Soto Zen monastics around the world learn a ritualized eating practice known as oryoki. This word combines the Chinese characters for “receive,” “amount,” and “bowl,” so it’s basically the practice of receiving the right amount. The ceremony is an elaborate sequence of bells, chanting, opening the traditional nested bowls that are wrapped in cloth, receiving food, eating, and cleaning your spot in the meditation hall. In the most formal versions of oryoki, certain monks act as servers and, moving from person to person, spoon out portions of rice and soup. During the more truncated, casual style of oryoki, the same ceremonial sequence is conducted at a table, with no servers.
In the ceremony of oryoki, all physical movement is prescribed and ritualized. For example, there’s a form for exactly how to open your bowls (not only the order, but what fingers to use), how to hold the bowls when you eat, how and when to bow, which hand to use when wiping your bowls, etc. This means that, ideally, you’ll always be using just the right amount of physical effort.
In the beginning, it’s quite difficult to memorize all the rules of oryoki practice, but after a few months, it becomes muscle memory. This enables you to eat without thinking. However, it’s not a mindless, spaced-out nonthinking. It’s a nonthinking that’s intimately attuned to the present moment.
I find I’m most satisfied with food when I eat oryoki style. Even if the portions are small and simple, the care, time, and attention paid to eating, as well as the balance of flavors in the meals, make me feel completely satiated. But the practice is challenging to replicate outside of a monastery, without monks and nuns to act as cooks and servers.
While living in a monastery in Japan, I ate oryoki every day, and when I returned to the U.S., I wanted to keep the practice going. After procuring three bowls of appropriate size, I attempted to do a small-scale oryoki meal myself. It was awkward, and some of the movements simply couldn’t be replicated. I quickly gave up trying to do oryoki by the book at home.
I don’t believe the “magic” of oryoki is due to special words or hand motions, but rather to the qualities of mind and heart that the practice encourages. Years after my training in Japan, I’ve developed my own way to bring oryoki into my home. These are some practices I’ve found helpful.
1. Practice Gratitude
Practicing gratitude at the beginning of a meal helps cultivate a gladness of mind, which can stay with us long after we’ve washed the dishes. In formal oryoki practice, we chant the names of ten buddhas and then acknowledge that the purpose of food is to sustain our life and practice. The meal verses point to the interconnectedness of ourselves and those who cook and serve the food. At home, we can acknowledge this same interconnectedness without the long, ritualized chants. This can be done with a simple meal blessing or acknowledgement of where the food came from—the hard work of the cook, the grocery store clerks, farmers, bus drivers, and others who brought you the food.
These days I don’t say a formal blessing before eating, but my husband and I share three things we’re grateful for. On hard days especially, it’s important to remember what we do have: oxygen, a comfy bed, food, a roof over our heads.
2. Cut Down on Meat
Another way to carry out the spirit of oryoki is to cook meals that are primarily plant-based. Buddhist monasteries in Japan traditionally serve vegetarian and vegan food, although this isn’t absolute. If someone donates meat or fish, usually monks and nuns are required to eat it. Still, the amount of meat and dairy is miniscule compared to the average American diet. As our planet and society head toward climate crisis, it’s becoming even more crucial to cut back on meat products, which contribute to a large amount of greenhouse gases. Even if you can’t go completely vegetarian or vegan, try making sure that half of each meal is composed of vegetables. This makes good nutritional sense, too. I love the cookbook Mostly Plants by the Pollan family, which offers mostly plant-based meal ideas, and there are many other flexitarian cookbooks out there to give you ideas.
3. Don’t Waste Any Food
Dogen Zenji wrote “not to waste a single grain of rice is called the mind of the way.” An easy practice I recommend is to eat every single thing on your plate. This may mean starting with smaller portions.
Another proverb in the monastery is that “A monk’s mouth is like an oven.” In the same way an oven accepts any and all types of food, Buddhist monastics eat whatever they’re served, regardless of preference. I remember one time in Japan somebody donated lotus root stuffed with hot mustard. All the nuns were served an equal portion of the donated food, which was meant to be a spicy snack to go with alcohol. Of course, we didn’t have any beer to wash it down! We all started coughing and sputtering from the mustard. I turned to the senior nun next to me who was munching diligently. “Eating, too, is practice,” she said.
In meditation we sit with whatever feelings rise: pain, boredom, joy, restlessness. Eating is a practice in the same way. Eating food you don’t like (with the exception of allergic reactions) can be a profoundly transformative practice. Pay attention to your feelings as you eat. What is disgust? Pleasure? Aversion? How much do our preferences matter when it comes to eating what we need to survive? Can we eat to live and nourish our bodies rather than to satisfy a specific desire for sensory pleasure?
4. Practice Giving and Receiving
There’s a Chinese story about the importance of giving and receiving— in hell, it says, people sit in front of a lavish banquet with all their favorite foods, but they have five-foot long chopsticks attached to their hands, making it impossible to get the food into their mouths. In heaven, it’s the same setup, but people feed each other across the table. So much depends upon our outlook.
In formal oryoki practice, we practice both giving and receiving by learning how to be meal servers as well as meal eaters. At home, it’s easy to replicate this practice with each other at the dinner table by serving things “family style”—having one person doling out salad, one person dishing out rice, etc., rather than people serving themselves. Or, if you have a long narrow table, you can serve the person across from you. That way everyone can both give and receive food.