A meal is an event.  Eating is the process behind it.  Mindless eating, without any awareness of the process itself, turns a meal-event into a belly-aching non-event. A potential of an event, wiped out by mindlessness, is both an existential loss (a loss of an eating moment is a loss of a moment of living) and a loss of meditative opportunity.

Imagine you are in the business of teaching people to meditate, literally.  Indeed, imagine yourself as a medieval Zen master charged with managing a Buddhist monastery.  Day in, day out you got a bunch of bums banging on your door seeking admission, refuge, protection, i.e. 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 “oryoki” – a highly codified eating protocol that emphasizes a precise order of movements, stopping when you are full, cleaning up for yourself, and liturgical chanting.

This brilliant 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 consumption assures that monks do not mindlessly overeat and monastery food supplies are appropriately utilized.  Thirdly, by instituting a carefully choreographed, synchronized-eating ritual, you are making sure that a) the rag-tag team of bums that walked into the door acts as a united community, b) that the individualistic maniacs who still over-value their ego have it repeatedly challenged at each meal by being told when to open and close their mouths, and c) that there is not that much of a mess in the mess-hall when everyone’s done eating.

Lastly, most importantly, by turning eating into a platform for meditation, you assure a complete integration of meditation into the nuts and bolts of daily living, modeling “internalization” and “generalization” of mindfulness precedents into daily living.  Good deal, huh?

But here’s the problem: rituals, like bones, tend to ossify, traditions designed to keep the mind flowing become stagnated and crystallized, and form begins to eclipse the essence.  An Oryoki meal is, frankly, a hassle.  A beautiful, metronomical choreography of body and mind that is largely irrelevant – in its classic form – to modern-day living.  An oryoki meal – unless you are monk in residence – is a must-have exotic experience, not unlike say a night over at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater or 28 days at a rehab.  Let’s face it: any one can relax, recover and regain their sense of mindfulness in a serene atmosphere.  The challenge is to import the attitude of mindfulness into day-to-day living without having to go on a sabbatical at every meal.

What am I proposing?  Oryoki-lite.

Oryoki-lite requires no set of begging bowls; any bowl or plate (even paper plate) will do.  Oryoki-lite doesn’t call for a half-lotus asana on the floor; a chair at your regular dining table will do.  Oryoki-lite is not about the protocol but about breaking the protocol; it is about waking yourself up with something as simple as using your non-dominant hand to eat or using an unfamiliar set of utensils to throw your eating kinesthetics off balance so as to wake up your mind.

Oryoki-lite requires no need for knowledge of Tibetan chants; a simple “mm”-mantra of savoring in between mindful bites will do.  Oryoki-lite isn’t about Buddhist-form but about Buddhist-essence, about just waking yourself up without Buddhist fanfare.  After all, that’s what the word “buddha” means: the one who is awake – not the one in an orange robe with a set of begging bowls and a mantra in his/her mouth, but anyone – you, for example – being simply present, not full-time (that’s for monks), but at least, now and then, perhaps, as rarely as one mindful eating moment per meal.

Enough said about just eating.  Grab a paper plate and give your mind a try.