A Practice in Zen Mindfulness

My hands, enclosed within thick rubber gloves to prevent another flare-up of eczema, moved of their own awkward accord to wash the dishes. Per habit, I washed my teaware first before progressing to the cooking dishes. I shifted my weight from one foot to another; deliberating between which podcast to listen to or if I ought to watch another episode of China Star. Just recently, I had joked with a dear friend about how much I loathed washing dishes. It’s my least favorite chore and I’ve felt the need to accompany the time with some other activity (say, a podcast on creative writing, about international exchange, about diversity and inclusion, about translation; or at least to leisurely enjoy music).

The rushing sound of water would muffle the natural surroundings of my current outdoor view (a picturesque surrounding of coconut and guava trees with the occasional thud of a coconut, common shrill cries from black or brahminy kites, the calculating calls from house crows, and the pleasant symphony of many birds during golden hour — black-rumped flameback woodpeckers, coppersmith barbets, white-throated kingfishers, and so forth). All of these effervescent neighbors from the skies of Goa alas fade with the sound of steel pans clucking protests of squeaky cleanliness.

Yet in my rush to complete the dishes, I hadn’t selected a podcast or other entertainment to keep my wandering mind quiet, or at least attentive. I decided to finish lathering and rinsing all my teaware and then would retreat to indulge my mind before returning to finish the bulk of the dishes.

Nimbly, I set down my precious cha’bei, gifted by a friend as I departed Xi’an in 2015, unto the counter. I have the habit of being rather clumsy (having already broken one double-walled glass travel cup and the lid of a gaiwan within the past year) and didn’t want to risk breaking something so precious to me. Kintsugi, a topic I am researching for a short story, is precious in learning about but I did not want to excavate the setting to employ it within my own precious teaware.

I then took my transparent gaiwan and glass fairness pitcher and rinsed them hurriedly. I glanced over my shoulder, frowning at the still-rushing water as I set them on the counter, clanging them together accidentally. My frown embodied what I hated about running water (even as a child I would shout to turn off the tap, to conserve water, if it were left running for even a few seconds in between rinsing dishes); furthermore, I was concerned whether the additional seconds of it running would cause the hated drain to clog once again. It was while my eyes were away, already where I wanted my hands to move next, that I heard the sound of shattering glass.

Learning to Wash Tea Cups - Photo of broken fairness pitcher

I turned, too late, to see that my fairness pitcher had crumbled into two pieces: the spout had fallen forward, as if someone had removed the jawline from a taxonomized creature. And the rest still sat proud, though its body featured a few hairline fractures. 

I turned off the water. I peeled off my thick, cursed rubber gloves. I blamed them, at first. If only I didn’t have a genetic skin disorder and needed to wear these clunky things, then I would have known that the spacing would have been too close. I could have prevented this pitcher from breaking, if only my bare hands were privileged to wash dishes naked.

I held up the glass, slicing the ring finger of my left hand. I sighed, accepting defeat that I couldn’t salvage this fairness pitcher. 

I had bought it in Maliandao, Beijing in 2018. I had appreciated it for its simplicity: The transparent body an advantage when brewing tea, as the liquor of the tea could respectfully boast its properties when held up to pour. It easily matched with whichever tea set I would brew with: A dui jin gaiwan, a transparent gaiwan, a purple yixing teapot, a crimson yixing teapot, a glazed side-handled teapot, etc. 

I sighed.

A book recently gifted by a dear friend and fellow writer arose to my mind: “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh. Within the first chapter, the Zen master and Nobel Peace Prize nominee describes how one ought to wash the dishes:

“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.”

Broken pitcher unmoved, I returned to the cabinet in which I had kept the half-read book, seeking the remainder of the passage. Thich Nhat Hanh continues:

“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.”

Wistful, I glanced back at my fairness pitcher. It was through my concentration on the future and the distraction from my overactive mind that I had become disjointed with reality, thus allowing this accident to occur within my very hands due to inattentive eyes. I located the passage and read on:

“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 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.”

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