“Washing the dishes to wash the dishes” by Thich Nhat Hanh

Thirty years ago, when I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the Season of Retreat when all the monks returned to the monastery, two novices had to do all the cooking and wash the dishes for sometimes well over one hundred monks.

There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then you had to heat up a big pot of water before you could do any scrubbing.

Nowadays one stands in a kitchen equipped with liquid soap, special scrubpads, and even running hot water which makes it all the more agreeable. It is easier to enjoy washing the dishes now. Anyone can wash them in a hurry, then sit down and enjoy a cup of tea afterwards. I can see a machine for washing clothes, although I wash my own things out by hand, but a dishwashing machine is going just a little too far!

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.

 

At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

 

The cup in your hands

. . . There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. . . .

If while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.

In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

13 Responses to “Washing the dishes to wash the dishes” by Thich Nhat Hanh

  1. S@scha Krüger April 21, 2009 at 2:25 pm #

    Hy!I have to comment on this!I’ve always thought about household chores that it was a boring task untill I got a book:”Living close to God” that was written by brother Lorens…..it taught me to see and feel in different ways and use those tasks/chores as a meditation as it were……
    I promise you…..a whole new life came to me!Because when you are “changing” one way…..it will be an enormous domino-effect!
    For 6 years ago my life changed even more:I had to use a wheelchair instead of my rollator I had for 12 years.A big change….suddenly all kind of people decided over my head how my life would be…..what I could do or couldn’t……without anny discussion!
    I knwe one thing for sure:I still good do my own dishes!I had to fight to get the handicap-changes in my flat …but I won!And now I can enjoy sitting there…….meditating over my dishes…and still washed by me!It is a tiny little thing perhaps…..but when everybody else think you have lost all your marbles just because your legs don’t work,is every little thing you still CAN do by your self the jackpot in the lottery!
    It’s priceless to gain a little respect and my own selfrespect was at the same time growing as well!
    One day I can’t do my dishes anymore…and other things I still can…..but when that day comes we’ll see how to work it out without loosing any selfrespect!
    Thank you I got the chance to tell my story!

    With love from Sascha Krüger ,KArlstad,Sweden,Europe

    • STEVEN J SOLARI May 26, 2009 at 11:29 pm #

      I AM THANKFUL FOR LIVING IN AMERICA. FAMILY AND FRIENDS

  2. Phyllis S. April 21, 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    I highly recommend Thich Naht Hanh’s book, “Peace is Every Step” which I first read about 10 years ago, and gifted it to many people over the years. He so beautifully explains mindfulness — living in the moment — with examples like eating a tangerine, seeing the sun and the rain in a piece of paper…

    Reading this article is reminding me about the value and joy of living in the moment … even if just for a moment!

  3. pattyeg April 21, 2009 at 6:25 pm #

    With the commercials to buy yellow cap Tide so those who circumstances do not allow them to have clean clothes(dishes);I now take time to pray as I wash my dishes. A few years ago I was living in my car and my husband and I found we had a choice to make.We could moan and complain or thank God we still had the ability to look for Him in every step we took.

  4. Karen S. April 21, 2009 at 7:13 pm #

    Thank you for reminding me of this! With a very necessary surgery to protect my vision coming up in three weeks, (with a very long recovery without reading, driving, etc.) I had gotten caught up in the list! Thank, you, thank you, THANK YOU! for reminding me to live these days I have before the surgery rather than race through the list to get to the surgery.

    Your email was a divine gift of love.

    Will brush of my copy of Peace is Every Step to review. Thank you for helping me to remember my center is my focus.

    May you be blessed for all you are doing to improve the world through your blog/mailing list.

  5. Jack Venable April 21, 2009 at 8:04 pm #

    I can surely appreciate this article as I have had to do many “chores” without the aid of machines. To do by hand allows you to be your complete self as you concentrate on the “chore” itelf. To load a machine is an act of training but to use your hands is to exercise the brain thats in control. Thanks to the great author by reminding us how spoiled we are in the present “tech and mechine world ..

  6. Frreda Perry April 21, 2009 at 8:50 pm #

    I make it very simple in my daily living to be FULLY PRESENT in every aspect of my day.
    When I do that, which includes the washing of my dishes, miracles arrive in as many ways as I can handle and I get to choose which miracle I get to participate in during that particular day.
    Try it out for yourself. You’ll see how enriching every task is when you approach it with full participation and respect. Have a beautiful day!!
    Freda of Vancouver, Canada.

  7. Emil Gamm May 28, 2009 at 3:26 pm #

    Today and allways I am thankfull that I served my country,held my civilian job for 25 yrs.,have been married for 35 yrs,having 2 teriffic step daughters,4 grand children,3 great grandchildren,and 1 one on the way,am retired and have a home business in indoor fresh.air.
    I would be very thankful for visiters to my site.
    Emil Pa., U.S.A

    • Emil gamm December 15, 2009 at 10:34 pm #

      This is my message. I told all ,I was in a new business. I just didn’t give you the web site. http://www.living-life-better.com . I am thankfull for having this business, because, I can help so many people. live healther.
      Emil Pa. U.S.A.

  8. Cindy Wright December 15, 2009 at 4:53 pm #

    I am Thankful for my God,with him I have everything I need in life!!

  9. sara December 16, 2009 at 1:34 am #

    As with a lot of your stories I have experienced great loss in many areaa of my life..and I guess that’s all intertwined. My faith this year has been expotentially increased and that is an amazing accomplishment for me! I realize how blessed I am! Upstate, NY

  10. BEV December 29, 2009 at 12:48 pm #

    MY HOPES AND DREAMS FOR 2010. ARE TO BE FREE OF CANCER FOREVER IF GOD WANTS IT THAT WAY..

  11. monique December 29, 2009 at 1:13 pm #

    i just finished washing the dishes and sit with my cup of tea and read this article, what a ‘coincidence’! thanks for sharing.
    Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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