A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?
The monk replied, “I have eaten.”
Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.
One night, I used a plate and a bowl for dinner. The next morning, they were still sitting on the counter. I was about to leave when I realized: I should wash these.
As I was rinsing the bowl, I remembered this story. I found it years ago. Leo Babauta shared it. He says:
“Remembering to do these things when we’re done with the activity isn’t just about neatness. It’s about mindfulness, about completing what we started, about being present in all we do instead of rushing to the next activity.”
I’ve always liked doing dishes. I think this story explains why. It’s comforting. Satisfying. Mindful. There’s the water, the scrubbing, and you always get an immediate result. Then, it’s on to the next item. Nothing more, nothing less.
Still, there is something deeper to this story. A much more profound message.
“It’s: don’t get your head caught up in all this thinking about the meaning of life … instead, just do. Just wash your bowl. And in the washing, you’ll find all you need.”
What if washing dishes isn’t a chore at all? What if it’s a refuge? A ladder out of the fuss of everyday life and into our hideaway. A sanctuary. A little pocket of peace, where all you have to do is be. Where no stress can reach you. No looming deadline, no existential fear, no weighty decisions to make.
When I chose to clean my bowl, I thought it was a small gesture. A sign of tidiness. But when I did it, I found it was so much more. In fact, it was everything. Enough. All I had to do was wash the bowl.
Nothing more, nothing less.
I’m not a monk and I’m definitely not Joshu. But I know this: We can transfer this enough-ness to all our activities. Folding laundry. Sending an email. Getting coffee with a friend.
Some tasks feel inherently comforting, but all tasks offer comfort if we let them be enough. Whatever we do, if we do it with intention, if we put in our whole heart, the outcome won’t matter. Because we did what we could. Because we were there. What more could we ask from ourselves than that?
Life is big, but it’s made of small moments. Small interactions, situations, and many small tasks. We can spend our days worrying about the incomplete parts of the puzzle or we can choose to look intensely at each piece. Zoom in. Get a close-up. And shape it until it fits.
Like the puzzle, we’ll never be perfect. We have just entered the monastery. But every day is a new chance to be there. And every day, when we’re done eating, we’ll need to wash our bowl.
A first version of this was published at https://emptyyourcup.substack.com.