Vajra Blue

Mindfulness and Compassion. Understanding trauma in young people.

Buddhism and washing up


To celebrate a year of posting here is my first post again.


Like many people I live far too much inside my head, and have tried to balance this tendency through the practice of mindfulness meditation.

One problem is that I value my ability to think quite highly. After all I am a westerner and a scientist and am given over to rational pursuits.

This has meant that I meet a lot of resistance to just sitting with the breath in meditation. As a result I spend far too much time on my cushions in idle reverie, putting the world to rights, rehashing ancient wrongs or designing the perfect gizmo for something.

Feeling that I should put this tendency to better use, I have often played with koans.

Now, intellectual understanding is not what koans are about. Indeed it is the very antithesis of koan practice as described in all of the many books I possess on the subject.

A koan is a brief description of an interaction between zen practitioners of different degrees of achievement. As a result of this interaction one of those involved gains some further degree of insight. Accompanying each koan are various verses and paragraphs each every bit as mystifying as the original story.

I have spent many a happy hour wondering about dogs having buddha nature, How exactly one should pronounce “Mu” and whether it is my mind or the wind moving, but all to no apparent benefit.

More recently I have been thinking about the following story.

A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”

Joshu asked, “Have you had your breakfast?”

The monk replied, “Yes, I have eaten.”

Joshu said, “Now wash your bowl.”

And the monk saw.

My thinking (disguised as meditation) about this simple exchange over some days and weeks highlights a tendency I have to overcomplicate things.

This conversation took place a long time ago in China and contains a very simple exchange. The only problem is that I assume that there must be more to it than that. I want there to be some deep hidden meaning that is only accessible to the few with the ability to see beyond whatever you have to see beyond.

It is possible to recreate the whole of the Buddha’s teaching out of this apparently uncomplicated conversation, especially if you are too intellectual in thought processes to let your mind settle. This tendency will be exacerbated by too much reading about Buddhism in preference to putting it into practice – both on and off the cushions

It is far too easy to get bogged down in the details that are included in even such a brief exchange. What is the significance of the bowl? Zen teachers often used a bowl and robe to signify transmission of the dharma. Is the bowl a metaphor for the mind?

Does eating breakfast signify enlightenment? Or spiritual sustenance?

Is the instruction about washing the bowl a reminder about needing to continue with the habit of meditation even after ‘enlightenment’ has been reached?  Is this about working to remove the defilements and cleanse our karma? Yet in another of these stories, a different Zen master acts out polishing a tile in order to make a mirror. His purpose being to get across to his student that meditation alone will not make you a Buddha,

I have come to the conclusion that a simple explanation is best. This meeting should be taken at face value and if we can do this we can see that it contains a very profound teaching.


We cannot live in the past, although it does influence how we behave in the present.

We cannot live in the future as it has not yet arrived.

There is one place that we can live, indeed there is only the one moment in which we can exist, and that moment is right here and now.

All else being equal – and it is – then we can only do one thing at a time, give ourselves over completely to the present moment in which to act.


An activity and a very specific one as it is the logical act to follow eating.

If you have eaten wash your bowl. Do precisely what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Wash up when washing up is to be done, sleep when it is time to sleep, make love when it is time to make love. Right here and right now and with no other intent

It is action that creates karma and it is action that speaks louder than words.


No one else can do this for you.

We each have to make our own journey in the Buddha’s wake.

He showed us that it was possible and has left behind many helpful teachings to guide us on the way.

Every one will have a different experience along this path.


A bowl is an everyday object and the path is an everyday path. “Nothing special” we are told by many buddhist masters.

It is also a symbolic object symbolising the passing on of the flame of “enlightenment” and serves as a powerful tool to help us work on our craving, aversion, ill will and ignorance.

The purpose of the begging bowl was to get enough to eat and to eat what you were given no matter what.

What was it that the monk saw?

That we need to live right here right now.

That we should do the things that need doing fully and completely and at the right moment.

That we should give our selfs over completely to all that we do. In doing so we will find the true happiness that arises out of being present in our lives.

To act spontaneously and do the right thing at the right time..

As another Zen saying would have it

“Chop wood, carry water.”

Sandy Seton-Browne

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Author: SandySB

Child and adolescent psychiatrist. Parent. Blogger.

2 thoughts on “Buddhism and washing up

  1. loved your post a lot
    seems youre really focused after all, during your cushion times

    and consider, about your sentence:
    “To act spontaneously and do the right thing at the right time..” if its spontaneous there’s not right or wrong…
    and karma comes not out of action but out of your judgment… there’s only karma in your mind

    be happy


    • Perhaps I should have said the skilful thing. Although in daily life this might be called the right thing. This will of course change depending on who is acting.