Zen in a napkin: how oryoki kicked my ass

My first Zen sesshin  introduced me to oryoki: the Japanese ritual of extreme table manners.

For the full week of sesshin we sit zazen for upwards of five hours a day, plus walking meditation and dharma talks. We eat all our meals in the zendo, oryoki style—seated on the floor on our round black cushions.

Each meal opens with a thundrous drumroll. The very comely head server enters to the beat of the drum, bearing  an ornate tray for Manjusri which the bodhisattva receives with sword raised high. The head server is trailed by a procession of servers who bring in each dish, pot extended at eye level. Each server bows and drops to the knees in turn before each of the 70 cross-legged participants, to ladle out the food. We receive the food into our oryoki picnic sets, which we carefully lay out and then repack into the exact approximation of a linen lotus blossom (well, sort of). The serving ritual climaxes with the presentation of the gomasio: ground sesame seeds with salt; the holy condiment of Zen.

There are a lot of rules to this game. Like, the wooden spoon can only be used in the first bowl, and the chopsticks are laid across the second bowl at a precise geometric angle. We communicate with the servers using hand signals (described by Keizan as “the oryoki hand jive”) to indicate enough, or just a bit more, please, sir, or, fingers pressed together, meaning as close to none as humanly possible. Everything must be done silently, including chewing the crunchy broccoli and stacking the rattly laquer bowls—which we may only handle with the thumb and two ‘pure; fingers. Each piece has its own special parameters. Dropping the chopsticks into the wee cutlery bag instead of drawing the bag up around the sticks is considered deeply vulgar. It is like playing chess with dinner, while out of the corners of their eyes seventy people watch…while politely pretending not to watch. That’s another rule. No peeking.

When everyone has been served with a great deal of bowing and chanting, we finally raise our spoons and eat. After we eat, we wash up. This is accomplished by the parade of servers entering with pots of steaming tea, with which we carefully clean our cutlery and bowls. Finally, to the chant of “the water with which I wash these bowls tastes of ambrosia, i offer it to the various spirits to satisfy their needs”–we have the option to drink the cloudy dishwater, saving back a sip for the servers who come around with basins to collect it for the spirits. The final challenge is to rise on cue with the re-packed oryoki kit, hoping that both legs still have enough circulation to keep from buckling under the final bow.

At first I thought the whole thing was insane. I was perpetually out of sync, glancing furtively from left to right. There were dribbles all over my serving cloth. My lotus flower was a mess. Doshin noticed my struggles and took me aside for remedial oryoki coaching. She said: just focus on doing one thing at a time. One. Thing. At. A. Time. That helped a lot, but I still thought I might just lose it and fling the bowls across the zendo like frisbees.

And then, gradually, it started to sink in.

Oryoki translates as “just enough.” That part I could totally appreciate, having travelled and lived by bicycle. I know how to condense a full kitchen down to just a swiss army knife, one small pot, and a spork. I can make a filling and delicious meal in ten minutes with just a pack of noodles and a bottle of water, and then, for the sheer satisfaction of it, conclude the meal by washing my socks in the last of the rinse water. Efficient, elegant, self-contained: that part I get. But the lotus blossom lost me.

But gradually, meal after meal, bit by bit, I began to get it. I started to feel oryoki as Zen in a a nutshell. Or more like Zen in a napkin.

Oryoki demands that we consider the food and the act of eating, not in isolation, but in complex interrelationship with everything else. It isn’t just the spoonful of nutty brown rice; it is the “seventy-two labors” that brought us this food–the farmer, the trucker, the cook, the server, and so many more who go unseen and unthanked. Says the chant, “we should know how it comes to us.”

We consider the way the food goes into the bowl,and its colour and taste and texture. We consider the craftsmen who made the shiny bowls to fit together so neatly. We understand how the bowls honor the linen cloth on which they sit. The cloth respects the glossy black maple floor, and the people who so lovingly laid and polished the floorboards. We eat to honour them all. And we also pause to consider the experience of the neighbour on the next cushion: that her elbow not be jostled, and that she be able to quietly savour her soup without the distraction of me slurping at mine. Everything interdepends. Nothing stands alone.

We sit on the zendo floor knee to knee, performing this most intimate and basic biological function. We are simply ingesting food in order to stay alive. But we are special animals, and we can practice raising a lowly act to its highest level of human consciousness. I contrast this with teenage boys wolfing back fistfuls of factory meat at McDonalds, with barely a thought beyond ordering the meal, and barely a sensation past the fleeting moment of taste between lips and gut before it is on to the next big bite. I think of how I eat my own dinner without looking at my plate, eyes on the newspaper while music plays and my laundry spins. Oryoki contradicts that mindless consumption, with the food considered in a continuum from the planting of the rice to the honoring of the spirits. So often the act of eating is all about ME, all about my immediate need to consume and get full. Oryoki says, I am part of this process, but it’s not all about me. It is also and equally about the rice and the server and my neighbour and the spoon and the floor. I am just one player in this dance. No part exists alone. We need to consider and care for every part.

Another useful aspect of oryoki is that it is good practice with preference and aversion. I myself hate hot mush of any kind. Not while I have teeth, I say. But one of the serious rules is that you are not allowed to refuse anything, and you must eat everything you are served. Every day, breakfast would feature some kind of gruel which, by the time everyone had been served, would have cooled to a tepid grey blob. I would gesture to the server with finger and thumb pressed so tightly together my fingertip turned white, then wince as a big fat dollop landed in my bowl. No matter how much gomasio I dumped on it it still tasted like paste, and I had to eat it, trying to gag as silently as possible—and to acknowledge that people around the world would die for this food, and that my neighbours were chowing it down with evident enjoyment, so its grossness could only be in my own head. And then, there were those delicious roasted beets and my desire to have more of them. But nobody gets seconds in this game, so: enjoy, be satisfied, and let go.

Finally as Roshi Joan says, there is the grace of the ritual itself. The choreography of the servers and the served, this performance we create for each others’ enjoyment. How everyone lifts their spoon together, how eventually the fast eaters slow down, the slow eaters speed up, until we are all as synchronized as a school of fish. It is a beautiful thing, this oryoki deal. And by the end of it, my dishwater tasted like—dishwater. One thing at a time.

10 Responses to “Zen in a napkin: how oryoki kicked my ass”

  1. Lola Says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It was fascinating. I can imagine how difficult it is to eat in this way, but I think oryoki is a beautiful meditative ritual.

    Are the foods served vegetarian? My sangha only serves vegetarian food inside, but I’ve discovered that many sangha members are not vegetarian outside.

  2. William Kimmel Says:

    Oryoki kicked my ass as well,
    I was a resident at Upaya Zen center in Santa Fe, NM for 3 months. We went through a 10 day Sesshin and it was quite a trip to say the least. The way I am, (of course, I had to crack a joke) it was particularly difficult for me to be serious. One time after meditation was done, we were all in the kitchen; and the Sensi was sitting at the table. I said; “Do you know what I would do if I were to cook the Oryoki?”.
    The sensi, (Knowing me all too well) looked at me and said, “Oh no here comes a joke!) I said, “If I were to cook the Oryoki, I would put laxitive in everything!” I think it was the only time I saw the sensi crack a smile!

  3. jennifer Says:

    Oh how I miss oryoki! I’ve done rohatsu 3x at Upaya but the last one was several years ago. You captured the essence of it so perfectly in your post. By the end of Rohatsu everyone is in a rhythm with oryoki and it becomes almost a dance, a unifier. So lovely.

  4. carmen Says:

    Food at Upaya is all veg with vegan options, and all organic. Dinner tonight was potato-leek soup, almond/mushroom spread and an amazing spinach, pear and goat cheese salad. It’s always simple and delicious, and in the summer much of it is grown in our gardens. We still have a good stash of squashes. The oryoki fare is great too – a typical 3-bowl meal might be a rice or grain dish, a soup, and a salad or veggie mix. It’s all good except for the morning mush.

    The policy here is that the kitchen serves no meat except for the Thanksgiving community turkey orgy. And what residents do on their own time is their choice. Personally I have been deeply appreciating the veggie lifestyle, I feel healthy and satisfied. But I have succumbed to a couple of bowls of chicken-barley soup at the Tea House, after bikerides on cool rainy days.

    Hey Lola love the blog redesign! Check out Buddhatropolis, peeps– wise words from a kickass urban dharma sister:
    http://www.buddhatropolis.com

  5. Patti Powell Says:

    Carmen, it’s so good to read your writing, and what an absorbing, elightening and odd experience you are getting to have!
    It stirs a hunger in me for a similar depth of attention and understanding, which I am not having in my life at the moment. I’m the poster gal for multi-tasking and distraction at the moment, especially as we approach this behemoth of “holidays”.
    Thank you for your beautiful writing, and your loving application of your ongoing learning and growth. I love you lots!

  6. Beverly Says:

    Carmen, your observations and sense of humor (and life) amaze and amuse me! thank you for sending this.

  7. helen Says:

    Dear Carmen, I absolutely howled with laughter as I read this post…. having been so through it at Gampo Abbey. Chogyum Trungpa borrowed oryoki from the Zen tradition. I did get it all conceptually, particularly as a choreographer, but oh boy, it remained a painful process for me to participate in!
    Helen

  8. Sean Hill Says:

    Mmmmmmmm….. tepid, grey gruel… My favourite!

  9. shanti (formerly Ashanti of Oregon) Says:

    Carmen,

    Thank you for sharing this serious and delightful ritual. It was a window into zen, you and the spirit that lives us all.

    It made me realize how completely free of ritual and rules my teacher has made my Jnana Yoga path and that that has also required me to engage in entirely self-enacted self-discipline. Now able to appreciate that fact, I now intend to participate in that game to a more intense degree, KNOWING, that it is entirely up to me to apply my own self-discipline. You’ve really helped open a new window on my practice.

    Thank you!!

  10. ‘Breaking Bad,’ and why I ditched multi-tasking | Westley Dang Says:

    […] Eating is a joyful privilege that deserves attention (and its experience should never be diminished to mere necessity or sustenance; see this wonderful post on oryoki) […]

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