The Art of Washing Dishes

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Dear Still Water Friends,

When I was twelve, I argued with my stepmother about washing the dishes. I felt trapped by the task which seemed onerous, and like it would never end. I washed the dishes as quickly as I could, impatient to finish so I could rush to my room and read a mystery.

Later that summer, I attended a small summer camp where we washed the dishes as a team. The counselors helped us campers fill plastic tubs with water, creating a series of washing, rinsing, and drying stations, just as we do now on Still Water retreats, following the example of the monks and nuns in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition.

At camp, I really enjoyed working with a team of other dishwashers, joking and splashing with everyone else. Cleaning off the food residue and scrubbing the pots thoroughly felt important in the context of getting ready for the next meal we’d share as a community. My enjoyment and persistence must have been apparent because, to my great surprise, at the end of our summer camp session, I won an award for Best Dishwasher!

Today, washing dishes is still not my favorite task to do alone, though I am happy to participate with others. I especially enjoy the camaraderie of washing dishes during our silent retreats. At home, I find remembering Thich Nhat Hanh’s gatha about dishwashing helpful because his tender image of washing a baby Buddha shifts the mundane, messy task into a new perspective for me.

Washing the dishes
is like bathing a baby Buddha.
The profane is the sacred.
Everyday mind is Buddha’s mind.

The gatha lightens my resistance, and helps me come back to a sense of participating in a larger context. I want my plates, bowls, silverware, and cups to be clean as a form of renewal and self-care. Washing them mindfully slows my ingrained impulse to hurry up and get the task done so I can move on to something else. But I know when I stop rushing ahead of myself, say the gatha, and stay with the acts of washing, scrubbing, drying, and putting away the dishes, my attitude changes. Remembering to slow down in the first place and read the gatha is the key for me.

Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) talks about the benefits of samatha, the practice of stopping and calming,  in a 1997 Plum Village Dharma Talk titled “Walking into the Kingdom of God”:

Your true home is always there, if you know how to handle the monkey within yourself, how to stop running. Each of us is like a hungry ghost. We are hungry for love, we are hungry for understanding. We are hungry for stability, for freedom, and that is why we have been running all the time. We have not had a chance to stop and rest. That is why the practice of meditation is first of all the practice of stopping and resting in order to go back to your true home. That is the real meaning of samatha. Samatha means stopping, calming.

Samatha has the meaning of lulling, it is like a lullaby, to take care of it like a baby; to calm it down; to stop its crying; to make it feel peaceful, Samatha is like that, because there is a child in us always suffering, always agitated. That is the other aspect of the monkey, always agitating, always suffering, always crying, and samatha is the practice to stop, to calm and to embrace.

This Thursday night, after our meditation period, we will explore the following questions in our dharma sharing: How has mindfulness helped you approach the daily tasks you dislike or find difficult? What is your experience of stopping and calming in your life, and how does the practice support you?

You are invited to join us!

Another excerpt by Thich Nhat Hanh on the practice of calming and stopping is below.

Many Blessings,
Eliza King

Practicing Samatha
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from the 1997 Plum Village Dharma talk titled “Walking into the Kingdom of God.”

There is a child that suffers in us. There is a monkey who is restless in us. But we need someone to take care of the child, to take care of the monkey, to embrace them. We have to provide that person that will do the work. We cannot let the monkey be alone. We cannot let the hungry ghost in us, the hungry child, the suffering child in us, be alone. We have to come home and take care and embrace. That is the practice of samatha.

The Chinese ti means to stop, to stop the suffering, to stop the agitation. You can bring a lot of peace, of comfort, through the practice of samatha. When you are calm, when you are comforted, then you can practice the other part of meditation which is vipasyana. It means looking deeply. Looking deeply in order to understand. When you are concentrated, you are calm, you are in a position to look and to see, that kind of vision will have the power to liberated you from the rest of the suffering in you. These are two elements of Buddhist meditation. When you come to Plum Village, your purpose is not to learn Buddhist philosophy or Pali or Sanskrit or Tibetan or Vietnamese. Your purpose in coming to Plum Village is to learn how to embrace the suffering child within you, the hungry ghost within, the turbulent monkey within. That’s samatha.

So learn the practice. There are many forms of practice that can help you to do this. And after you have held it in your loving arms, you’ll be able to look deeply and to get the kind of wisdom, to get the kind of understanding that will liberate you. Liberation in Buddhism is liberation by insight, not by grace. That insight would not be possible without the practice of deep looking meditation. Dhyana, meditation, has two components: embracing, calming and then looking deeply into the nature of what is. And these are two elements of transformation and healing.

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