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Wash Your Bowl

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wash your 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.

This is a famous Zen story that I’ve come across many times. There are a lot of different interpretations of it but I thought I would share mine.

It’s the idea that you take care of the right things in the moment. Not later. Not tomorrow.

No, right now.

When you finish eating, you wash your bowl right away. When you finish writing on your computer, you close all your application windows. When you’re done working for the day, you clear your desk.

If you’ve been with us for a while you will notice that it’s very similar to our popular Clearing To Neutral habit. It’s when you clear things and set things up for next time, so you make it easy for your future-self to get started. This minimizes friction which makes it harder for procrastination to kick in.

When you make Clearing to Neutral habitual, you won’t ever have to worry about procrastination again. Maybe this mantra of “wash your bowl” will help.

The next time you’re about to finish something, just say “wash your bowl”. It’s catchy, easy to remember and it can act like a trigger to initiate your Clearing to Neutral habit.

This is one of my personal favorite productivity tips that I always share with others. Want more? Check out The AE Primer.

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Posted by Fergal  | June 19, 2019 at 12:05PM | Reply

Bowled over. Maybe there is only one bowl.

Posted by Bruce Michael Foley  | January 21, 2019 at 5:07AM | Reply

Too much analytical thinking gets in the way of understanding Joshu’s “go was your bowl.”

Joshu is telling the novice monk, to do what comes next, naturally. One thing at a time. With a clear, present mind, moving on to what’s next, with this same attentive mind. Just this: washing my bowl. Joshu is not just giving advice for the present moment, he is giving the novice monk an instruction to live by that applies to the dynamics of everyday life. For a lifetime.

Just do what comes next with undivided attention.

Mindful living is Joshu’s prescription. One task follows the next in life. Give each task undivided attention. Wash your bowl mindfully. Do what comes next with the same mind. When this is practiced, mindful living, one lives a fuller, more focused and happier life.

Joshu points to simplicity as the way. A spiritual
or inner life is nothing miraculous.

It’s just doing what comes next with full attention.

Posted by Dan  | January 28, 2018 at 8:06PM | Reply

hmmmm…..I did not understand the story that way. What I understood is that, especially in Zen, The Ordinary and The Miraculous are one and the same. So when the student asked the master a question pertaining to the spiritual, the master responded with an answer pointing to the ordinary and everyday. I believe this is typical in Zen. For example:

A neighboring priest scolded his students for abandoning his school to study with Bankei, and yelled at Bankei, saying that his teacher could perform miracles such as walking on water and signing his name from the other side of a river. Bankei replied, “My miracle is that when I’m hungry, I eat, and when I am tired, I sleep.”


“The spirituality found in Zen is not to think about God while peeling the potatoes; it is simply to peel the potatoes”
Alan Watts

Posted by A  | July 12, 2016 at 11:21PM | Reply

This is a koan. It’s intended not to have a specific answer so as to convey the futility of logic.

Posted by Alexandra  | June 30, 2016 at 6:11AM | Reply

Whenever I don’t stick to the “wash your bowl” policy, I end up with too many tasks and have a hard time finding my way back to efficiency.
Thank you for the reminder, Thanh!

Posted by Melissa  | May 10, 2016 at 8:09PM | Reply

I love this!

About a month ago I cleaned my entire apartment and got into the habit of putting things away immediately. No excuses. The habit has built up over time and I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t even have the urge to set things aside anymore!

Having this short little mantra should only strengthen this and help me apply this to other aspects of my life! So thanks!

Posted by Chantal  | December 2, 2013 at 5:56PM | Reply

Thank you :) . A great reminder.

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