The Dishes’ Dharma

“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!”
Thich Nhat Hanh

There are a thousand Zen stories about the dharma of doing the dishes.  From the mindfulness training expressed by Brother Thay above, to the metaphoric expression that life after enlightenment is much like life before the final awakening filled with laundry and chopping wood.  If the art of doing dishes somehow measured our progress along the path, I should think this week I have been in the carpool lane to Nirvana.  It’s been a dozen days now that we have had no kitchen sink, which also means no dishwasher.  So each of us have had the opportunity to roll up our sleeves (ok it’s southern California we don’t have sleeves to roll up) and place our hands in the warm water.

I must say the entire experience of the kitchen sink project has been one that brings my Zen teaching up close and personal.  From the groundlessness of not knowing when the plumbing venture will be complete to the present moment awareness of my dysautonmic body as I try and maneuver myself in front of a tiny barcounter sinkette off of the family room.   When I am feeling relatively well, I realize that I quite enjoy heating up water in the microwave and filling a small bowl with suds and taking my time with each item that I pick up in my hands.

On one occasion during a very warm afternoon coupled with some very messy dishes that would have wrecked havoc on the tiny sinkette off of the family room, I took a large bowl of hot sudsy water and an arm load of pots, pans and food preparation tools outside in the backyard.  As I copped a squat beside a green patch of grass and began scrubbing the tools of my trade (if I were a tradesman of any kind I suppose) I could feel this deep sense of déjà vu.  Not that I had ever sat in a field washing dishes by a stream before, but I could tell by some ancient cellular memory that somebody had.  My DNA danced as the sun made the soap bubbles sparkle and the cool water from the hose tickled the backs of my middle-aged hands.  This is how dishes should be washed. I mused to myself.

There are a lot of memories around dish washing that have tapped around my frontal lobes during the last two weeks (I realize it hasn’t been quite two weeks yet, but judging by the pace we seem to be locked into it will be some time still before we once again have running water in the kitchen.)  Growing up I remember my grandfather washing the dinner dishes often with a dab of Prell shampoo.  He use to hum a little tune that would have made Thich Nhat Hanh proud.

When I was 17 and having a dinner party of sorts, I asked one of the guests whom I had never met before if he would marry me and do the dishes every night.  He said yes and eventually became my first husband, true to his word.

With all of my hands on memories of cleaning dishes, I realize I had very little hands on experience with dishpan hands.  So there is some enjoyment in the novelty of the Art of Dishwashing that continues to change the way we prepare, cook and clean up after our meals.

And while I do enjoy the times when my body is up to the physical demands of washing a few cups and saucers, I also see that I have very little patience and much less Zen when I see that one of my teenagers has a collection of Petri dishes in their room or when I have to re-wash all of the dinner dishes the morning after because the quality control was sorely lacking from last night’s teen performance.  Though admittedly each of those scenarios still happens even when we have a dishwashing machine in working order.  I suspect it is one of those things that is in the DNA of teenagers to be head strong and haphazard.

I’m not sure I’ve reached the point of seeing the chore of dishes as the miracle of life, but I certainly see the opportunity to practice the teaching in each faraway bubble and sententious scouring.  For that I am very grateful indeed.


  1. guttrachi
    May 5, 2010    

    Doing dishes is therapeutic! Think of the piece and tranquility of seeing all those spots coming off and clean dishes being able to go back in the cabinet. Dish washers deprive you of that satisfaction of completing a task with pride. Maybe you should consider doing them by the fish pond each night! The gold fish and other critters would probably appreciate the treat. Love Dad

  2. Shaila
    May 5, 2010    

    Years ago, A friend who is Christian (I am hindu, I call all bible derived people this) wrote little mindful notes and posted them all over the house. At the kitchen sink something like, I am bathing baby jesus as I wash this dish. etc etc. Jews have prayers for almost every task. I love that.

    In the not so distant path, people have walked to canada, barefoot to save themselves and ensure freedom for their children. In my own life time, I saw women breaking up rocks and carrying the baskets of rocks on construction sites in 120 degree heat. Most of us, almost never have to do anything nearly difficult.

    These are two examples I give those that want to complain about their incredibly well paid jobs.

    Every moment, every task can be a great opportunity.

  3. Shawn H.
    May 6, 2010    

    Its silly, incredibly so. But I take pride in gathering the dishes and utensils left by my housemates. Some days not so quietly, especially when I think how much harder it would be for those self same housemates to walk the additional three or four step, turn on the tap and rinse those self same dishes and utensils off and save me the added chore of soaking out the gunk that has solidified into a concrete any mason would be proud to use. However…. as I digress, I do enjoy the feeling of accomplishment I get when I have chiselled away the gunk and grime of some previous meal. I also get a strange sense of pride when the sink is empty, the dishwasher is empty, and the cabinets and cupboards are neatly stacked with shining plates, cups, and saucers. Its not world peace… but it is a sense of peace in my world. I may not have my name in bronze on some world monument and history will have forgotten that on this date Shawn Hammond did scour the crockpot. But I will remember it. At least until tomorrow when I scour it again.

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