Clinging to a square peg in a world of round holes
This week we're looking at case 7 in the Gateless Barrier, appropriately titled 'Wash your bowl'. You might recall Zen Master Zhaozhou from case 1, in which a monk asks about Buddha Nature and is given a surprising answer. Now Zhaozhou is at it again, apparently placing more importance on cleanliness than teaching Zen - or is he?
Beginner's Mind, and the drawback of excessive learning
One of the first, most influential and most beloved Zen teachers in the West was Shunryu Suzuki, who ran the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1960s, and introduced a whole generation to a particular take on Zen practice. He is widely known for encouraging people to cultivate what he called 'beginner's mind' - indeed, the term is popular enough that a great many people who know nothing whatsoever about Zen will be familiar with at least the second half of Suzuki's famous statement:
'If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.'
Now, a little care is needed here. This statement is sometimes taken as a rejection of any kind of expertise at all, an indication that someone with no knowledge whatsoever about a field of study is not only just as capable of solving problems within that field as a so-called expert, but they're actually better able to do that, because the narrow-minded expert is supposedly hamstrung by their prejudices, whereas someone who just walked in off the street will produce more creative ideas due to being free of preconceptions. Personally, I hope I don't have to have brain surgery performed by my eight-year-old god-daughter anytime soon. I think there's a definite role for the cultivation of expertise, and I'm personally very grateful for the many years of hard work put in by those at the top of their fields. I have no idea how to build a bridge or repair a leaking gas main, and I'm very glad that there are people who do!
Suzuki is not rejecting experts and expertise. Rather, he's pointing to the way our perceptions change over time, with experience, and suggesting that we cultivate a certain kind of flexibility in our outlook, as opposed to allowing ourselves to become jaded, narrow-minded, painted into a corner by our own repetitive patterns of thought.
Let's now take a brief detour through some of the ideas of modern cognitive science, to get a sense of what's going on behind the scenes, and then bring it back to our direct experience to see if we can understand Suzuki's point at a subtler (and much more useful) level than the common interpretation.
Salience and cognitive framing
(The information in this section comes from John Vervaeke's excellent YouTube series Awakening From The Meaning Crisis. Highly, highly recommended if this kind of thing is of interest to you.)
One of the most important functions of our brains is what's called 'salience landscaping'. Basically, in any given situation, we have to figure out what matters most. At any moment, there's an infinite number of things we could be paying attention to - sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, memories, plans - but usually only a particular subset of those possible experiences is salient, i.e. relevant, to what we're trying to do. If I'm cycling in heavy traffic, I probably don't want to be analysing the sensations in each of my toes to see which one feels the warmest - I have more immediate concerns, like the cars whizzing past me and the traffic light changing to red up ahead.
Over time, we learn to identify what information is most salient in a wide range of different circumstances - and, as if by magic, that information 'pops' into our consciousness, like someone has applied a highlighter pen to certain sections of a page of text before handing it to us. When we're speaking to someone in an environment with a moderate amount of background noise, their words are salient while other conversations are not, so we're able to follow what's being said without having to sift through all the other simultaneous sounds at the conscious level. When we're scrolling through the latest offerings on Netflix, the movies and shows which match our interests are more salient than those that don't - they stand out from the crowd, so we can scan through screen after screen of junk fairly quickly looking for something that interests us. We sometimes find that a person we only vaguely know suddenly becomes more interesting to us when we learn that they have the same hobby as us - by virtue of the shared interest, that person is suddenly more salient to us than they were.
Key to this process is that our 'salience landscape' is adaptive - different features of our experience are salient in different situations. Noticing whether a traffic light is red or green is very important to me when I'm cycling, but if I'm sitting at a desk writing an article about Zen, I don't care whether the traffic light on the street outside my window is red, green or not working at all - honestly, I'd rather not know at all, because I'd prefer to focus all of my attention on what I'm trying to say. So it's very good news that we're able to move from one situation to another, shifting from one 'cognitive frame' to another as required.
However, this process isn't perfect. For one, if we don't recognise that it's happening, we won't realise that whatever we experience is only a way of looking at what's going on, as opposed to the truth. Our immediate subjective experience seems very clear and direct, doesn't it? There's no hint that what we're experiencing has been shaped by our cognitive frame in any way. Yet we also know that other people can bring different cognitive frames to the same situation, with different salience landscapes - and we may find that we disagree or even argue as a result, unable to understand why some trivial detail seems to be so important to the other person when they're blindly ignoring what's really important here.
Furthermore, the system is prone to error and distortion over time. If we consume a lot of negative news, we'll come to see the world as much darker and more hostile than someone who limits their media consumption - the threats will have become more salient to us than to the other person. And if we are repeatedly exposed to inaccurate, harmful ideas (such as racist ideologies), our salience landscape may shift to accommodate those poisonous ideas - we can become more and more likely to notice little details that 'prove' what we already 'know' about certain groups of people, for example. (This 'confirmation bias' also shows up in a more benign form as the 'yellow car phenomenon' - typically you don't care about yellow cars and never notice them, until one day you start thinking about buying a yellow car, at which point you start seeing them everywhere.)
Go wash your bowl
Let's get back to the koan now. On the face of it, we have a simple exchange. A monk wants an instruction from the teacher; Zhaozhou then asks if he's had his breakfast, and when the monk says yes, Zhaozhou tells him to go and wash his bowl.
We need to eat to survive. (I was going to say 'we need to eat breakfast' but I don't want to alienate readers who subscribe to a different eating model...) In the case of Zhaozhou's monastery, the monks eat a simple breakfast of gruel; the gruel goes in a bowl, and the monk eats the gruel. So far, so good. But now that the bowl and gruel have served their purpose, it's time to wash the bowl - to clean out the remaining bits of gruel, so that they don't weld themselves to the bowl and go nasty over time. Washing the bowl every day keeps it clean and fit for purpose, and stops the monks from getting ill from eating gruel out of horrible mouldy bowls.
We can look at our minds in the same way. We need to adopt particular cognitive frames to deal with the situations that life throws at us. But it's also very helpful if we can learn to put those frames down again - to move deliberately toward a condition of simplicity, through a practice such as Silent Illumination. By doing so, we 'clean' our minds - we return over and over to a condition of openness, the 'beginner's mind' which is open to many possibilities. In so doing, we become flexible, responsive, able to move from frame to frame as needed but without getting stuck there. A hand is useful because it can pick up objects, but if we never put those objects down again, we lose the utility of the hand. In the same way, our minds can adapt to all sorts of different situations, but if we aren't willing to put down the cognitive frame that served us in the last situation, we may not be able to pick up an appropriate frame for the next situation. We find ourselves thinking 'But it isn't supposed to be like this!', unable to move forward because we're still trying to fit the square peg we expected to need into the round hole of the actual situation.
In the long run, then, we can view the entire path of Zen training as learning to wash our bowls. We spend time in silence, letting go of whatever is encrusting our minds over and over, and we develop introspective awareness, becoming sensitive to our own state, able to notice when we're still holding on to yesterday's gruel rather than making room for today's. In time, we get better and better at noticing when we're sliding into a cognitive frame that doesn't fit the situation, letting go and opening up to a wider view which affords us more possibilities, and then bringing our genuine expertise to bear on whatever's going on. Life becomes less stop-start, less of a battle, more of a flow.
So what are you waiting for? Go wash your bowl!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!