Zen Koan Wash your Bowl



A new monk at the monastery asked Joshu Roshi, “What is the secret of Zen?”

Joshu answered, “Have you eaten breakfast?”

“Yes,” the new monk said.

Joshu answered, “Wash your bowl.”


In the mind of an expert, the teacup is filled and not a drop can be added, not a question asked or answered. How wonderful that at his advanced age and station in life, Roshi Joshu is but a fool.

In the mind of a beginner, the teacup is empty if he can even find it. Truly, wisdom is his to be had at every turn.

Pay attention! Where is the teacup?

One must search for relentlessly.


Joshu has handed the new monk his compass to keep him going in the correct direction. Most of us live our lives without a map or compass and we are lost, often asleep.

There are two lessons here. The first is to “drop it.” This means that living is dynamic in its forward direction. Do you wish to keep up? Then you must complete by letting go and move along the path. If you have eaten then wash your bowl and forget about it. Only in this way does the cup remain empty with room for filling. If you are awake, then you pay attention to the moment, the task at hand. If you are asleep or somewhere else because you have not dropped it, then you are asleep and not paying attention. Life is moving, yet you are not keeping pace. This is called living out of harmony.

The second lesson is faith in the nature of things as they are. To consider the future is wise, but to carry it with you is an obstacle. Destiny is a stream ever fresh and flowing from moment to moment. Having dropped it and awakened to the moment at hand we pay attention to washing our bowls and in that moment our destiny is always flowing. If you don’t drop it, you have missed it! Take care of the moment and all of life takes care of itself. A brief consideration here and there is wise enough, but do not put obstacles in the way of your destiny stream by carrying your past or future.

The Zen practitioner is awake to the living experience and simultaneously dropping it. Dropping it and living in an awakened state is not always easy; this is why we call it a “practice.” The Zen practitioner if given the choice would be a simpleton rather than concern himself with abstruse philosophy or worldly issues. Zen is in the living of each moment. It is obvious – never in hiding.


In the autumn, Joshu Roshi asked the new monk, “Have you eaten your breakfast? Speak!”

Immediately the monk spoke. “I do not know.”

“Who are you?” Roshi asked.

“I do not know?” answered the new monk.

Roshi smiled. “A most auspicious beginning!”

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