Go Wash Your Bowls: A Meditation on Generosity in Buddhism
James Ishmael Ford
A student of the way came to Master Zhaozhou and said, “I have just entered your monastery. Please give me instruction.” Zhaozhou asked, “Have you eaten your rice gruel?” The students said, “yes.” Zhaozhou responded, “Wash your bowl.” With this the student had an insight.
Gateless Gate (Wumenguan) Case Seven
I’ve always loved this case in the Wumenguan, that grand twelfth century collection of koans, those mysterious questions used on the Zen way. Not least because it features the great master Zhaozhou Congshen (Joshu in Japanese) so much. Born at the end of the eighth century and living through most of the ninth, Zhaozhou is one of the signal figures in the formation of Zen Buddhism. He appears five times in this particular anthology, starting with the very first case.
I’ve sat deeply with this koan. I’ve investigated it as a student, and for the past decade and a half I’ve accompanied a goodly number of Zen students in their own investigation. I’ve found this case near endlessly rich. It certainly can open our hearts in a wide number of directions.
And, like any real koan, it can mislead the unwary. For instance I’ve worked with several students who believe Zhaozhou is rebuking the student. One thought the master was annoyed at how his precious time was being wasted by the importuning of a novice. And this is a brush off. Another took a slight variation on that and believed it was a sharp rebuff of someone hoping for a conceptual response to Zen’s fundamental questions of life and death. Better, but still pretty far from the heart of the matter.
Rather, I’ve found “Wash your bowls” an invitation into the very heart of generosity. The technical term in Buddhism for generosity is dana. That word dana is shared constellated with similar meanings in the other Indian religions, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. And each of these traditions shades the point of generosity slightly differently.
For Buddhists dana is principally a spiritual practice. And as a practice it ranks with our moral precepts and our meditative disciplines. As Buddhism, and particularly of concern for me, Zen Buddhism matures into its Western expressions we seem to have come to these practices one at a time.
First, we were attracted to the power of Zen’s meditative disciplines. At the heart of all Buddhist meditation and particularly Zen its call to silence and to a bare presence has been powerful and compelling. For some it was Zen’s unique contribution to Buddhist meditation, koans, that captured imaginations, and called us into the contemplative life. Then, for many reasons, some the tragedies of abuse, for others, just the complexities of our lived lives, where meditation alone seemed not enough; the moral precepts have become, if a little late, a serious part of the package of Buddhism here in the West.
For some dana is a practice that purifies one’s karma leading to a propitious rebirth. For others it is a central part of a practice that cultivates wisdom. At the Brooklyn Zen Center’s website I found a critical pointer for dana as spiritual practice. “To practice dana is to challenge the ego’s frame that in order to give, we must get. Dana is instead a trusting step, a confidence in the universe that allows us to open to life. So we turn our intention toward this practice through which we deeply realize our interconnection to all that is.”
Here we are invited into something, and specifically the something we also find in the Wash Your Bowls koan. What we are invited into on the Zen way is to open our eyes to the connections. We are invited into discovering how we and all things exist in a mysterious dance of becoming and falling away. We and all things are constantly creating each other.
The power of our bare presence is to allow us to begin to see this. And, the rest of it, is a call to respond. This is not a dance where there is an option to sit it out. This is the dance of life and death itself, the invitation is into more grace. Grace, which is possibly another word for generosity.
So, old Zhaozhou is approached by a student of the way. The question is sincere. And it is met with all the gravity the situation calls for. Have you eaten? So much in that. So much. And when the answer is a blessed yes, then the next step. Just wash your bowls.
In another Zen text we hear the line “like a box and its lid.” Here the teacher and the student meet. Here the bowl is used and it is washed.
Here the heart of the world’s generosity is revealed.
As is ours.