Recognizing the Candlelight as Fire: Joshu Washes the Bowl

by Annoyance1 min read29th Mar 200921 comments

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Fiction (Topic)
Personal Blog

Joshu Washes the Bowl

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.

Mumon's Comment: Joshu is the man who opens his mouth and shows his heart. I doubt if this monk really saw Joshu's heart. I hope he did not mistake the bell for a pitcher.

It is too clear and so it is hard to see.
A dunce once searched for fire with a lighted lantern.
Had he known what fire was,
He could have cooked his rice much sooner.

21 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:18 PM
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There are many places online where I can find koans. But I don't think a koan by itself is a topic I'm looking for on LessWrong.com, unless a poster is using it to make a particular point about rationality, a point which they explain as part of the content of the post. Plopping down a koan in front of us and expecting us all to figure out your point, or waste multiple people's time Googling when you could have simply linked to an interpretation, just isn't an optimally efficient transfer of rationality. It's not that it's bad, it's just not up to the standard of articles you've written or the general standards of LessWrong.com.

Thank you for the criticism.

I will see if I can do something to address your specific points.

This whole koan guessing game is a bit silly. The whole point of koans is that it takes long months of meditation and a very special frame of mind to understand them. If a guy reading a blog could guess the answer after five minutes' thought, the koan wouldn't be worthwhile anyway (I am willing to grant Eliezer his fox koan, but even he only solved part of that one, and only with the help of centuries of Western philosophy and deep personal knowledge of the issues involved).

But I will hazard a guess as to Annoyance's interpretation. Annoyance wants us to consider mundane experience more. The monk was hoping Joshu would teach him something really exciting about Buddha or enlightenment or meditation. Instead, Joshu reminded him that after you eat, you've got to do the dishes. The monk realized that Zen wasn't about fancy theories of ultimate holy reality, but about living mundane experience as fully as possible. He also realized that his thoughts of enlightenment were distracting him from a task he should be carrying out with his full mind, and when he concentrated his full mind on the present moment, he achieved enlightenment.

Given the things he's said elsewhere on this site, I think you're correct about Annoyance's intended interpretation, which makes me wonder why he didn't include it with the koan. Is it just not Zen-fashionable to do so?

It takes only a moment to find the right answer.

It takes a lifetime of struggle to know where to look for it.

Given a map and a flashlight, how long should it take?

Even if koans like this have some legitimate insight buried in them, I wonder if the signal-to-noise ratio is too high to reliably extract that insight. Accurate, rational communication seems to be at least as hard as internal rationality.

I therefore propose an exercise of "reckless interpretation": Read the koan at a very surface level, then generate an arbitrary interpretation. Don't worry about it being too simple, too silly, or missing the point: The point is to miss the point. If these interpretations cannot be easily refuted with a technique other than "no, he meant it this way", then the koan is probably too ambiguous to serve as a useful communication device.

Here's mine for this one: Joshu is not teaching, he simply dislikes dirty dishes. The monk mistakes this for a legitimate insight, and by that unintended insight, the monk is enlightened.

A few reckless interpretations of mine: Joshu was able to determine what the monk ate, what type of dish he ate it from and whether he had washed it. This made the monk realize that his life was highly predictable, and he needed to vary it more. Or it made the monk realize that Joshu had Sherlock Holmes-style deductive capabilities. Or it made the monk realize that Joshu was telepathic. Alternatively, Joshu guessed incorrectly about the monk's diet and dishes, which made the monk realize that Joshu was no less susceptible to mistakes than anyone else.

Or it made the monk realize that Joshu was telepathic.

This seems refutable on the basis that monks probably enjoy a very restricted diet, and inferring telepathy from a correct guess in such a limited domain is both pretty unlikely and pretty silly.

Alternatively, Joshu guessed incorrectly about the monk's diet and dishes, which made the monk realize that Joshu was no less susceptible to mistakes than anyone else.

I really like this one. It contains a legitimate and worthwhile insight (that teachers are fallible), and I don't know how I'd go about refuting it.

the flowering cherry
outside my office window
wasn't planted by birds

feet strive for balance

I cross the rope with great care

March winds aren't desired

I know why I wrote my haiku reply, but I don't know why you wrote yours.

There are two realities to that tree, the seen and the unseen. The unseen is much larger, much more powerful as an explanation - the entire weight of human society and industry bears down on a point to plant one ornamental tree. It's a counterargument to Joshu - sometimes the abstract is larger than the concrete, and a person too focused on attending to the here-and-now can miss the real action.

The abstract is always constructed from the concrete; it is a subset of the larger reality. The emulated is always smaller than the emulator.

Rationality is a delicate balancing act. Uncompensated emotions or misunderstood passions can overthrow it. Errors wrapped in beautiful packages may be well-intended, but a Trojan Horse isn't a good gift even if it's meant well.

Your poem is rather lovely. Your use of the seasonal reference is far more elegant than my own, which was a brute-force selection. But it's inaccurate, and the fact that it's beautiful makes the error more dangerous.

I don't think the definition of "obvious" you think is obvious is obvious.

At least, I think it's obvious it's not obvious it's obvious.

The poem which traditionally accompanies this koan refers to a particular Chinese folktale.

If I make a reference to a poem that mentions sour grapes, how could you understand my meaning without looking up the fable by Aesop?

Sometimes things in plain sight are hardest to find, and the obvious is as hard to see as the nose on our face.

Interesting, but for the sake of clarity or just to reduce inferential distance with the audience could you elaborate a little on the what it is you're getting at?

I suggest that in the future, posts like this should include a citation and/or link to the source. Surely you have one handy if you're reproducing it entirely?

I am particularly struck by those of you who point out that this koan is considered to be especially hard.

Yes, you're right, but I don't think you're appreciating what aspect of its interpretation is supposed to be difficult. The pattern that is being communicated is easy to understand. The challenge is determining what that pattern is meant to be applied to.

There are two relatively simple interpretations of that pattern, and one that is much less so. But that final interpretation is much harder for Zen students to perceive than for people who aren't. In fact, if you've grown up in a Western, English-speaking culture, I can virtually guarantee that you've been exposed to the third possible interpretation many times from multiple sources and in many different ways.

I'm downvoting this topic since you never gave us any of your interpretations.