“Watch, watch, watch what your doin’,” chanted Bob Marley at the One Love Peace Concert in Kingston, Jamaica in 1978. At the time, Jamaica was torn by sectarian violence, and Marley had returned from London in the hope of promoting reconciliation. Hearing Marley’s improvised chant, the crowd of 32,000 assumed he was voicing a general warning. Watch what you’re doing, lest you cause further harm.
As it happened, Marley was speaking to Junior Marvin, his lead guitarist, who had just played a wrong note. “Everybody thought he was telling the people out there you gotta watch what you’re doin’,” Marvin recalls in Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Marley, “but he was really talking to me.” Given Marley’s stature as a moral leader, it is understandable that his audience might interpret his words as a cautionary exhortation. But their actual context was immediate and professional, their intent practical rather than prophetic.
What happened to Bob Marley’s words on that evening has also happened to those of the old Zen masters, whose paradoxical obiter dicta, cryptic non sequiturs, and enigmatic pronouncements have been interpreted many times over in subsequent commentaries. Over the centuries, what was said in a specific cultural context has often been elevated to the level of a universal. What was contingent has become proverbial. The result is sometimes a gain in resonance, as words uttered in a particular time and place become words to live by. But in the process, the contexts and concrete circumstances of the masters’ words have sometimes been minimized—or forgotten altogether.
Here, for example, is a famous Zen koan, known to Zen students as “Joshu’s ‘Wash your Bowl'”:
A monk said to Joshu, “I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me.”
“Have you eaten your rice porridge?” asked Joshu.
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then you had better wash your bowl.”
With this, the monk gained insight.
In this story, a novice monk asks the renowned Zen master Joshu (Ch. Zhaozhou, 778-897), from whose lips light was said to come forth, to teach him the practice of Zen. Rather than answer, Joshu asks a question, followed by an imperative: “wash your bowl.” That imperative could hardly be plainer, but it is also open to interpretation. What, exactly, did Joshu mean, or mean to imply? What insight did the monk attain?
In his commentary on “Wash Your Bowl,” Katsuki Sekida (1903-1987), a Soto lay teacher and respected translator of the classic koans, provides some helpful information. As Sekida explains, the meal to which Joshu refers is the morning meal of hot rice porridge, which Zen monks are expected to eat in a state of samadhi, or one-pointed concentration. Having eaten his breakfast in samadhi, the monk has already experienced the practice of Zen, although he may not have realized it at the time. Now he should wash his bowl in the same spirit. At once Socratic and direct, Joshu’s teaching hits the mark, and the monk gains insight into the practice he has entered.
Yet, as Sekida notes, Joshu’s admonition is also a “Zen proverb.” Informed though it is by its monastic context, it is not dependent on that context. As Sekida observes, “[i]n samadhi every moment is independent, cut off before and behind. The monk is no longer at breakfast; he should pay attention to the present. What is past is past: wash it away, good or evil.”* Framed in this fashion, “Wash your bowl” resembles other Zen proverbs, such as “Every day is a good day” or “The elbow does not bend outward.” Like such Western counterparts as “haste makes waste,” Zen proverbs do not require a supporting historical context. They can stand alone, and they can be invoked wherever they might apply.
That is demonstrably true of “Wash your Bowl,” but it is fair to say that if this story is stripped of its original setting, it loses much of its character and color. In Zen monasteries and centers, ancient and modern, the washing of one’s eating bowls is viewed as a sacred ritual. During extended retreats, Zen practitioners eat three silent, formal meals a day. At the end of each, they wash, stack, and wrap their eating bowls at the table, following an elaborate protocol. Dating from the time of Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), this traditional protocol is meticulously observed and strictly enforced. Washing one’s bowl is seen as an act of veneration, an expression of gratitude, and an occasion to contemplate the emptiness of self. To reduce “Wash your Bowl” to a sagacious proverb, omitting its monastic context, is to leave out this spiritual dimension, diminishing both the story and its meaning.
Fortunately, it is not really a matter of either/or. “Wash your bowl” can be interpreted and applied at both the proverbial and literal levels. Understanding Joshu’s admonition as a proverb, we can apply it to any activity that involves washing, cleaning, or otherwise removing toxins and impurities. We can even extend its compass to include the cleansing of our minds: the removal of such mental pollutants as worrying, fantasizing, and unnecessary judging of people and things. But by recalling the literal context of “Wash your Bowl” and its connection to formal monastic meals, we can remind ourselves that we don’t have to be rushed, careless, or distracted, either while we eat or while we perform what the British call “washing up.” On the contrary, with practice we can eat our meals and wash our dishes with gratitude, full awareness, and the utmost care. Moment by moment, we can watch what we are doing.
* Katsuki Sekida, Two Zen Classics:Mumonkan and Hekiganroku (Weatherhill, 1977), 45.
Photo by Ueli Frey (CC)