3.B.1 Mumonkan (Wumenkuan, “The Gateless Gate”, thirteenth century Chinese collection of koans), presented by Ruben Habito

  • Text

CASE 7: Jôshû (Zhao-zhou)’s “Wash Your Bowls”
A monk asked Jôshû in all earnestness, “I have just entered this monastery. I beg you, Master, please give me instructions.” Jôshû asked, “Have you eaten your rice gruel (for breakfast) yet?” The monk answered, “Yes, I have.” Jôshû said, “Then wash your bowls.” The monk attained some realization.

Mumon (Wumen)’s Commentary:
Jôshû, opening his mouth, showed his gall bladder and revealed his heart and liver. If the monk, hearing it, did not really grasp the fact, he would mistake a bell for a pot.

Just because it is so clear,
It takes us longer to realize it.
If you quickly acknowledge that the candlelight is fire,
You will find that the rice has been cooked.

  • Commentary

The monk here represents a person who seeks “in all earnestness” to live the Zen life to the full. Such a person is ready and willing to set everything aside–the pursuit of pleasure, power and fame, and such things that ordinary human beings would hanker for, and instead to “enter the monastery” to devote oneself wholeheartedly to realizing and living the Dharma.

The monk thus entreats the Zen Master, “Please instruct me.” That is, “please show me the way to live the fullness of Zen every day of my life.”

The Zen Master’s question cuts right at the heart of the matter. “Have you eaten your rice gruel (for breakfast) yet?” On the surface, he seems to be asking a very casual question, the kind of thing one asks to break the ice in a social setting. Or, it can be taken also as an indication of the Zen Master’s looking out for the physical well-being of the students who seek his guidance. “Before I can give you any further instructions on the Zen, please assure me that you are well-fed and ready to take on the rigorous training that Zen demands.”

But a closer look makes clear that it is nothing of the sort. Compiler and editor Mumon’s commentary is suggestive. “Jôshû, opening his mouth, showed his gall bladder and revealed his heart and liver.” His remark is nothing short of manifesting the fullness of the Zen life itself. “Have you had your rice gruel (for breakfast) yet?” In short, “have you come to an experience of realization of your true nature, only which can truly fill your heart?”

This “experience of realization of one’s true nature” is the gateway into the world of Zen. It can come to a person at any given point in one’s journey, even before one has taken up the formal practice of seated meditation on a regular basis, or soon after, or many years after beginning such formal practice. This experience enables a person to “see through things just as they are,” without obstruction, freed from the dualistic mode of seeing things as a “subject” looking at an “object” out there. It is an experience of clearly seeing the infinite web of interconnectedness of all things in this universe, whereby each and every particular thing is seen as containing as well as contained by everything else. It is to realize that “I” can only be “me” insofar as everything else in this universe is precisely what it is, and that no one thing is separate from anything, but is precisely constituted by what everything else is.

To the question, “Have you seen through all this, with your heart now thereby being filled to the brim with joy and peace and gratitude?”

The monk’s answer is direct. “Yes, Master, I have.” If he was only answering the question of whether he had breakfast or not, then he is way off the mark. He would be mistaking a bell for a pot, an elephant for an onion. But if he saw through the Zen Master’s question, and answered correctly, then he is a fortunate one indeed. Such a person is ready for the Master’s next instruction.

The Zen Master retorts, “Then go and wash your bowls.” It should be clear by now that he is not just talking about the breakfast of rice gruel here.

“If you have had your fill, then clean up and don’t let any morsel of that gruel remain in your bowl.” If you have experienced realization, and are now at peace within yourself and with the universe, then there is no need to get attached nor keep clinging to the memory of any such experience of realization, and go on with your life from day to day. Wash away any trace of “I have experienced it” or “I have not experienced it,” and live your life each day welcoming the freshness of each and every moment.

“If in the East, a sick child lies, Go and help in nursing it back to health.
If in the West a tired mother be, Go and help carry her bundle of grain.
If in the South someone is dying, Go and tell him not to be afraid.
If in the North a quarrel ensues, Go and tell them to stop such foolish nonsense.
Shedding tears in time of drought, in cold summers wandering about worrying for the

These lines by twentieth century Japanese poet Miyazawa Kenji, from a poem entitled “Ame ni Mo Makezu” (Undaunted by the Rain) reveal the heart of one who lives the Zen life.

This is the gist of “Zen spirituality in daily life.” It is a life lived in ordinariness, yet in full awakening to the dynamic reality of each present moment. As a life grounded in the vision and realization of the interconnectedness of all things in the universe, it is one lived in the awareness of sharing every moment of this life with all sentient beings. It is a life lived in compassion for and solidarity with all sentient beings.


  • Video

Without the accompanying commentary, this Buddhist contribution is enigmatic to the Western reader. Once it is explained, Christian and Jewish scholars find important lessons about the intersection of spiritual and daily life.