How a Zen Master washes his hands

A Buddhist monk once told a group of us a story about his teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, which often makes me a good deal happier when I wash my hands. At the time we were talking about Gathas, the practice verses that are used in Zen to help us to remain in the present moment. There is a verse for just about everything – waking up in the morning, doing the washing up, sweeping the floor, even driving a car:

Before starting the car
I know where I’m going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.

Reciting these short verses as we do each action brings us back to the present moment.

The gatha for turning on a tap goes like this:

Water comes from high mountain sources.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us and sustains all life.
My gratitude is filled to the brim.

The story the monk told us goes like this. A group of monastics were on a teaching tour of South-East Asia with Thich Nhat Hanh, when they stopped at a service station by the roadside, somewhere in Malaysia. At the time, roadside washrooms in Malaysia were not always as clean as those in their monastery in France, and the monk told us how he went to the bathroom, which was  a little dirty, then went to a rather grimy outside basin where a makeshift tap poured out rather dubious water. The whole experience made him wince a little.

He saw his Zen Master teacher going to the lavatory after him, and worried that he wasn’t going to enjoy the experience either. So he was immensely surprised to see that when Thich Nhat Hanh came to wash his hands at the grimy sink, as he turned on the tap and the water flowed out, he smiled, a big happy smile.

‘Then I knew what was happening,’ the monk told us, ‘he was smiling because he was reciting the gatha for turning on the tap!’

Water comes from high mountain sources. Water runs deep in the Earth. Miraculously, water comes to us and sustains all life. My gratitude is filled to the brim… When you feel this deeply, believe it with your whole body, and have recited this verse all your life every time you turn on a tap, how can you not smile, no matter where you are washing your hands? It is miraculous!

The monk understood that this was a great lesson in the power of using gathas to increase happiness. Now I smile whenever I remember this story when I’m washing my hands.

More on Gathas:

Book: See Present Moment, Wonderful Moment for 49 Gathas with commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh

From this blog: Nothing is lackingWaking up