Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Report from the Eiheiji sesshin, Part 3. Oryoki.

After finding new zafu and placing them on the tan where we sat, we were given a few minutes break to go into our rooms and drink some tea. Soon afterwards, a young monk came and told us to return to the zendo for the evening meal.

I knew that eating in monasteries (oryoki) is not a straightforward affair, but I was unaware of just how complicated it actually is. Nishida-san and a host of young monks decended on the zendo and got about very busily and in great earnest. It was obvious from the very start that this was going to be a serious business. Before eating we were told to mount the tan and sit on our zafu facing out into the zendo, remaining silent at all times. Then we were given a small bundle of eating untensils, wrapped in two cloths and tied on top and then detailed instructions on how to unwrap the eating utensils from their cloth wrapping and lay them on the wooden edge of the tan. Every single movement during meals has been described by Dogen Zenji in the Shobogenzo and they are followed more or less to the letter in Eiheiji up to the present day. All communication is done by hand gestures as speaking is not allowed. Servers bring the rice first, soup next, then the pickles, and at evening meal, there are two extra bowls delivered on trays.

We were served in pairs and the elderly man beside me, Kawaisan, was finding following the instructions very hard indeed. Therefore we usually had two monks standing over us fussing at him, waving their fingers here and there and even holding his wrists and guiding his hands in the right directions. He was flustered, but they were certainly going to make him follow the rules. That meant that quite a bit of tension hung over each and every meal until the last two or three, when I'd mastered what to do and he followed me through every movement. Even then the monks were watching from a short distance, making sure that it was done right. It should be pointed out that we were lay practitioners, many of whom were just tourists, trying this whole Zen thing out to be talked about when back in the office or flower arranging circle, so the monks were polite despite their firmness. It's not the way for those who go to Eiheiji to become monks and what they endure at the hands of other monks would cause many Western practitioners to question just what sort of Buddhism is being practiced in this most revered of institutions.

Each of the three daily meals have different procedures. Breakfast has only three bowls, the Buddha bowl is the biggest and is used for okayu (rice porridge), another for pickles and a third for ground seasame seeds mixed with salt to season the porridge. Sutra are chanted before and after eating. Lunch is rice, miso soup, pickles and one other bowl of vegetables and evening meal has two such bowls. The evening meal is much less formal than breakfast and lunch. Nishidasan explained to us that its name, yakuseki, means 'medicine stone' in Japanese language. It is derived from the practice of monks in older times who only ate breakfast and lunch, of placing warm stones on their stomachs in the evenings to stave off the pangs of hunger. For each meal, setting up and eating were only the first and second steps of a very complex set of procedures. After we'd eaten, tea was brought and was used to partially clean the bowls, then drank. Then hot water was also brought and the cleaning of the bowls and utensils was completed. They were dried, stacked and wrapped in the cloths again.

This was eating like I'd never experienced before in my life. Eating for many of us is a bland chore, a distraction in our days, often hurried, done whilst on the move, a sandwich in the car, a burger on a park bench, secondary to talking, reading, watching the TV, etc. Moreoften, eating is break time, time to relax, get away from work for thirty minutes, chill with friends in a restaurant. But oryoki is eating as a sacred activity, as Zen practice, as zazen itself.

The whole time we were there for the meal we were sitting on our zafus and this meant sitting cross-legged for over an hour. This was after two forty minute periods of zazen just a short time earlier. With the stress of learning the meal procedures, keeping up with the instructions and trying to take a strong mental note of each step, it was easy to forget that my legs were gradually beginning to ache terribly. Coupled with the length of time being seated, in order to eat I constantly had to lean forward to reach for the bowls putting further stress on my legs. By the end, I was immensely relieved that it was over and decending the tan, although very difficult with aching legs, was a sweet release.

Standing in gassho in front of our seats Nishidasan told us that we'd have thirty minutes before we'd go to the Hatto (Dharma Hall) to join the monks for the evening service. I was elated. I'd no idea that we'd get to participate in the normal activities of the monastery at all. I had thought that we'd be seperate from the rest of the monastery for the entire duration of the sesshin, but I was very wrong indeed.


  1. Interesting. Far more involved than Vipassana Retreats where you mindlessly scrape Peanut Butter on to toast.

  2. Hi Leaf. I'll get into oryoki again in a later post about the Eiheiji sesshin, but what was most striking about it was the realisation of how detached I had always been from eating.

    At present I eat with my wife and two young kids. Trying to stay silent and concentrate on the act of eating is an extraordinary challenge, one that I have not been able to rise to just yet. It's rare to even be able to taste the food, as I'm moreoften trying to feed the two year old, peel the five your old off my back or plant her on the 'bold seat'. It's simply madness! But my understanding of the importance of eating has increased considerably. When I get the chance to eat alone, it's done mindfully and with great gratitude.

  3. Hi,

    what a marvellous blog you have in here! I read your posts about your Eiheiji experience with a huge interest and I would love to hear some more. Are you going to continue to write about your experiences in Eiheiji?

    I added your blog to my blog roll etc. Looking forward to read more of your story!

    Take care,

  4. Hi uku,

    Sorry for my long hiatus. I've written up the next part of the Eihiji blog. I hope you like it.