LIVING IN THIS FLOATING WORLD: A Meditation on the Zen Koan, “Zhaozhou’s Bowl”

LIVING IN THIS FLOATING WORLD: A Meditation on the Zen Koan, “Zhaozhou’s Bowl” December 26, 2020






A Meditation on the Zen Koan, Zhaozhou’s Bowl


James Ishmael Ford

26 December 2020

Empty Moon Zen


The other day Jan & I were at Sunland Produce, our favorite greengrocer here in the greater Los Angeles area. When we were done, as we wheeled our cart out of the store, I noticed someone huddled in the space immediately to my right, between the store and the rack of grocery carts.

He was just sitting there, looking most like a pile of dirty rags.

He didn’t ask for anything, but I reached into my pocket, pulled out a few dollars and handed the money to him. As he took my offering, I noticed his hands were caked in filth. Then we looked at each other’s faces. His was as filthy as his hands. He probably had not showered or changed clothing, possibly, in months.

But. And. His eyes were clear. Hazel. And they had a feeling to them that I can only call innocent.

It took me just a heartbeat to realize he was insane.

That encounter continues to haunt me.

And with that a Zen koan. Case seven I the Gateless Gate. Also collected in the Book of Serenity as case thirty-nine.

A student of the way asked master Zhaozhou, “I have just entered this monastery. Please, teacher, instruct me.” Zhaozhou responded, “Have you eaten your breakfast?” The student replied, “Yes, sir, I have.” Zhaozhou responded, “Wash your bowls.”

Zhaozhou Congshen was born in the last decades of eighth century China. He flourished and taught throughout the larger part of ninth century. He was one of Zen history’s great teachers, a successor to the equally renowned Nanquan Puyan. According to tradition he didn’t begin teaching until he was eighty. Something I take comfort in.

He appears a dozen times in the Twelfth-century Chinese text the Blue Cliff Record. And in the two Thirteenth-century anthologies five times in Gateless Gate and three in the Book of Serenity. Plus, another eight times in the Eighteenth-century Japanese collection, Entangling Vines.

He is as important a teacher for me as any whom I’ve known in the flesh. I sometimes dream of Zhaozhou. His blunt invitations into the farther reaches of my heart have been seeds taken root and flowering as my life.

So. His was, really, is a life that I remain endlessly grateful for.

I recall talking with another Zen teacher who was of the opinion that that Zhaozhou’s response to that monastic was the equivalent of “Go wipe your butt.” That is, he the teacher thought the conversation was a rebuke of a callow student with the temerity to bother the great abbot.

Let me be clear. Koans are never about rebuke. Even when a koan seems like it might be, such as when Guishan kicked over that water bottle or when Qingshui asks for those alms and was told he’d long since been given three glasses of the finest wine. No rebuke, no insult. And, it is never a dismissal.

Rather a koan is always an invitation.

The invitation of this koan is to an immediacy of experience that allows no separation. With this specific koan we’re pointed to the reality that there is in fact no disconnect between an act and its consequence. Even if our ordinary ways of perceiving, or rather analyzing, leads us to think there are two different things. Here eating and washing bowls. In a fundamental sense we’ve invited to notice the mystery of not two.

And. Of course, in the realm of life and death, not one, either. But that’s another point which we explore elsewhere in the vast literature of our koan way.

And another thing. While there is a primary pointing within the practice of koan introspection, and so with this case, that encounter of no boundary, there are often other things that koans can open.

Koans, after all, are rich, and evocative. And our encounter is almost always within a context of our vulnerability. We undertake the discipline to learn something about who we are.

The primary purpose of a koan encounter is summarized as a wato, the “word head,” the point. But with koan practice we quickly learn such things may be “primary points,” but there are often other invitations.

As an example, in the famous koan involving that dog and the same central figure here, the remarkable Zhaozhou, what if one uses “No” rather than “Mu?” And no is a pretty good translation of the Chinese/Japanese Mu. So people do on occasion. And for some people with whom I’ve worked that “No” can be a major invitation into the deeper parts of our lives.

Many people, probably all people live with sometimes slight and often deep wounds from a hundred, perhaps a thousand “no’s” scattered through their lives. For many that no can be an invitation into a profound encounter with the shape of who we are as people.

And dealing with who we are and where we are hurt can be incredibly important. I’ve seen people engage the wounds of their lives with courage and tenacity before turning to that other, “koanic” encounter that the anecdote in fact is pointing us toward.

But the invitation of Mu is not an exploration of our personal wounds. The “point” lies elsewhere. I did Mu as Mu. And, my encounter with that case was a more straight forward push into the principal pointing it offers.

However, I’ve had a similar experience to those who use No, and who find important invitations within the engagement that are not part of the primary point. For me it was working with Zhaozhou’s bowl.

For me with this Zhaozhou’s bowl, it was after dealing with the astonishing intimacy that this koan called me into, a not one, not two encounter, that I found some residual in my heart. Some hint of something, a dislocation, a point where the two things didn’t meet perfectly.

I’ve come to name that thing hunger.

Hunger. I have friends who speak of being poor as children. Some were. At least by our American standards of that word, “poor.” Most, however, were not. What they meant was that they didn’t have a lot of money. The circles I mostly move in are inhabited by the well-educated and well fed. And this was true of their childhoods, as well. Some grew up working class, and that has its own wounds. But I was brought up poor. And that’s a different thing.

I have no actual memory of going hungry. What I remember are a lot of boxed macaroni and cheese, boiled hot dogs, and things made with cheap hamburger. And, there’s something else. Memory is a strange thing. We’re constantly curating our experience, forming stories. Sometimes those stories hide things.

One of my most vivid memories is being invited to a friend’s home for dinner. I’m not sure how old I was, I believe it had to be somewhere on the cusp of adolescence. There was quite the spread. And I commented with unabashed surprise how I’d never seen so much food at one time. I quickly picked up the discomfort those words triggered among the adults. And not exactly being sure of why, I felt a wave of shame.

I remember hating the Honeymooners, a situation comedy staring Jackie Gleason. The bare set that portrayed their home was painfully reminiscent of how we lived. As I became aware of the differences of class my growing sense of shame with our poverty and the social isolation it engendered became a wound I would live with.

It focused for me on a fear of hunger. I find this sense so compelling that I consider it a minor evidence of past lives. There are these complexes that we all live with that seem deep, something more than the specific circumstances of our lives would seem to call for.

I recall having Christmas because of the Firemen. Clothing was almost always purchased a thrift stores. But, at the same time I don’t actually recall being hungry. It is like a lacuna in my heart. It is a black hole around so much of who I am.

And so hunger is an obsession of mine. I think of that poor man with the clear eyes, helpless and alone outside of that grocery store. What I think about is, is he hungry?

I can feel an easy connection between this anxiety, this discomfort and my later and life-long problem with weight. Even today I worry about not getting enough food. Although today, fortunately, it is a distant thought, more a gentle dis-ease. But, that said, it has never completely gone away.

In Buddhism there’s a simple, even simplistic assertion about human personality. It suggests we’re woven out of three demons, greed, hatred, and ignorance. All of them, of course. But, we lead with one. Mine is obvious. Hunger. Desire. Wanting. Greed.

But it also allows me to see hunger in others. The wounds of our lives are also windows into the great mystery. Or, can be. If we’re careful.

It allows me to see poverty is as much a situation people find themselves in as it is a consequence of any particular choice or action. And with that my body sense we are all connected, and we all need to be cared for.

And with that my sense that the community itself bears some genuine responsibility to make sure that people don’t go hungry. Or, like for that man, clearly incapable of caring for himself, there is some way in which the whole of society is responsible. And, clearly, has failed.

When people say that in a place like America no one has to go hungry, it’s obviously not true. There is that man giving lie to the statement with his body. I don’t see the network of social service agencies that it would require to care for them beyond their willingness or unwillingess to receive help. Poverty, and with it the ever-present possibility of hunger, real hunger, is a fact on our common ground. This drives my sense of political engagement, my politics, and how I judge society.

Greed and generosity.

Okay. So, what does this mean? Particularly what does this mean in a comment on a Zen koan, notoriously not about politics, or our social circumstances. But rather is focused on the contours of the human heart, and specifically examining our sense of interrelatedness. Revealing the fact no one among us has something within our being that is immune to the play of cause and effect. Showing there is no special thing about us untouched by that play of conditions and circumstances.

Well, for me, the particular with which I encounter that great boundless is touched profoundly by poverty and a fear of hunger. So, that’s me. At least up to a point. I am a coalescence of some particular experiences of the great play of reality. And while poverty and the fear of hunger is part of that, and my weight is part of that, I am not completely chained by it.

Thanks at least in part to years of a spiritual practice that allows me to let go of “me” in substantial ways. But that said, genuinely, truly, that particular is nonetheless very important.

We are boundless, we are empty, we have no abiding substance. This I know down to the play of my bones and marrow.

And we are particular, some specific coalescence of particulars, of genes and history. I look at the scale and I understand. We are creatures of pain and joy. For as long as we live this is it. You. Me. In all our specificity.

And so, how about you? On this particular day, after a celebration of something beautiful, the birth of a baby. On this particular day, as a New Year lies ahead. What wounds create you? What joys gather to become your soul?

I think of the great vow of our way. And I think of how that desire to be of use to the many beings has in our time and place come to include the well-being of the beings here and now.

We are, after all, all of us in the same great mess.

For me. I think of the great Japanese Zen priest and poet Ryokan.

When I see the misery of this world
their sadness becomes mine
Oh, that my monk’s robe were wide enough
to gather up all the suffering people in this floating world
Nothing makes me more happy than the vow to save everyone
What can I accomplish?
Although not yet a buddha,
let my priest’s body be the raft
to carry sentient beings to the other shore.

How does this come together into this moment? This one? How does it present when you’ve received a meal, and have eaten, and are invited to wash the bowl?

Our way spread before us.

An invitation from before the creation of the stars and planets.

Thank you.



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