Education? For What?

Education is not "training for" something--"for" a profession, a trade, an occupation of whatever sort. Nor is education for the sake of such training. Rather, all training "to do such-and-such" is for education without further "purpose," for well-formed human being itself.

                                                                                                --Max Scheler*

Max Scheler

Max Scheler


There are two ways to wash the dishes. One way is to wash the dishes in order to get them clean. The other way is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.

Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that in his by now old book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He recommends the second way of washing the dishes: washing the dishes to wash the dishes. 

There is great wisdom in that recommendation. It is a very knowing recommendation, filled with the kind of knowledge that can be truly liberating.

Not to mention that it can also lead to the best-washed dishes.

Such knowledge can be most especially liberating for anyone who is a bit of a klutz physically, as I have always been.

Since my spouse and I got married almost half a century ago, I have been the family dishwasher. In that one way, at least, I have always played one of the traditional male roles in an American marriage.  

In the beginning, I had no choice but to wash the dishes by hand. The places we could afford to live back then did not come equipped with automatic dishwashers.

But eventually we moved up on the income ladder and came to live in a place that did have one. After that, for a relatively brief time of ten or fifteen years, I let such machines usurp primary responsibility for washing the family dishes, robbing me without my even knowing it of my freedom to be that part of who I was (and still am).

Only after reading Thich Nhat Hanh and learning what he had to teach me was I able to reclaim my position as family dishwasher, taking it back from the machines.

We still have an automatic dishwasher. At any rate we have one in one of the two homes we own: our primary residence in Colorado, where we are for seven months each year, from fall to spring.

However, we have no such mechanical device in our second home on the New Jersey Shore, where we spend the remaining months of the year.

Moreover, even when we are in our place in Colorado, we only use the automatic dishwasher a few times each year, whenever we have a large dinner with extended family and/or other guests at our house, and the volume of dirty dishes expands accordingly. Otherwise, even back home in Colorado I remain the family dishwasher, retaining my release from bondage to the machine.

What I learned about washing the dishes from reading Thich Nhat Hanh has also diminished my klutziness itself a bit.

dish being washed.jpeg

I still remain a klutz, of course. That's just part of being who I've been given to be.

But since learning the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, I have become a bit less klutzy, at least as a dishwasher: I break fewer dishes while washing them.

As is often the case when dealing with such things, struggling to control one's klutziness soon reaches a point of specific counter-productivity, as Ivan Illich called it. That point, in one way of putting it, is the point at which the way one adopts in order to realize a given purpose becomes instead productive of the very opposite-- strengthening the opposition as it were.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that when one washes the dishes one should wash each dish as though one were washing the baby Buddha.

When I first started practicing the Thich Nhat Hanh method of washing the dishes, I inadvertently let that particular recommendation get in my way, for a while making me even more klutzy at it than I had been before. I was so worried about disrespecting the oh-so-delicate holiness of the baby Buddha I was trying to let each dish be for me that I got all tensed up whenever I went to the sink.

It was sheer luck that I did not destroy the entire family dish collection before I received enlightenment on that score.

That enlightenment came by way of my suddenly, at the sink and a dish in hand, remembering that babies, when being washed, thrive on being washed playfully, as though it were for sheer fun, rather than being washed solemnly, as though being laid out by an undertaker for burial.  

That insight was liberating, in more ways that one. It freed me to be no more and no less than the klutz that I was and still am—which liberation reduced my klutziness considerably.

And it freed me fully to acquire the dishwashing wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, and make it my own--as Goethe advises us all to do with our heritage, whatever that heritage may be for each single one of us.

Thus, since reading and learning what Thich Nhat Hanh had to teach me about dishwashing I have become again what I was before, only now with clarity. In that way I have become like T. S. Eliot's around-the-world traveler who eventually comes back again to where he began, only knowing it now for the very first time.

In both that traveler's case of going round the world and my own case of washing the family dishes, what was involved was undergoing an educational experience: one that teaches one who one is, and lets one become that at last.

*Max Scheler, "Formen des Wissens und die Bildung" ("Education and Forms of Knowledge"), in Philosophische Weltanschauung (Bern: A. Franke Verlag, 1954), p. 32, in my own free translation.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh