A Vietnamese Zen master’s simple advice on how to build generosity of spirit

In relationships, don’t be a strict accountant calculating give & take.
In relationships, don’t be a strict accountant calculating give & take.
Image: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
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Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh probably makes for a very good houseguest. He abides by a simple practice: Whenever you visit someone’s home, do their dishes for them.

Not only is this a nice thing to do for someone else, Thich Nhat Hanh says that it helps cultivate a spirit of generosity. Washing other people’s dishes is a way to counteract the human tendency to be accountants in our relationships, keeping track of how much we give and others take, and trying to keep the two columns in balance.

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, this is bad math. In his view, the more sensible thing to do is to give generously so as to discover abundance. He explains: 

There is a kind of vegetable in Vietnam called he (pronounced “hey”). It belongs to the onion family and looks like a scallion, and it is very good in soup. The more you cut the he plants at the base, the more they grow. If you don’t cut them they won’t grow very much. But if you cut them often, right at the base of the stalk, they grow bigger and bigger. This is also true of the practice of [generosity]. If you give and continue to give, you become richer and richer all the time, richer in terms of happiness and well-being. This may seem strange but it is always true.

Spiritual calculations don’t work the way capitalism does—the math is a bit different. The books can’t be balanced because there’s no agreed-upon value for kind acts, and relationships aren’t purely transactional.

Acts of kindness actually serve the people who give as well as those who receive kindness, Thich Nhat Hanh argues. He believes generosity yields a better return on investment than being stingy of spirit. Do more for others willingly, he says, and you will benefit. 

The simple dishwashing rule is a way to remind ourselves to practice generosity, even if others are stingy. Of course, ideally, everyone would contribute equally—but everyone is not always positioned to give equally in every situation. So if you can give when someone else needs to take, that makes life nicer for everyone. And if you give for no reason at all, that’s true mastery.

Moreover, Thich Nhat Hanh says, we can teach ourselves to enjoy performing acts of generosity. Take washing dishes: ”To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them,” he writes. “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.”