[NB: Go here to see this past Sunday's comic strip, which is germane to this post. I decided I'd do a little Zen exegesis of that comic fo' yo' big behind.]
It's a famous kong-an:
A monk once asked Zen Master Joju (the Korean name for Chn. Chao Chou or Jpn. Joshu), "I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me, Master."
Joju said, "Have you had breakfast?"
"Yes, I have," replied the monk.
"Then," said Joju, "go wash your bowls."
The monk was enlightened.
[from Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen, p. 363]
Back when I was in elementary school and our family used to attend a fire-and-brimstone Baptist church, my mind would always wander during the Sunday service. I'd try to concentrate on the hymns, but they'd morph into parodies of themselves. At Christmastime, the little Lord Jesus didn't "lay down his sweet head," as the song "Away in a Manger" claims. No: in my mind, Jesus lay down his sour head. I had no idea what a "sour head" was, but I imagined a Jesus who looked a lot like Johnny Lemonhead in the Red Meat comic strip. As a little kid, it was hard not to giggle at the image of my lemon-headed lord and savior. Christus Cephalocitrus.
Things haven't changed much. Whenever I hear love-themed pop songs, I routinely replace "heaven" with "Kevin" (knock-knock-knockin' on Kevin's door) and "love" with "slugs": Now that we've got slugs, what're we gonna do with them? [NB: Cobb does this one better, and replaces "heart" with "dick." Try it. Don't go breakin' my dick.] Beautiful poetry curdles in my brain: My mistress' ass is nothing like the sun. So when I first encountered Joju's kong-an almost ten years ago, the advice I saw him giving the adept was, naturally, to go wash his balls.
Many kong-an follow a pretty standard format. Many end with some form of the phrase, "...and the monk was enlightened." Very often, the enlightenment seems to happen after what we take to be the crucial moment in the dialogue-- for example, the young boy whose finger is cut off by Gutei doesn't get enlightenment until after Gutei shouts at him to turn around, and raises his own finger one last time.
The Alien's dialogue with the monk is simply a rehash of kong-an that follow this basic template. Like those kong-an, the Alien's exchange is about ordinariness: washing your bowls after you've eaten (or washing your balls after you've gotten all sweaty) is a natural, commonsense thing to do-- nothing special. Zen is "just this," and very often a kong-an is a way of pointing back to the just-this by laughingly reminding us that reality doesn't need us to overthink it. It's the human condition to want to make more of reality than we should, which is why, in Zen, the notion of mirror-mind is important. Mirrors have symbolic value in Asian culture and are often associated with nobility, but in Zen, the mirror serves as a practical metaphor for nonattachment: the mirror doesn't "make" or "keep" anything. When a deer passes in front of a mirror, the mirror shows the deer. When the deer leaves, there's no deer in the mirror. The mirror doesn't keep the deer. Neither should your mind.
The Alien's "hmmmm" is the "hmmmm... let me see" of every Zen student who's too busy concocting a pithy answer to realize that the answer's right there and requires no concoction. The Zen master hits the Alien, and the Alien (who also stands in for the reader) first gets the wrong idea about what the master is doing: he was only killing a dangerous bug! It was about to bite the Alien-- there wasn't time for hemming and hawing; action had to arise naturally in that moment. The Alien's "hmmmm" is very dangerous because his mind has already started down the wrong path. All the master did was act with ordinary mind. Ordinary mind is Tao. The Alien's "AH-HAAAAAAAA!" was the realization that the master was doing nothing special. At that moment, the Alien got enlightenment.
When Bodhidharma came to China, the future second patriarch came to visit him. Bodhidharma would not talk to him. To show that he was sincere in his quest, the second patriarch cut off his arm and presented it to Bodhidharma. Seeing this, Bodhidharma asked him, "What do you want?"
The second patriarch said, "My mind is not rested. Please pacify it for me."
Bodhidharma said, "Bring me your mind and I will pacify it."
The second patriarch was nonplussed: "I cannot find my mind when I look for it."
"There," said Bodhidharma, "I have pacified it for you."
Seung Sahn's The Compass of Zen contains a great commentary on the "wash your bowls" kong-an. It goes deeper than my above commentary and points out that, if the adept is sitting before the master for an interview, then the adept must already have washed his bowls. What is Joju playing at, then, by telling the adept to wash his bowls when they both know the bowls have already been washed? Something for you to think about. Or not.
[By the way, were you replacing "bowls" with "balls" as you read through the above paragraph? Hee hee.]
UPDATE: My buddy the Air Marshal reads the kong-an as "Go wash your bowels." I love it.
UPDATE 2: Like the gray-robed monk in my Sunday strip, Zen Mama Lorianne also asks, "What are you doing now?" But she couches the question in a much nicer, much deeper blog post. Go thou and read.
UPDATE 3: Luisa (she of digitalpixi fame, cf. my sidebar) writes:
I spent 11 years singing "Jesus Slugs Me" and "Jesus Slugs the Little Children" before I realized what the lyrics really were. Probably had something to do with growing up in Southern Virginia and listening to blurred speech. Y'all know whatuh mean?