Knowing when enough is enough is really satisfying.
Dao De Jing
A meal is an event. Eating is the process behind it. Paying attention to the process of eating is both self-fulfilling and self-emptying. As such, a meal that involves focus on the process is not just a nutritional event but also a meditative event. Buddhists have long understood this. Let’s learn from them—in essence, but not necessarily in form.
Oryoki, which is Japanese for “just enough,” is a form of eating meditation—a highly choreographed, protocol-driven practice that follows a strict procession of cues to keep the mind focused on the process of eating. On the technical side, an oryoki meal involves a set of nested wooden bowls (jihatsu), with the largest bowl (zuhatsu) being called the Buddha bowl and a set of eating utensils that are wrapped up, burrito-style, into a cloth. Oryoki has built-in pauses for chanting prayer and expressing grace or gratitude, and a formal opportunity for the donation of leftovers. Oryoki is a great example of a total reinvention of the meal! This ancient tradition is still alive and well in some circles. It’s still practiced in Zen monasteries and some Buddhist retreat centers.
Converting the Dining Hall into a Meditation Hall
Why did the oryoki meal evolve? Here are a few lay speculations of mine: Imagine yourself as a medieval Zen master charged with managing a Buddhist monastery. Day in, day out, you get a bunch of folks banging on your door seeking admission, refuge, protection—in other words, room and board. Unable to read minds and screen out dharma bums from sincerely motivated seekers, you come up with a brilliant scheme. You decide to turn the dining hall into a meditation hall. You come up with a highly codified eating protocol that emphasizes a precise sequences of movements that includes stopping when one is full, cleaning up after oneself, and liturgical chanting. This brilliant administrative solution kills several birds with one stone. First, you’ve got a captive audience: a hungry stomach means an attentive mind. Second, insisting on mindful …