oryoki meal

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 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 consumption assures that monks don’t mindlessly overeat, which helps assure that monastery food supplies are appropriately utilized. Third, by instituting a carefully choreographed, synchronized eating ritual, you’re making sure that the ragtag team of bodies that walked into the door acts as a mindfully united community; that the novices who still overvalue their egos have their egos repeatedly challenged at each meal by being told how to eat; and that there isn’t much of a mess in the mess hall when everyone has finished eating.

Seriously though, these administrative and hazing motivations aside, the oryoki meal is an attempt to turn eating into a platform for meditation. Doing so assures a seamless integration of meditation into the nuts and bolts of daily living. Oryoki—in its essence—is zazen (a form of sitting meditation), with the main difference being that the sitting is done in the dining hall, not the meditation hall, effectively collapsing the distinction between these two spaces and merging them into one and the same: a field of practice for mindful living. I encourage you to experiment with turning your own dining hall into a meditation hall.

Solutions Become Problems

There’s a problem: Ceremonies and rituals tend to calcify, like fossils. Traditions designed to keep the mind flowing become stagnant, fixed, and crystallized as form begins to eclipse essence. This is the dialectic of mindful eating: The more you focus your mind, the more you potentially close it.

Furthermore, from a layperson’s perspective, an oryoki meal is time-consuming and, frankly, a flat-out hassle. Yes, it’s a profound choreography of body and mind and an exotic peak experience. But as I see it, in its strict, classic form, an oryoki meal is utterly impractical in day-to-day living. Sure you can attend a Zen retreat and spend a week or two learning how to eat in orchestrated silence. But we can’t stay in a mind spa forever. At some point we have to reenter our lives. The challenge is to import the attitude of oryoki into day-to-day eating without having to go on a full-blown sabbatical at every meal.

[to be continued]

Additional resources: I have a 9 page piece in UTNE Reader (online) this month – Reinventing the Meal: a Path to Mindful Eating

Adapted from Reinventing the Meal (Somov, New Harbinger, 2012)

Chopsticks photo available from Shutterstock