The Zen of Dish Washing

A Buddhist monk once said something like, “There is so much to do Image: Thich Nhat Hanh washes dishes.and so little time to do it, we must take great care not to move too quickly.”  A great dishwasher I used to know once said, “There are so many dishes here before us, and lunchtime is approaching; thus, we must employ great speed.”

There’s a lot of sense in that last statement.  As for the first one, well, I’ll leave it to the monks.  Actually, the great dishwasher who said the second quote was, at the time he said it, standing next to me, and we were sharing the great pleasure of his proud art.  We were doing the dishes.

There is something to be gained in washing the dishes.  But you have to shift your focus.

The monk and the dishwasher must have known each other.  They both spoke with fortitude of their task and the path to which each knew he must adhere.  Each knew what lay ahead, and each steadied himself so that he might perform better.  Yes, the dishwasher has a lot in common with the Zen Master.  I know this because I have read zen works and I have stood beside a dishwasher; yes I too have experienced the zen of dishwashing.

“The question clear, the answer deep, each particle, each instant a reality..”  (Sodo 1841-1920)  I pondered this 19th century Buddhist poem as I plunged my wrinkled hands into the sudsy hot depths of the sink and caught a slotted spoon.  My translation went more like, “The water unclear, the suds deep, each particle, each bit of cooked-on food a reality.”  I wondered if I’d ever see the end of the pile of dirty dishes I had to wash.  Then I remembered another Buddhist poem:  “Fresh in their new wraps, Earth and Heaven, and today I greet my eighty-first Spring.  Ambition burning still, I grip my nandin staff.  Cutting through all, I spin the Wheel of Law.” (Nantembo 1839-1925)  Ahhh, I thought; here I stand, fresh in my new apron, kitchen and hell, and today I greet my eighty-first dish.  Ambition flaring to get out of here, I grip my S.O.S. pad.  Cutting through all grease, I look at my hands and they’re raw.

Okay, so being a dishwasher isn’t the most convenient of jobs.  But it’s got character.  It’s poetic.  I’m convinced that most of the Buddhist monks who wrote poetry got their ideas while they were dish washing.  I mean, what better time for a lyricists’s musings, when there is warm water to dunk one’s hands into, and the cat is rubbing against your leg?  “Under the cloudy cliff, near the temple door, between dusky Spring plants on the pond, a frog jumps in the water, plop!  Startled, the poet drops his brush.” (Sengai 1750-1837)  This guy must have been washing dishes when he came up with this one.  Didn’t he mean:  “Under the cloudy water, near the clogged up drain, between obscure chunks of food on the bottom of the sink, a hand searches to pull the plug.  A messy cheese grater gets dumped in the water, plop!  Startled, the dishwasher drops his scrub brush?”  You see, the dishwasher thought he was done, but that cheese grater spoiled his mood.  He couldn’t handle it, and so he lost his grip on the scrub brush he was holding.  Believe me, I can identify the situation.

However, there is a better side to the relationship between Zen Buddhism and washing dishes.  It’s actually rather nifty, because you can meditate while you scrub.  You’re really killing two birds with one stone,* because the meditation calms you and you don’t have to wonder what other people are thinking as you reach into your inner depths.  They’ll all assume you’re just reaching into the depths of the sink.

Dishes are open-source, too; each rinsed round is like a little blank slate reminiscent of one aspect of our home planet.  From a backyard project to what any one of us wishes he could tell Congress, this chore presents a rich time for grounding peace and contemplating the next move toward a goal.  Heck, I even read a book telling me how to “wash the dishes to wash the dishes” once.  But that’s a whole other story.

The next time you find yourself stuck in the kitchen with your arms up to their elbows in soggy quiche from your dinner party the night before, strike up an attitude and entertain some deep thoughts.  For, as the Buddhist says, “Should you desire the great tranquility, prepare to sweat white beads.” (Ekaku 1685-1768)

*No animals were harmed in the writing of this article.