How I Got Comfortable with My Imperfections

John Manderino stumbles through Zen meal practice — and decides that’s perfectly okay.

John Manderino24 July 2017
Illustration by André Slob.

It’s called oryoki, this very formal, ceremonial-type Zen Buddhist meal where every little thing you do has to be absolutely correct. It’s supposed to help you be mindful—be here, be now, be Zen. At yesterday’s breakfast, they held a sort of run-through for us newcomers. What a disaster.

Someone who’d been at the monastery a while was sitting across the table, and I was supposed to try to follow his lead, but I was so nervous that my brain seized up. For example, when he placed his little spatula at the bottom left-hand corner of his miniature tablecloth, facing out, and laid his chopsticks above the spatula, facing in, I couldn’t work out his left from mine, above from below, in versus out. Meanwhile I had this monk named Hosho—they all take Japanese names here—sitting next to me and whispering in my ear, “Something is wrong with your bowls and utensils. Can you see what it is?”

I came this close to walking out and driving home where I could align my bowls and utensils any damn way I pleased.

I looked around, hoping to see the other two newcomers struggling like me, but they seemed to be doing fine.

“Pay attention,” Hosho whispered. “Relax and place your mind entirely on your bowls and utensils. They are not aligned properly.”

I came this close to walking out and driving home where I could align my bowls and utensils any damn way I pleased.

Then there was the actual Eating of the Meal.

I figured we were probably supposed to eat very slowly, putting extra attention on the tastes and textures of the food. So that’s what I was trying to do, eyes lowered, chewing ponderously, like a cow. But after a while I noticed Hosho next to me was already done, sitting there with his hands in his lap. Then I noticed everyone was sitting there with their hands in their laps, waiting for me to finish. And I still had several little cantaloupe chunks to go. I like cantaloupe and had taken a lot. So now I began stabbing each of the chunks with a chopstick and chewing like mad. Then I started swallowing them almost whole. The very last one got stuck in my throat—oh God, not like this—and I stood straight up and threw my arms out wide, as if blessing everyone, managed to swallow, and sat back down.

“Are you all right?” Hosho whispered.

I nodded.

Some chanting after that.

Then the Washing of the Bowls, which I got through okay, as there wasn’t anything you could screw up. But then we had to tie up our oryoki kits—our bowls and utensils—using our little tablecloth/napkin.

“Make a lotus flower,” Hosho whispered.

“Sorry?”

“Make one tail of your knot resemble a lotus flower.”

Was he serious?

He nodded towards the guy across from me, who had one tail of his knot standing up straight and was carefully spreading out the sides. Then he folded the top of it over, and put his hands in his lap.

I looked at Hosho. He nodded towards my untied kit.

So once again everyone was waiting for me, with Hosho finally whispering, “Just leave it.”

Then a closing chant.

Afterwards Hosho asked me to stay behind.

We sat there waiting for the others to leave. I wanted to tell him one of my cabin mates sucks on lemon drops during meditation and the other one leaves his clothes all over the floor.

“Do you know what the word ‘oryoki’ means?” Hosho asked.

I tried to think. “Something like… ceremonial meal?”

“It means ‘just enough.’”

My face went hot. “The cantaloupe. You’re right. I took way too much.”

He shook his shaved head. “That’s not what I’m saying. ‘Just enough’ means…” He paused. “Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you think about what it means?”

“Right now? Think about it right now?”

While you’re here with us. You’re here for a month, is that right?”

“Yes,” I said. Three and a half more weeks, I thought. Jesus, I thought.

“Have it there in your mind: ‘What is just enough?’ Let it work.”

“Like a koan, you mean?”

He smiled. “If you like.”

A koan is a question a Zen teacher gives a student to work on. It’s not something you can figure out an answer to, and in fact they don’t even usually make any sense, like the most famous one: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Try figuring that out. You can’t. The answer has to come from a place way deeper than thinking goes. Anyway, I liked having my own koan: What is the meaning of just enough?

Hosho took me through the entire oryoki ceremony again, moment by moment, with imaginary food, being very patient. I felt sick to my stomach with embarrassment, gratitude, and cantaloupe chunks.

So that was yesterday, the rehearsal. This morning we’re doing the real oryoki, right here in the meditation hall, in our robes, kneeling on our mats. Hosho is next to me again, but he’s leaving me be.

And I do pretty well—in fact, very well. Thanks to Hosho’s help yesterday, I feel confident enough about my bowls and utensils to relax and fully concentrate, putting heart and soul into each little bit of oryoki business, setting this bowl exactly next to that one, spatula precisely over here, chopsticks lined up thusly.

The servers come around offering oatmeal, apple slices, and orange juice. To be on the safe side, I show with my thumb and finger—small portions, please.

Then there’s some chanting:

As we desire the natural order of mind,

To be free from clinging, we must be free from greed,

And so on.

Oh my God, the oatmeal, it’s so oatmealy! And the apple slices, such appleness!

Then we start eating.

And oh my God, the oatmeal, it’s so oatmealy! And the apple slices, such appleness! I’ve never tasted food so clearly.

Now I wish I took a little more.

But, see, that’s greed, that’s clinging to the experience instead of letting it happen and pass. On the other hand, taking too littlethat can be greedy too, greedy about being non-greedy.

I think I might be closing in on my koan here, on the meaning of “just enough”: something about, first of all, on the one hand…

Ah, just eat.

I finish with the others.

The only hitch comes at the very end when we have to tie up our kits. Once again I’m unable to make my knot look like a lotus flower. Practicing yesterday with Hosho, I did it perfectly—twice, to make sure. But now, when it counts, when it matters…

“Never mind,” he says quietly. “Just leave it.”

John Manderino

John Manderino’s latest book is a story collection called But You Scared Me the Most.