The Meal Verses I
(Click here for the Complete Meal Verses)

Recently, I saw an article in the newspaper about the longevity of Japanese women. In one way, this isn’t new news, of course, since Japanese women have had the longest life expectancy in the world for more than two decades. And yet, it did catch my attention because I’m writing about the connection between eating and the Buddhist teaching, particularly as it is found in the meal verses.

Everyone would like to live a long, happy life and certainly one of the keys to happiness is good health. When I practiced at Hosshinji Monastery in Obama City, Fukui Prefecture, Japan, I was befriended by an older Japanese woman who mentored me in various ways. Her definition of good health was having a good appetite, a good night’s sleep, and a good bowel movement. I suppose that would work for most people. Good appetite implies that we enjoy eating the food we receive. The attitude toward food and diet is certainly an important element of the longevity of Japanese women. Generally speaking, they are said to eat a diet of fish, rice, and simmered vegetables – and they eat in moderation as well.

In Dogen Zenji’s “The Dharma for Taking Food” (Fushukuhampo) in which he explains the proper way to eat food, he wrote, “Just let the Dharma (Truth) be the same as food and let food be the same as the Dharma.” The “Dharma” is a Sanskrit word we often use in the Buddhist teaching. It refers to the “truth” or “reality” as well as to the teaching of Buddha itself. In any case, the meaning of Dogen Zenji’s words is that we must treat food with great reverence and gratitude. Surely, this attitude underlies the longevity of Japanese women and men, too (although Japanese men are fifth in the global rankings after Qatar, Hong Kong, Iceland, and Switzerland).

The Sotoshu meal verses begin with the “Verse for Opening the Bowls”:

Buddha was born at Kapilavastu,

Enlightened at Magada,

Taught at Harana,

Entered nirvana at Kuchira.

Now we open Buddha’s eating bowls;

May donors, receivers and offerings

All be equally freed from clinging to the self

Together with all sentient beings.

These lines sum up the life of the Buddha. He was born a prince in a castle at Kapilavastu, which is located in present-day southern Nepal. After he left home as a monk, he underwent great difficulty and hardship, finally attaining awakening under the bodhi tree in the country of Magadha. He began to teach in Varanasi (Harana) and after 49 years of teaching the Buddha entered Parinirvana at Kuchira.

“Now we open Buddha’s eating bowls (oryoki); may donors, receivers, and offerings all be equally freed from clinging to the self, together with all sentient beings.” In the monastery, we eat from special bowls called “oryoki.” This part of the meal sutra is read before we untie the cloth in which the bowls are wrapped. Each person has his or her own set of oryoki. In the monastery, we were often told to handle the bowls carefully, especially the largest one. The largest bowl, with which we eat rice, is also used when we go out to collect alms. It is often said that the largest bowl is like the Buddha’s head and consequently must be treated with the greatest care. In former times, monks were punished if they dropped or damaged their bowls in some way. The begging bowl was also used to symbolize transmission of the Dharma from master to disciple, so you can see how important it is.

At any rate, we untie the wrapping cloth and open the oryoki bowls with a feeling of great gratitude to Shakyamuni Buddha, our original and beneficent teacher. Without his life and example, we wouldn’t be able to hear his teaching of liberation. If we don’t feel gratitude for the food we receive as well as the opportunity to live this life, it will be difficult for us to realize the peace and freedom of the Way of Buddha. The vow of a Bodhisattva is to save all sentient beings and this is included in the words “together with all sentient beings.”

The word “equally” means to merge with, to assimilate. In the Vimalakirti Sutra, there is the statement, “Those who are one with eating are one with all things. Those who are one with all things are one with eating.” May the person making the food offering, the person receiving the donation, and the food which has been donated all be free of attachment to the ego. In other words, may they be empty. “Emptiness” (ku) is concept we often hear in Zen. It means, in other words, that all things, including human beings, are comprised of the same basic elements: earth, air water, and fire. No matter how minutely we analyze something, it is ultimately impossible to discern exactly what something is and say, “This is it.” All things are simply a meeting and a parting of conditions and even “conditions” are only something we have given a name to. It isn’t possible to grab hold of or see conditions. This is the Buddhist teaching that “the true nature of things is without form or shape.” It is only through the activity of the ego that we hold onto the delusion that it is possible to discern the nature of things.

Although we live within a busy and often chaotic world, it is possible to live without being disturbed by such conditions. This is what is called “the life of zazen.” As we eat our food, let us be thankful for good health, long life, and the opportunity to hear and practice the teaching of Buddha.

Rev. Daigaku Rumme´ (January, 2017)