We were recently enjoying reading a discussion of Koan on Huffington Post, those unique Zen buddhist stories that deliberately leave the mind searching for meaning and discernment. We were prompted to do so by the observation of a reviewer that Scorsese’s latest film – Silence – is not a parable, but a koan. Never having heard the word before, we beetled off in search of enlightenment.
Anyhow, a bunch of practitioners of Zen were asked their favourites, and this one stood out for us over here at the Wellthisiswhatithink temple.
Koshin Paley Ellison
Co-Founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care
Once a monk made a request of Joshu.
“I have just entered the monastery,” he said. “Please give me instructions, Master.”
Joshu said, “Have you had your breakfast?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then,” said Joshu, “wash your bowls.”
The monk had an insight.
That fascinating little snippet was attended by this work, entitled “Mumon’s Poem”:
Because it is so very clear,
It takes longer to come to the realisation.
If you know at once candlelight is fire,
The meal has long been cooked.
The Gateless Gate
Ellison’s discussion of the koan was instructive:
“I love this koan. I am the student in the midst of my life, waiting for life to happen. I am the teacher pointing to this latte on my desk. I am the bowl that needs washing and the breakfast already eaten.
How do we enter our life fully? It is right here. How do we want to live? Can we allow all the joys and sorrows to enliven us? Or do we just go along with all our patterns and habits?
People who are dying always remind me: ‘I can’t believe I wasn’t here for most of my life.’ That’s one of the most common things I hear, and the biggest regrets.
Many people have not inhabited their life because they’re just waiting for other moments. Are we waiting for life to happen in the midst of life? How can we give ourselves fully to our lives, moment to moment? Don’t wait. Life is always right here.”
That is powerful ju-ju right there.
The comment ‘I can’t believe I wasn’t here for most of my life’ stuck us very forcefully. We can all find it easy to be distracted, both by the immediacy of what is going on around us, our “worries” and “cares”, and also by our hopes for the future. As John Lennon once put it, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
We left the reading full of determination to live more in the now.
To value each moment – every single moment – as being full, valuable, with purpose.
Not purpose to do something, or even to prepare for something, just full, in and of itself.
As we write, a desk fan blows cooling air onto us on a hot day. Listening to the world around, we become aware of music we were not consciously listening to, and of birds singing outside. Calm descends. It was always there, this calm, but we were ignoring it, choosing a busy – and ineffectively busy – mind, instead.
Wash your bowls.