What are we to make of this koan? Is it relevant to the comments of Krishnamurti featured in the previous Blog? Krishnamurti said he didn't know what meditation was. His comment was all to do with a particular kind of freedom and liberation; approaching meditation free from all intellectualizing, 'received wisdom' and detailed methodology. He urged a 'clearing of the decks' so that the practice can be approached with no expectation, no desire, no agenda. The message seems to be, 'Don't think about it, just do it.'
This can be harder than it sounds. Don't we have minds that are meant to think, rationalize, understand and plan? Let's see where this takes us with meditation.
We are often told that meditation is about 'letting go of thoughts'. We know that this is easier said than done! It also presents an immediate difficulty that can be bothersome; if we make it our aim or purpose to 'let go of thoughts', we are now trapped in preserving the thought that we must let go of thoughts! We now begin to wrestle with this complication, this paradox, and there is a very real danger that our practice will collapse right at the outset. We may conclude, 'meditation just isn't for me, I just can't do it.'
We see here, how the workings of the cognitive control regions of the brain ( like the lateral prefrontal cortex), the 'conscious mind', are centre stage. Our 'intuition', often called our 'adaptive unconscious' doesn't seem to have a seat at the table. We are full up with thinking, and this feels necessary. Surely anything less than serious thinking is lazy, intellectually dishonest and irresponsible.
It would indeed be foolish to suggest that 'thinking' is a bad thing, that we need to abandon it altogether, perhaps extracting the prefrontal cortex and committing it to the flames!
But have you noticed how our thinking can often make us worse at tasks? We 'tense up', 'tighten up'. We complicate, replacing freedom and spontaneity with doubt, fear and a distracting concern with perfectionism. The harder we try, the worse we do. We see this in sport, the job interview, the nervous music recital, the public speaking engagement, the driving test. How did things go so wrong when it really mattered, when the pressure was on?
Ancient Chinese philosophy introduced the concept of 'WU WEI'. Difficult to translate, it means something like 'non-action'. 'non-doing'; perhaps a better translation is 'effortless effort'. Today we may call it 'being in the zone', or 'being in the flow'. These are the moments when everything comes naturally, easily, unforced. Thought seems almost abandoned and unnecessary as we are 'lost' in the beautiful flow of our particular skill or activity. It just all falls into place.
These moments are wonderful to feel in ourselves or to observe in others. Although they have an 'effortless' quality about them, they are the product of practice. You may drive a car, bake a cake, be a juggler in the circus, swim, play the violin, or just tie your laces in the morning without giving total, intense thought to the detailed mechanics of what you are doing, but you can only operate with that kind of freedom because you have done the work and the practice. The spontaneity is cultivated! The freedom is earned! There is something that is eventually enlightening and liberating about the quiet, self-disciplined concentration given to tasks and everyday activities no matter how trivial. This, quite simply, is our training ground.
Let us now return to the above koan. Let us also return to the comment of Krishnamurti that he 'didn't know what meditation was'.
The monk was delivered a message of stark clarity and practicality; the enlightenment he sought was not to be found in burying himself in learning, doctrine and teachings, but in seeing what was in front of him with simplicity and clarity, and responding appropriately. Instead of some grand path, studiously choreographed, his task was to do the next thing that was to be done, free from complex diversion, free from clutter. Washing his porridge bowl was clearly the next thing to be done; so too, washing his mind of all the accumulated clutter and expectation. Here is the beautiful metaphor, the pearl of wisdom buried in this koan.
Krishnamurti said that we should approach meditation practice with exactly the same freedom from doctrine and learning and exactly the same simplicity and clarity, just being with 'what is here', as it is.
In meditation, as in many other activities, once we free ourselves from prejudgment, expectation, distraction, over-thinking and over-elaboration, we can allow ourselves to make a journey, entering the beauty of the practice. And it is the simple step by step practice, nothing more or less, that eventually opens up the way to insight and profound benefits. We can learn a lot from washing our porridge bowl.
'The spirituality found in Zen is not to think about God while peeling the potatoes; it is simply to peel the potatoes' (Alan Watts)