Clean Your Bowl

This morning, at precisely 3:53 a.m., my dog threw up. Twice. I groaned in tandem with his familiar wretching which precedes a barf by about two seconds. Not enough time to change what's happening, but just enough time to yell "NOOOOOO" in slow motion. I swung myself out of bed as he happily bounced around my legs. He's 85 pounds, so the bouncing is usually entertaining. Not this time. He's happy that I'm up and ready to let him out or feed him or whatever his small brain thinks is going to happen now that I'm magically up a couple hours early for some reason who knows why gee what could it be? He's always chipper right after; yes, this happens regularly. About once every six weeks, at approximately the same time in the wee hours of the morning, my dog hurls. For no reason. And he's fine. The vet says it's most likely a mild form of a condition some dogs have. It involves stomach bile, and I'm supposed to be happy that it doesn't happen every morning because that's a thing apparently. There's not much I can do to change it, he says. Awesome.

I don't have children, but I do have Palmer. I imagine that what I feel for him is the closest I'll get to unconditional love until I do have a kid. I suppose that's only fair, since he feels unconditional about me. I am the greatest in his color-deficient eyes, the pinnacle of creation. I am the giver of food, the benevolent provider of walks, the keeper of treats. Oh, and the chump who gives up a large chunk of bed so that he can spread out comfortably. All these feelings considered, they're not what get me out of bed at 3:53 a.m. to clean up dog vomit. I mean, they're a part of it, but the action is more about just doing what needs doing in the moment. Taking the next step.

A couple posts back, Logan introduced a new running project called Aletheia. It's an effort to spotlight small pieces of text that touch on something essential, something true. One of the included pieces was a story told to me by a friend a year or so ago. It turned out to be a case story from The Gateless Gate, a central text for the Rinzai school of Zen. The original story is slightly different from the way it was told to me[^1], but how I heard it first has stuck so clearly and powerfully, I continue to share it that way.

A student said to his teacher, “Master, teach me Zen.”

The teacher replied, "Have you eaten your meal?”


“Then wash your bowl.”

I love this story. It's incredibly difficult to be present, to do what comes next without laboring over the steps beyond. Maybe we get little glimpses of it, like when we're cleaning up a mess before dawn even has a chance to break, practicing the motions without worrying about what comes next. I guess some might see that as the blurry result of being rudely awakened, but who says awakening has to be gentle? For the novice meditator (that's me), I see the practice as letting motions fall into place while doing my best not to question the moment to death. If I've eaten my meal, then I should clean my bowl. One step after the other, walking softly in a circle until the thought is no-thought, until there is breath and no-breath. Rise and fall, rise and fall. Clean your bowl.

[^1]: The historical background on this text, at least as I've read, revolves around enlightened practitioners eating rice while maintaining deep meditation. Insane, I know. With this element, you can see that the student is asking how to achieve awakening, yet he's already done it. He's eaten his rice in this fashion, so there's nothing left to teach.