Sundays with uncle-God momma: wash your bowl

ensoAn adept asked his master, “I have finished my breakfast, what shall I do?”  “Wash your bowl” was the reply.  To eat in a Zen monastery is both sustenance and ritual.  Like the tea ceremony’s elevation of the mundane to the sublime, it becomes the prayer rather than being prefaced by the prayer.  Simple fare served under the rule of take what you’ll eat and eat what you take.  And when your meal is finished, wash your bowl.  First you pour a small amount of water onto your plate and carefully scrape the plate with the edge of your spoon; then you pour the water from the plate to your bowl and repeat the scraping.  Finally, you drink the wash water.  If all this seems like a waste of time it’s because you’re missing the point.

To be doing what you’re doing is the point.  Saving time for more important matters by rushing through what seems inconsequential only leaves us rushing around, as my grandfather would say, like a fart in a jar.  Zen is the most simple form of religion to practice, and the hardest form of religion to really get.  Imagine hearing the Sunday sermon reduced to: when you eat, eat; when you breathe, breathe; and when you shit, shit…but above all else, don’t wobble.

Zen came into being on the day that the Buddha gave his silent flower sermon.  Rather than teaching the dharma, he simply held out a single flower.  Only Mahakashyapa understood, smiling quietly in recognition.  Alternately, there is a story of the Buddha opening his mouth to speak, but before he vocalized the words a bird sang several notes.  The Buddha closed his mouth.

Historically, Zen is Chinese (Cha’an); it migrated to Japan, Korea, and South East Asia.  It was as if the high philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism met its spiritual consort in the nature religion of Taoism.  Where once the doctrine and the path took long hours of philosophical discourse to explain, and then only in the negative, it could now be explained fully by the chirp of a bird or the lifting of a flower.

Where is enlightenment?  There, the tree is enlightenment.  Look at it do what it does and only do what it does.  Trees don’t wobble, they tree with the entirety of their being.  Those outside my window are being buffeted by the wind.  Wind is like the swirling thoughts in our minds.  Trees do not hold onto the wind, grasping at it.  The tree that tries to hold onto the wind will soon cease to be a tree; it will become a log rotting on the forest floor.  But the mushrooms that arise from it will be enlightenment too.

To be wholly in the moment is the point.  Whether it is the moment of washing your bowl, hoeing the field, or weighing out flax in the market.  And so a great master was asked, “What is Buddha nature?”  He answered, “Four pounds of flax.”  And at that moment Buddha nature was four pounds of flax; it couldn’t be anything else without missing the point.  If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.  He’s in the way.  Your concept of him is no different than a tree trying to hold onto the wind.

It, the point, is beyond the application of thought.  If one is thinking about the Buddha when taking a shit, then one has turned the Buddha into shit.  But if one is wholly in the moment of taking a shit, then the shit becomes Buddha nature.  The fall from grace is in mental wobbling.  It’s all so simple, yet so difficult.  You cannot think your way to It.  You cannot seek It out.  It finds you when you’re lost in the moment.

Where are you between two thoughts?  Right where you should be if you are truly there.

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~ by Lex on February 1, 2009.

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