In the Soto Zen mealtime verse, we say, “We accept this food so that we can awaken.” We must be unselfish and at the same time practical. Here are a master and disciple who really got that teaching.
Case 7 Jõshû's "Wash Your Bowl" 七 趙州洗鉢
A monk said to Jõshû, "I have just entered this monastery.
Please teach me."
"Have you eaten your rice porridge?" asked Jõshû.
"Yes, I have," replied the monk.
"Then you had better wash your bowl," said Jõshû.
With this the monk gained insight.
Let us note, to begin with, that this is nonsense, as stated. Washing the bowls is part of the mealtime ceremony. The monk says that he ate, presumably more than just rice gruel, and he must have already washed his bowls before talking with Joshu. But the koan is not about these literal actions. Joshu is perfectly correct to tell the monk to wash his bowls again.
The main bowl in the set shown above represents the original begging bowl from the time before Chinese monasteries, when monks went begging for food every morning, and ate whatever was offered. It is thus a representation of unselfishness and of all-acceptance. We must always keep the bowl clean, as we must always keep our minds clean of self, of the opposites. Then we can receive whatever comes to us without turning it into more suffering.
When he opens his mouth, Jõshû shows his gallbladder. He displays his heart and liver.
I wonder if this monk really did hear the truth. I hope he did not mistake the bell for a jar.
Mumon's Verse 頌曰
只爲分明極 Endeavoring to interpret clearly,
翻令所得遲 You retard your attainment.
早知燈是火 Don't you know that flame is fire?
飯熟已多時 Your rice has long been cooked.
Don’t tangle yourself up in all of these words and things. If you wash your bowl every day, you can come to repay the grandmotherly kindness of those others.