Wash your bowls–meditation in daily life

There’s an old Zen story that I like very much. A monk comes to the monastery of Zhaozhou and asks for teaching. The master asks him, “Have you had your breakfast?” The monk says that he has. “Then wash your bowls,” is the teacher’s reply, and the only meditation instruction he offers.

Zhaozhou wants to bring the monk down to the immediate present moment, as if saying “Don’t look for some profound metaphysical or yogic instructions here. Be present to this moment.”

Meditation reveals how many fixed ideas and opinions we have. How much judgment, expectation, and how much preconception we carry around with us all the time.

You noticed?

I come back to this simple story again and again (like, when I am driving, or doing routine tasks at work, and I catch my mind going all over the place, sometimes going over the same old story lines, over and over).

“Wash your bowls”–for me means just do what you are doing, and that’s enough.

I think it gets even more interesting when we look at why we even bother with meditation in the first place.

When was the last time you asked yourself why you do this stuff–you know, read spiritual books, show up to a meditation group, download–upload, sit attending the breath, walk attending to walking, whatever you do…

Why do you do this?

Is there something gnawing at you?

Some question you want settled, once and for all?

(OK, if you are honestly in this thing out of curiosity or for stress reduction, that’s fine. But if you are still at it after a few months, well, it’s time to ask a few questions).

The only place I can go from here is to stick to my own experience.

I guess I do acknowledge there is something gnawing at me; often below the level of my day to day awareness.

Yeah, after 30 years of doing this stuff, I do have an inner gnawing going on.

Some part of me wants to believe in something.

Maybe it’s part of our evolutionary biology; we may be wired to believe in something as a way of insuring our survival. Just look at historical frenzies around nationalism, fundamentalism, and now the Tea Party on their victories in last night’s elections.

This is what makes fundamentalism appealing for so many: So and so said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it.

Our conditioning leads us to believe that there are answers to the questions which gnaw at us. And if we just work hard at it we will find those damned answers and be happy, and everything will be fine, no more gnawing.

I would love to believe in something

But let’s say we did find an answer. Let’s say we did believe in something. Would we then be happy?

Think of all the times you found an answer (in religion, philosophy, science)–did that do it?

I know of many incredibly brilliant people, experts in evolutionary biology, philosophy, and religion who seem to have some major gnawing going on. Just ask their spouses.

I am afraid that any answer is a stopping of awareness. Life stops, it dies.

OK, maybe we need to re frame this, and consider the process rather than the imagined destination, of living the question.

People often ask me what I have against Buddhism, or Hinduism, or any other religion (as you may have noticed, I take frequent pot shots!)

The best answer I can come up with comes from a Jesuit priest, believe it or not (whose work was banned by the Vatican). Here is the refreshing answer from Anthony de Mello, S.J. (which is on the nuts and bolts page of this blog):

“As soon as you look at the world through an ideology you are finished. No reality fits an ideology. Life is beyond that. That is why people are always searching for a meaning to life… Meaning is only found when you go beyond meaning. Life only makes sense when you perceive it as mystery and it makes no sense to the conceptualizing mind.”

So much of what is taught and practiced as Buddhism to me is quite dead.

Life is all wrapped up in a nice logical package: this is why we suffer, and this how we end suffering (now sign up for this seven day retreat! — after which, you’ll need to do the one six months from now to get “deeper” — then you’ll need to …. it goes on and on).

No thanks. Been there, done that. I am still pretty much in the same sinking boat I was always on 30 years ago when I started.

Only now there is more water in it!

Once we are given an answer (abhidhamma, seven stages of insight, even dzogchen) the questions stop. Or if they come up, we are redirected to work hard on the so-called answer.

Even this well-known passage from Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

(1903) leaves one with a bait at end:

“…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

But what if we never “live our way to the answer?”

What then?

Wash your bowls.

One of the genius aspects of some iconoclastic teachers within Buddhism and other traditions is that they know this very well, that the answer to such questions as what am I, what is life, etc…is not a cognitive statement, fact or “teaching” but rather, is the experience of awareness itself.

What we are doing in meditation is simply developing the capacity to experience awareness itself.

And not some fancy, esoteric mystical awareness, just this awareness right here and now.

Let’s take the example of loneliness.

I read an article recently (sorry, can’t remember where it was, but I do remember where I was when I read it–in our bathroom at home..too much information?) in which it was stated that fifteen percent of (North) Americans report experiencing an intense feeling of loneliness once a week.

There is a simple cure, and this is the heart of the meditation practice for me:

You just ask yourself: Is what experiences loneliness, lonely?

Living our ordinary, everyday awareness with greater and greater capacity allows us to savor every instant.

Every moment is a treasure, and time is never killed or wasted.

We become, to borrow a line from Kahil Gibran, “a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.”

And we just wash our bowls.

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  1. I also searched for answers and the peace I thought they would bring. At some point I realized that this quest for a meaningful future had consumed years of my life. Decades had gone by during which I had experienced only a passing presence in what might have been the joy and peace of everyday existence. I washed my bowls, and rather than search for answers that may come in future accepted that I am someone with questions right now. Accepting this and sharing my reality with questions rather than a quest has brought much of the peace I sought. Questions don’t need to be answered if we are accepting of their mystery.

  2. This was quite excellent, thanks for presenting it Tom. For me the “gnawing” is a useful feeling and then a useful indicator. When I direct it toward “what shall I do?” it causes me to become quite dissatisfied and disappointed. But when I direct this gnawing energy into the empty bowl, that sacred space that permits no reliable articulations, I find a sense of well-being which is beyond understanding. Conceptual incoherency is apparently for me the harbinger of grace.

  3. Tom,
    Thanks for the reminder, which elicited a bit of chicken skin(ala Be Here Now; Chop Wood, Carry Water)

  4. Hi Tom: Your empty bowls post was excellent and it reminded me of a Papaji passage in his book “This”. Awareness has no name and when you try to give it a name trouble arises. Know I am nameless and formless and that I am aware of own Self. Then pure consciousness will putll you back, it is not that you will enter into it. When you enter into it, it is ego entering, but when it pulls you It has mage the choice to take you Home. The happens somehow and we can’t know why. Very rare beings are picked up by Consciousness. Once drawn in your travels are over!

    Thank you Tom for this space to share our true Self.

  5. I thought this was completely lovely, Tom, both in the kindness of the intention and the excellence of the expression. The instruction “Wash your bowls” strikes me as very similar to these two lines from an Anglican hymn which have stuck with me for nearly 60 years:

    The trivial round, the common task
    Will furnish all we need to ask

    The rest of the hymn gets a bit too stuck in Christian doctrine for some tastes including mine.

    Have you heard from Raymond since he went off to the Middle East?

    1. Hi Vincent. No, I have not heard from Raymond. I hope he is doing well. Funny you mentioned that Anglican hymn, as a similar one went through my head while I was writing that! Although I have been laying low, just want to say your writing on your blog soars to new heights. Always a pleasure to read your posts, Vincent. Be well. Tom

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