wash your bowls

As part of our livelihood, we offer clinical practicum experience for doctoral students who want to learn about mindfulness practice.  It’s an offering to the community and often a joy to share the practice with inquisitive, young minds.  Of course, they come with an intellectual curiousity and an academic stance to the work of dealing with suffering.  The frontal lobes are fully online and the feeling brain is nowhere to be found – an unusual situation given the desire to ease suffering demands more of the latter than the former.  But I fully understand the need to protect oneself with logic and analytic thinking in the face of the darkness we touch in (ourselves and) others.

Occasionally, when we outline our expectations of these practicum students, there’s a push back on some of the tasks.  Laying out the mats in the meditation room, setting up the cushions, inputting the data from questionnaires, washing teacups… what do these have to do with learning how to treat mental disorders?!  It’s hard to fight the trained dualism between doctor and patient or the belief that there is a tool we use that fixes things in others and is independent of who we are.  It’s hard to articulate that treatment is an organic process that grows from two people connecting in a sacred relationship.  No one leaves the room unchanged.

Norman Fischer in his article Wash Your Bowls (in Hooked, edited by Stephanie Kaza) tells of Master Zhaozho’s response to a request for instruction.  Zhaozho asks him if he has eaten his meal to which the monk replies, “Yes.”  Zhaozho says, “Then wash your bowls.”  Pay attention to the details, the ordinary next thing that needs to be done. Of course, in the great drama of life lived chaotically, this is so mundane its value cannot be detected.

Glassman in Instructions to the Cook points out that “awareness is attention expanded 360 degrees.”  It is in the laying down of mats, the sweeping of the floors, the washing of teacups and the collecting of cookie crumbs.  And “wash your bowl” also points to the reality that nothing happens, be it in therapy or in the kitchen, without leaving a trace which we must do our best clean up.  We used to practice samu (work practice) on the last Tuesday of each month in sangha.  Over time, sangha members came to love it as a means of caregiving to each other and the space that holds us faithfully.  But some would object because “this is a chore I do at home and I don’t come here to do chores!”

I know I feel it too in so many things I have to do.  These sensations of rejection, frustration, anger, and all the sticky-icky stuff are the ingredients of my recipes these days.  Per ardua… through difficulties.  Ad astra… to the stars.  But the difficulties only arise where there is discrimination between sacred and profane, the kitchen and the rest of the house.  Fischer does a great job of bringing the tenzo into the rest of life.

Careful attention to detail us not confined to kitchen work.   The daily schedule usually calls for a period of mindful silent cleaning immediately following meditation….  Being present and respectful of all material things, as if each and every one of them were a scared object, is a primary practice and a primary value.  The head monk in a monastic training period not only gives lectures and meets privately with students; he or she is also in charge of taking out the garbage and cleaning toilets.  These traditional assignments are seen as holy tasks and to be undertaken with full respect and honor…

But first the toilets!

Thank you for practicing,


6 thoughts on “wash your bowls

  1. There is a sense for western students to place monetary value on our education. We ‘pay’ so much for the priviledge of going to class or researching the essay. When asked to clean, it is understandable that we balk. we have already paid for our instruction.
    Universities have strict rules about who does what jobs. The union would not allow students to clean and so take away the job of the housekeeping staff.
    That is the realm of the sterile learning environment.
    As a young student of Shiatsu, with a traditional Japanese teacher, we were expected to clean and maintain the school. We did so as a community, each taking turns and working in small groups. This develped our community spirit and ‘ownership’ of the space we studied in. A sense of pride. Some students did complain and did so to the Ministry of Education. They ruled that students could not do labour without compensation. So this practice was discontinued and resumed as a ‘volunteer’ position. Very few volunteered…
    Perhaps a sytem of giving (volunteering)to the community would be better accepted. Working in a soup kitchen or helping to clean a shelter? Compassion in action?
    (bonus marks could be given to help with motivation..)

  2. I am digesting the savory “meals” you are offering up this week… And I have a question…

    What about the call of the Heart as an “ingredient”? Where does that go on the plate? If we are constantly dealing with the indigestion of constantly being distracted by the “practical” side of life, the requirements of daily living, the dramas that others plop on your plate like gooey mashed potatoes, then how does the Heart thrive? And maybe this question just reflects the ingredient I need to work on these days – Heart Medicine 🙂 And probably a spice called perspective 🙂

    Thanks for giving me something to digest! Heart Smiles ~*~

  3. I remember hearing, or reading, several years ago that when the monks at Thomas Merton’s monastery (or was it David Steindl-Rast’s monastery?) asked a Zen Master to come and teach them about zen the Christian monks carefully observed the Zen Master for a few days and then decided that, yes, he was indeed a real monk just like them. They based this conclusion on their observation of how he opened and closed the doors.

  4. I aspire to clean the toilets. But, in the meantime, I’m happy for my wife to do it. Maybe, in the next lifetime, I’ll be “high class” enough for the garbage of life.

  5. Pingback: Upaya Blogger on Instructions to the Cook: |

  6. Good morning, Dear Ones!

    Janice, it’s a paradigm shift to see ourselves as one with those who come to us to ease their suffering. And yes, there are some “works” we tend to see as more akin to training than others. Time…

    Christine, mmmm… mashed potatoes…. that IS my Heart’s call! I think we need to re-label our spice rack, no?

    Bruce, I remember that… it was when Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh met!

    Barry, oh dear… is this a “lower than a slug’s belly” day? {{HUGS}}} I like washing bathrooms… when on retreat I beg for the kitchen but failing that I head for the bathrooms!

    And the final word goes to Bob Tzu: I always try to listen to my heart. But my stomach is SO much more convincing.

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