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Memories from the Root Temple: Washing Dishes

Dear Friends,
In celebration of our teacher’s return to Tu Hieu Temple, Vietnam, where he practiced as a novice monk, we would like to offer you a series of stories Thay has told of his time there. This is the third in that series.

Washing Dishes

by Thich Nhat Hanh

Excerpted from “At Home in the World: Stories and essential teachings from a monk’s life”

When I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task.

During the annual Rains retreat all the monks would come back to the monastery to practice together for three months, and sometimes we were only two novices who had to do all the cooking and wash all the dishes for 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 difficult chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold.

Then we had to heat up a big pot of water before we could do any scrubbing. Nowadays with liquid soap, special scrub pads, and even hot running water it is much easier to enjoy washing the dishes.

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.

A young practitioner washing dishes in Plum Village

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 be able to finish so I can sit down sooner and eat dessert or enjoy a cup of tea, 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 the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!

If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert or a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert or my tea when I finally have them.

With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the texture and the flavor of the dessert, together with the pleasure of eating it, will be lost.

I will be constantly dragged into the future, miss out on life altogether, and never able to live in the present moment.

Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane.

I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy.

Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end. We do the dishes not only in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them, and to be truly in touch with life.


Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred.

Memories from the Root Temple:
Washing Dishes

Join the conversation

  • Thanks for the post. It is a really really meaningful story. Thank you so much, Pro. Thich Nhat Hanh. You light my soul in any way. From here, not only washing dishes but others “doing”. If we just yell that “doing” is very hard, very boring and delay it again again. Then we can finish it. Just “Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end”. Enjoy our living. “Doing” means “living”. The most post impressing me. thanks a lot.

  • There is no substitute for living in the present moment. Or, at least, finding oneself in the present moment and identifying oneself there. It is a transformative experience. It is where the sacred is present. The sacrament. The communion. It is clear that Thich Nhat Hanh has opened the way for many of us to experience the sacred in the present moment. And we are grateful to him. For me, he stands beside Martin Luther King, and Jesus, in being the presence of the Christ in the world. The presence of Christ that testifies to the presence of God in the midst of suffering, pain, and destruction, and also present in the midst of joy, love, and peace.

  • Thay’s happiness in washing dishes for the monks at the Rains Retreat is the joy of service coming from a generous heart . I can fully subscribe to that having just returned from my mission to a farming community in Cheng Mai county on Hainan Island where my team operated on over 40 kids with birth defects . It was hard work and challenging like the lack of soap and hot running water when Thay was washing the dishes. But the smile on the faces of the kids and their parents after the operations were over gave the team members a lot of satisfaction and joy much like what Thay felt after finishing washing the dishes. You can really sit back and enjoy a cup of tea and savour the warmth of selfless giving and service.

    • Dear Deborah,

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      A smile,

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    What is Mindfulness

    Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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