Joshu Washes the Bowl

A new disciple came to meet Zen master Joshu.

“I have just entered the monastery.  Please teach me the first Zen lesson,” said he to the Zen master.

“Have you finished eating your rice porridge?” asked Joshu.

“Yes master,” replied the disciple.

“Now go and wash your bowl,” said Joshu.

At that moment the monk was enlightened.

Background and Commentary

This story is from The Gateless Gate, a collection of 48 Zen koans compiled in the early 13th century by Zen master Wumen Hui-kai.  A koan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement which is used in Zen practice to provoke thought and to test the student’s progress.

In the rooms of recovery, various slogans — which could be described as Western variations of the koan — are utilized as simple reminders of effective coping strategies to help in facing the challenges of life.  In early recovery, I clung to such slogans as “this too shall pass“, “feelings aren’t facts“, and “one day (or, one moment) at a time“.  As I have practiced the steps and applied them to my life, these slogans — which may have seemed trite at first — have taken on a much deeper meaning in my life.  I now find that I return to them time and time again when difficulty arises.

The story of Joshu’s Bowl beautifully captures the essence of several of these slogans — such as “do the next right thing” or even “keep it simple”.  Too often, I tend to complicate life — reading too much in, and taking too much out.  As was the case for Joshu’s student, it would be wise for me to more often come into the present moment; do what needs to be done next (in the same manner as the washing of Joshu’s bowl); and, once I have done my part, to accept the outcome.

Today, if I find myself obsessing with worry, I will inquire of myself, “Have I washed my bowl?”

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