“Hand Wash Cold” by Karen Maezen Miller


This is my first time reviewing a book for Wildmind. I agreed to write this on Bodhipaksa’s recommendation that this book might be “up my alley” since one strong interest I have is in how the Dharma works for me in my life right here and right now. This is how Karen Maezen Miller’s book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, came into my hands.

Another thing I especially delight in is books written by women. Sexism is a meme that’s still alive and well in the world, and I love coming upon anything that tends to dispel that kind of malignant influence. Dharma books by women teachers have been especially dear to me.

Title: Hand Wash Cold
Author: Karen Maezen Miller
Publisher: New World
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle store, Amazon.com Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

I haven’t done a book report (fancy name for a review) since junior high school, but I remember some of the key things our teacher wanted us to address. What is this book about? Who is the main character and why do you care about what’s happening to this person? What’s the main message of this book. Should we read this book too? Or don’t bother? Why and why not?

At first, I was charmed but her use of the “hand wash cold” metaphor; but then, I began to get annoyed and also a little confused — was this a clever dharma talk? a women’s magazine confessional à la “Can This Marriage Be Saved”? I found myself saying, “Come on, where are you taking me in this story, and are we there yet?” Which is a curious thing to need — to go somewhere (anywhere!) when the main event in Zen (and really most of Buddhist practice) is to stay right here, fully attentive, in the present moment-by-moment.

At the same time I was reading “Hand Wash Cold”, I was reading “The Great Failure” by Natalie Goldberg. I often have several books going at once, and often I get rewarded by unexpected concurrences and contrasts. Now, Goldberg is a writer by profession, and you could argue that her superior technique turned my head. You might be right, too, but I think I’m seeing something other than technique that is bothering me about Miller’s story. Both used a confessional format as a way of demonstrating things that are true for all of us. But where Goldberg’s story was no less painful or baffling to her as she was living it as Miller’s must have been, Goldberg let the drama of her story be something that carried the forward pulse of the book, if you will, but this was far from the point of her telling the story. Miller’s story was dramatic but in a way that seemed to be trying to capture the experience solely from the standpoint of where she was then, in that more self-centered, egoistic voice. This made it hard to cheer her on or see where she was going with this (except to relate this to her housework metaphor). Goldberg let the maturity of her practice — that is her present experience, the benefit of the wisdom she has accumulated — inform the story of the not-wise-yet past “her” and how she wised up. It is in this way that Miller’s effort shows the limitation of making the metaphor work so hard to organize the ideas and insights that it loses its ability to zing and reframe. Yeah, we do all these ordinary tasks, and they’re great occasions for mindfulness, but in and of themselves, they’re too flimsy to hold the Dharma.

I do a bit of gardening from time to time, and there are times I’ve been pulling weeds and think of how it’s such an apt metaphor for how we purify all our ratty, pernicious, negative habits — and how simply cutting them down leaves the roots intact and able to grow back — gotta dig right down into the dirt, get your hands dirty, and slowly but surely pull, pull, pull and then out they come, and that’s the end of it. I wrote a dharma talk one time using gardening metaphors for dharma practice and the spiritual life. By the time I was done, I was really tired of that metaphor. It ended up barely material enough for a 30 minute talk. For a whole book? No metaphor is sturdy enough to carry an entire book. I think Miller fell in love with this metaphor and then got stuck with it. It’s a danger we all face whether writing something, giving a talk or even in how we converse in everyday life. Just like the time I had made a decision to buy a vintage Volvo wagon and restore it and then saw Volvos everywhere. That was cool, for a while, but then it wasn’t, and that car needed to be sold some time later, and then I bought a Honda Fit and then I saw THEM everywhere. There are, in fact, all sorts of cars everywhere, but what we fall in love with we then see to the exclusion of other things and our world narrows.

So there’s a big long part (or it seemed long) where Miller is young and concerned with her hair and make-up and career and “having it all.” Then her marriage becomes unsatisfactory, and she tells us all about how it was unsatisfactory and she didn’t know what was what or how to make it better, and I kept thinking, “And where’s your practice?” It wasn’t clear to me when she actually began taking her spiritual life seriously — it seemed like one more thing she was doing so well — but there wasn’t a sense of increasing depth or how she saw her practice as integral to making sense of the rest of her life. The story of that would have been much more interesting. And then she’s a teacher at a Zen Center … how’d that happen? And so now everything is okay? Hmmmm… and is all her laundry fresh and sweet and all put away now?

So I think in the best, deepest sense, this book is about how we have to wash the ignorant and unskillful parts of ourselves with our own hands. That the accoutrements of modern life, which can, in our immaturity, include our Buddhist Center, teachers, sangha-members and even the Dharma and practices themselves, aren’t enough if we’re passive consumers of them. We change us, accompanied and influenced by everything and everyone that surrounds us, seen and unseen. And we accompany and influence them as well, whether we see how we do that or not. But better to see, and see more deeply and compassionately, and commit to doing so on purpose.

I wish Miller all success; I’d give this book a miss.

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12 Comments. Leave new

  • I tried to read Mama Zen after seeing Ms. Miller speak at our local Buddhist Center. I couldn’t get very far. I thought it was poorly written and it failed to capture even a modicum of interest.

  • Hmmm…not sure if I should comment, as everyone has different tastes, but in case someone else should stumble upon this review I have to give a shout out: Give Hand Wash Cold a chance!

    Unlike the descripton above, Miller does describes her earlier spiritual practice, which was nonexistant. She was out of touch with her inner life as well as her external life as someone who never had to clean her own home, do her own laundry. The story of her stumbling path to Zen has been such a light for me.

    I’m a fan of Natalie Goldberg as well. Hand Wash Cold is not plot-driven, that’s true. I don’t think it is metaphor driven either, or “driven” at all really. I think you said it best in your description of wanting to be “taken somewhere”. This is not the book that will do that, as it is all about being right where you are.

    I found Hand Wash Cold extremely well-written, honest and funny.

  • I have been struck by the personalization and trivialization of Buddhist teachings over the past few years. I feel that people writing books like this are really just writing Self-Help books which should not be mislabeled as Buddhist books. There have been many magazine articles and whole issues (like some recent issues of Shambhala Sun and Tricycle) that looked like self-help magazines from the 1970’s. In my opinion, Buddhism is not about self-help. Some teachers would say that it’s about transformation, but my problem with such a statement is the question: exactly who or what gets ‘transformed’? You cannot transform something that doesn’t actually exist!

    • Hi, Rich.

      I think you’re right. On the one hand there are books like “If the Buddha Dated” types of books that are really just self-help books that use Buddhism as a marketing “hook,” and on the other there are books that perhaps aim to be Buddhist but fall far short and end up in self-help territory. I haven’t read Hand Wash Cold so I can’t comment on it specifically, though.

      I mainly wanted to comment, though, on your remark that “You cannot transform something that doesn’t actually exist.” It’s not the Buddhist tradition that the self doesn’t exist, and in fact the Buddha warned against this as a nihilistic (ucchedavada) position that’s spiritually unhelpful. See for example In MN2 we’re told that by attending to our experience inappropriately “The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self.” And in a conversation with Ananda, the Buddha remarked: ” If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those priests & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism.”

      To the Buddha, a view that there is no self is just another kind of view about the self — and he was asking us to abandon any views about the self whatsoever. The Buddhist teaching of anatta is not saying that we have no self. It’s a methodological tool, in which we examine different aspects of our experience and note that each on, being impermanent, does not constitute the basis of a self. Foe example in the Alagadd?pamasutta, the Buddha says:

      There is the case where a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — who has regard for noble ones, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma; who has regard for men of integrity, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma assumes about form: ‘This is not me, this is not my self, this is not what I am.’

      The important thing is to stop defining ourselves.

  • I thought she got rid of the metaphor idea right away in chapter one. Your laundry is your life.

    Maezen’s zen is not about maturity of practise or accumulation of wisdom. It is about what is right in front of us, available if we are paying attention. Her writing is not about developing some big idea. It is moments of awakening, scibbed into the form of a modern book, but read better as frog, pond, plop. Rather than a naturalistic setting that the patriarchs enjoyed, she has her eyes open in our life of suburban parenting. Perhaps I find myself more deeply in this venue than the reviewer, but each chapter of Maezen’s books pops some idea I have had about myself and how I ought to live; the popping of the ideas leaves behind some times laughter, some times tears, and most often a settling into how things actually are.

  • I think we must always bear in mind that the Buddha was teaching 2500 years ago – and it is likely his context for “self” and “no-self” was much different than ours. For one thing, he was speaking to a mostly Hindu population – and it was a Hindu belief that the individual self should strive to merge with the Self. I think this is what he was referring to. Unfortunately, most language seems horribly clumsy when dealing with this stuff, so I apologize if I caused any confusion.

    • It’s true that sometimes thing are open to interpretation. In this case, however, the Buddha described many forms of “atta” (self belief) that people could cling to, and in that context it’s clear that he wasn’t merely arguing against a proto-Hindu belief in a permanent and separate self, but in a belief in any kind of self at all (including the absence of a self!).

  • Just because there is a word for something (‘self’) does not mean it actually exists. I like the way you state the Buddha’s argument as against ‘self-belief’. Here’s my question – when someone believes something, does that make it true- does that make it exist? My understanding of belief is that it does not. It wasn’t the existence or non-existence of a self that the Buddha was rejecting – it was the very concept of self – and (as you put it) clinging to a sense of self. So what I wrote about the self not existing is true. We only think it exists and become obsessed with it. (Actually, I can’t speak for you, but this is certainly how I have been!) So I think we agree but we are coming at this from 2 different directions. Thanks for a great discussion!

    • Well, existing and non-existing are two things that in Buddhism are very questionable! Everything neither exists nor non-exists.

      Each of us obviously, on an experiential level, has a kind of self, but as soon as you try to pin down what that self is you find yourself trying to grasp mist. Everything that you can identify as part of your experience is impermanent. One minute it’s there, the next it’s not.

      You talk about obsession, and I think you’re right. The Buddha seemed to be pointing out that we’re “self-obsessed.” That is, we’re preoccupied with trying to define who and what we are — presumably because we need a sense of security, and we think that that security will come from a sense of identity. To say we have no self is going too far (it’s another form of obsession with the self), and to say that we have a self is also going too far. In reality everything (including our selves) hovers in a state that neither the words “existing” and “non-existing” can fully do justice to.

      The goal of the Buddhist life seems to be to live without any reference to, or thought about, a self. It’s only then that our grasping and aversion (which are activities of the “self trying to define itself”) can be abandoned.

  • It’s interesting that you say the self is ‘experiential’. As I’ve studied this over the years I’ve come to understand the self as a thought or concept. Experience (to me) creates a fundamental duality – the separateness of the experience or event and the person who experiences it. What I experience gives me a sense that I am an observer separate from the events in the world around me. Of course, this is false. There is no observer – only events. So I think I agree with you but I needed to state my sense of what ‘experiential’ means. Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

  • Karen Maezen Miller
    September 7, 2011 2:27 pm

    Ah yes, that elusive meaning. It’s never what you think it is. Buddhists disagree and disapprove, but someone has to do the laundry, and in my house, it’s not a metaphor.

  • One of my most wonderful sudden and transformative insights came while I was folding laundry. It was a few weeks after our daughter was born. Until then (7 previous years of marriage) the laundry basket had always held items belonging to only 2 people – myself and my wife. Now I absent-mindedly reached into the basket for another item to fold and my fingers touched a teeny-tiny item of clothing that was completely different. I realized in a flash this was new and that I had suddenly gone from doing laundry for 2 to laundry for 3. Our family had been so deeply altered that the very fundamentals of everyday life had been transformed. Needless to say, I cried at the awesome beauty of this revelation.


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