They stretch out their bowls, and beg, "Feed me!"
Chao-chou, said, "Wash your bowl." Whatever you've brought with you, what ever you think you've accomplished - wash it away.
But here's the interesting part: How do you wash it away? How do you clean your metaphorical, mental bowl of whatever it is you're carrying around? And the answer is "Wash your real bowl - not the one up in your head, but the one that's right here in your hands. Be completely one with the activity of this moment and everything else disappears - your bowl is spotless. In traditional Zen language, we might call this washing your bowl without using your hands.
Just be this moment. Wu-men says that Chao-chou spills his guts - he shows everything that there is to be shown. Just this. How simple. But, as his verse says, because it's so simple, "so very clear, / it takes so long to realize." When we see that this moment is all there is - when we realize that "flame is fire" (what could be more obvious?) we find that our "rice has long been cooked" - everything we need we already have.
Now, as I say, all that's sounds simple enough: just be this moment. But, of course, that's easier said than done - "it takes so long to realize." We wash our bowls in the present moment, but some of the gunk in there is pretty sticky. We may need some scouring powder. The way we practice here, the kind of scouring powder we use, is our awareness of resistance and of difficulty. What intrudes on our wholehearted functioning in the moment? Expectation. Hope. Disappointment. All of these. How do we recognize them? By the hallmarks of resistance: our anger, our fear, our anxiety.
Some of you may have attended the sesshin that fell on April Fool's Day last year, when we served hot dogs, potato chips and Diet Pepsi for lunch. That was a meal that stuck to a few bowls! And so we had to scour away our attachments to purity, to specialness, to always having what's good and wholesome. Sometimes we just have to take what life serves up and watch our reaction.
It's how we use the experience of difficulty that allows use to scour the really persistent attachments that cling to the surface of our bowls. This is where the practices of Zen and psychotherapy dovetail. Zen says, "Be just this moment. Therapy says, "Look at all the expectations, all the hope and dread that you habitually bring to this moment; where did they come from?" Difficulty is the immediate experience of old expectations of ourselves or of others being frustrated in some way or another. Not only do we try to continually bring ourselves back to a pure awareness and attention this moment - we see that this moment includes all of what we've brought to it - in the language of this koan, what we've eaten (and not fully digested) before we've shown up for our first interview with the teacher.
This is the real work of practice: having seen clearly what clings to our bowls, we wash them clean by washing them clean, by drying, stacking and putting them away. By being the activity of each moment just as it is.