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Washing Life’s Rice Bowls

“When washing the rice bowl, be washing  the rice bowl.”- Zen expression

zenThis Zen expression, like most, initially comes off as trite, cute, and simplistic. On further examination, like most Zen expressions, it leads to deeper thought. Think about that expression for a moment. What the heck does it mean? Why is a rice bowl meaningful? And why wouldn’t I merely put it in the dishwasher, close it, and go do something else? But if you consider the rice bowl as a metaphor for the daily grind then, Grasshopper, maybe you’re on to something.

Expressions such as the one above were probably developed hundreds of years ago so that people living a subsistence existence could find joy and meaning in the difficult lives that they were forced to live. These expressions also have great value for those of us living in the 21st century for a different reason. For us they are reminders that we should slow down, pay attention, take it all in, and enjoy the moment. Life comes at us at a much different and faster pace than it did in ancient China when that expression was first coined.

What could the rice bowl metaphor mean in the 21st century? The rice bowl, and washing it, iscubicles a metaphor for our daily routine. Self-help guru Tony Robbins discusses it as something of a Box Theory of Life. He says, “We sleep on a box, we live in a box, we drive to our jobs in a box, we eat a box lunch at our box office, drive home in the box, get our dinner from a box, and stare at a box for a few hours, and then repeat this thing all over again!” Pretty depressing, huh? Finding meaning and significance for this kind of life is perhaps the biggest challenge of modern living.

“When washing the rice bowl, be washing the rice bowl,” means to pay attention and attend fully to each task we have to face every day. Whether or not it is significant is not the issue. The bigger picture is that it is a part of a larger whole, our lives, and therefore has some significance. Attending to these daily routines in a fully present manner, doing the best we can nonjudgmentally, is the best way to approach things that otherwise could be viewed as boring and mundane.

washing dishLet’s break this down a bit. If you were literally “washing the rice bowl” you could be paying attention to the water temperature, the stains on the bowl, the sounds of the water, the sounds of the bowl, how clean you could get the bowl, and many other sensory inputs available to you at that moment in time. Such careful, nonjudgmental attention to detail, would make that otherwise routine task seem timeless and significant. And this is the essence of Zen and mindfulness, as well as the essence of life.

With some activities we engage in it’s easy to find the Zen application. In the 1970s much was written about The Zen of Golf, the Zen of the Martial Arts, or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a little easy to see how one could be more in the moment and mindful when focusing on golf, sparring, or wrenching a motor. Certainly it’s much more challenging than  facing the day to day routine activities that could be considered boring and meaningless. sparrigWouldn’t it be great if washing dishes was as exciting as sparring or riding a motorcycle?



Such expressions take on even greater meaning when you consider how quickly life can pass by. A characteristic of living life is the distorted sense of time that develops as we age. “It seems like just yesterday that…” comes up more and more in daily conversations. And as you ponder this you can’t help but notice how true it appears to be.

So when washing the rice bowl, or performing any other task that could be viewed as routine and insignificant, pay attention. Attend to what is happening at the moment. Don’t judge or evaluate. Judgment and evaluation comes from our Ego, and anything coming from the Ego, is likely to bring suffering. Doing things with full attention and without judgment leads to better outcomes. Stringing together better outcomes = success.

Time to leave the Temple Grasshopper, I’ve got some rice bowls to wash.

P. S. Email me and give me feedback at john@mindbodycoach.org. Please follow this blog through the email box to the right of this article. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for more information on self-help topics.

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