As part of the East Asian Studies class “From Tea to Connecticut Rolls: Defining Japanese Culture Through Food,” I spent last weekend at the Dai Bosatsu Zendo monastery in Livingston Manor, New York. I learned about the meditation, chanting, and formal eating rituals specific to Zen Buddhism. As interesting as I find meditation and chanting, I’ll confess you won’t see me perched on Foss reciting the Heart Sutra any time soon. The eating practices, on the other hand, have benefitted me in a more enduring way. When I sat down with my pasta wih vodka sauce from Pastabilities on Sunday night, I realized that the formal Zen eating practices didn’t only apply to rice gruel eaten in a monastery dining room; they could enrich my Wesleyan eating experience too.
Oryoki is a meditative dining practice that comes from Japan. At the monastery it is referred to simply as “jihatsu,” which refers to the three-bowl set Oryoki requires. I had the opportunity to eat jihatsu three times while at the monastery.
The first thing to note is that an Oryoki meal is conducted in complete silence. It’s not the same silence that exists when you scarf down a nutella sandwich while watching Breaking Bad; it’s a focused and intentional silence that requires deliberate attention to both your food and your dining partners. I am still very much in favor of mealtime conversation, but the practice made me realize how often I find myself talking simply for the sake of talking, rather than out of a strong desire or need to communicate some vital piece of information. I also know I’m not the only person who, while absorbed in a conversation, fails to notice when I’m is full.
The meal must be conducted in silence in order to maintain a careful orchestration. The diners enter the zendo, or meditation room, before the meal. Every step is planned, from entering the dining room to unwrapping the three jihatsu bowls. Each person sits directly across from a dining partner with whom ze moves through the successive dishes along the table.
There are three reasons it is important to be aware of your dining partner and tablemates at all times. First, each pair must monitor the progress of dishes, so they can act in unison. Second, each person is supposed to strive to match the consumption pace of the other members of the table. Finally, no one may eat until everyone has been served.
The smooth process struck me as remarkably different from my own meals at Wesleyan. I particularly liked that, though there was little time to eat (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?), the whole table still waited to eat together. In college, everyone’s schedules can be radically different. We’ve all sat down just as our friends are finishing up meals and have all been joined by someone just as we’re about to leave. While jihatsu meals are eaten quickly, in this process, it is more important to eat together than to have more time to eat.
At the end of the meal the bowls are cleaned with tea. One side of the table is responsible for filling their own largest bowl and the largest bowl of their partners. The other bowls and chopsticks are systematically washed (I’ll spare you the details), until the tea is again in the largest bowl. Each person then drinks their tea from the bowl, so that the plates are left clean. There is nowhere to put trash: jihatsu requires each person to take only what they can eat. Jihatsu made me realize how important it is to be mindful of the food I take, and the quantity; something I’m often reminded of when I find myself wanting to toss the last of my meal in the garbage or compost.
From my weekend at the monastery, I did not only learn how to eat in the Oryoki manner, but I also realized that it can be important to pay attention to your tablemates’ eating and to the food itself, not just the conversation. Though time to eat is frequently short, I’m trying to do my best to wait for my friends before I begin eating. And as much as I may regret taking that weird tofu dish, I now want to do my best to follow through with my choices.