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A monk said to Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.” “Have you eaten your rice porridge?” asked Joshu. “Yes, I have,” replied the monk. “Then you had better wash your bowl,” said Joshu.
This famous koan is easy to view as a metaphor. Empty your mind and get rid of your notions of spiritual attainment. But suppose you don’t view the bowl as a metaphor? That might change the way you look at the dishes in your kitchen sink and instruct you just as thoroughly.
The kitchen is not only the heart of a home, it can also be the heart of our mindfulness practice. In cooking and cleaning, we move beyond ourselves and into compassionate care of everything and everyone around us.
Eating is our sole essential consumption and cooking is our one common charity, so you’d think its purpose would be obvious. Yet with a critical eye to the value of time and what we judge to be our higher talents, meal preparation may seldom seem worth it. Cooking for two? Not worth it. Filling the fridge? Not worth it. Sitting to dine? Not worth it. Cleaning up after? Not worth it.
Nothing is worth the measure we give it, because worth doesn’t really exist. It is a figment of our judging minds, an imaginary yardstick to measure the imaginary value of imaginary distinctions, and one more way we withhold ourselves from the whole enchilada of life that lies before us.
If nothing is worth it, why cook? Why shop and chop, boil and toil and clean up after? To engage yourself in the marvel of your own being. To see the priceless in the worthless. To find complete fulfillment in being unfilled. And to eat something other than your own inflated self-importance. That’s what we empty when we empty the bowl, and a busy kitchen gives us the chance to empty ourselves many times a day.
A monk asked Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?” Joshu said, “The oak tree in the garden.”
Enough about laundry and dishes, you might be thinking, what about the deep spiritual questions? Why do the great mystics strive so diligently for enlightenment if it has no more depth than what’s found in ordinary housework?
See beyond your house, Joshu answers, beyond the delusion of a separate self trapped by the false perception of what is inside and what is outside. This is true mindfulness: not the narrow boundaries of our conceptual abode, but the phenomenal world of the awakened mind. Joshu tells us to open our eyes and awaken in our own backyard.
Once again, Sekida prunes the intellectual interpretation that can obscure our clear sight. “There were many giant oaks in the garden of Joshu’s temple. We can well imagine that Joshu himself was personally familiar with every tree, stone, flower, weed, and clump of moss—as intimately acquainted as if they were his own relatives.”
Where is the place you know as well as your own family? Indeed, that is as proximate as yourself? It is the place where where you are at ease with a full load, fulfilled by an empty sink, telling time by the leaves and weeds: making yourself mindfully at home in the home you never leave.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of the Shambhala Sun.
Karen Maezen Miller is a priest at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles and the author of Momma Zen. She is the author of Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life.