Mummonkan Case #7 Joshu’s “Wash Your Bowl”

by Sensei Katherine Daiki Senshin Griffith

(published in the Jan-March 2020 Waterwheel)


A monk asked Joshu in all earnestness, “I have just entered this monastery. I beg you, Master, teach me.” Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice gruel?” The monk answered, “Yes, I have.”Joshu said, “Wash your bowl.”At that moment, the monk was enlightened.

Mummon’s Commentary

Joshu opened his mouth and showed his gallbladder, and revealed his heart and liver. If this monk, hearing it, failed to grasp the Truth, he would mistake a bell for a pot.

Mummon’s Verse

Because it is so clear.
It takes longer to realize it.
If you just know that flame is fire, you’ll find that your rice has long been cooked.

A washing koan for our washing times! Let’s take a fresh look at this popular koan.

This monk is each of us earnestly asking not just “how should I practice?” but also “who is my self?” Today, we may also ask “how do I practice with this pandemic?” We can also see ourselves as the wise master, with an inner Joshu, who does fully what is needed despite all limitations.

The King of Chen asked, “You are quite aged, how many teeth do you have left?” Joshu said, “I have but one tooth.” The King said, “How do you manage
to eat?” Joshu said, “Even though there’s but one, I chew one bite at a time.”

Washing after eating is one of the first things you learn in Zen Practice. Back in the old days, a few weeks ago, after Sunday lunch, the tenzo coordinator asked for 5 volunteers for kitchen clean up. Now, it’s like our leaders are the coordinators asking for 327 million people to stay home, keep distance and wash their hands. “Can I see a show of hands? 1, 2, 3. Come on now, we need 324 million more…”

Joshu’s “wash your bowls” reveals that everyday activity
is none other than the expression of our essential nature. This pandemic’s “wash your hands” pops open the Great Matter of life and death, our obvious interconnection and how the simplest action affects so many.

Have you gone out shopping? Yes, I have. Wash your hands. Did you get the mail? Yes, I have. Don’t touch your face. Are you going for a walk? Yes, I am. Keep six feet distance. Do you have a meeting? Yes, I have. Turn on Zoom. Washing a bowl is relatively easy, but washing hands and watching everything we touch is more challenging. A video post showed a guy who each time he washed his hands realized he’d touched something new and had to wash his hands again.

It’s helpful to remember Joshu’s “chew one bite at a time” and apply it to more complex situations like technology glitches and financial adjustments. How fortunate we’ve already been trained in “Outside Walking Zen,” Shared Steward communication and not to scratch our face in Zazen.

In this world crisis, everything is revealed. Some leaders encourage us to be safe and kind. Others are willing
to sacrifice lives for political interests. These forces for kindness/caring and greed/selfinterest were always there but now it’s more vivid. We see the potential to bridge our divides but also evidence of hateful speech. How do we practice with that? All over the news and social media people are saying “We’re all in this together.” The One Body has 7+ billion humans on the same planet but not necessarily on the same page. This can be very frightening.

Master Joshu once went out and saw an old woman seeding a field. Joshu said, “What do you do when a ferocious tiger comes?” The old woman said, “There is not one dharma that can be applied.” The old woman turned back to her work and Master Joshu shouted, “WAA!” The old woman screamed, “WAA!”

Joshu said, “You still have that.”

Who is it that screams “WAA!?” Who is washing the bowls? Who is washing hands? When we put our gallbladder, heart and liver into everything we do, all drops away.

A monk asked, “When great difficulties come upon us how can they be avoided?” Joshu said, “Welcome.”

So let’s welcome this great difficulty in, confront it directly, and give our all to what is needed, one bite at a time, always remembering who we really are.

If you just know that flame is fire,
You’ll find that your rice has long been cooked.