Issue 17;



Zen In a Napkin: How Oryoki Kicked My Ass - This article was originally posted on Carmen’s blog and subsequently in The Upaya newsletter of 28Dec 2011. It is republished here by kind permission of Carmen.

By Carmen Mills

Carmen has been a resident of Upaya since August 2011.
The following article, about her experience during Upaya's Rohatsu sesshin, was originally posted on Carmen's blog, Bicycle Buddha.

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 oryoki meal opens with a thundrous drumroll. Then the very comely head server enters to the beat of the drum, bearing an ornate tray for Manjusri Buddha which he receives with sword raised high....
She is followed by a procession of servers who bring in each dish, pots extended at eye level. The servers bow and drop to their 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 as close to none as possible. Everything must be done silently, including chewing crunchy broccoli and stacking the rattling 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 little 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.
When everyone has been served, and after a great deal of bowing and chanting, we may raise our spoons and eat. And 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 bowls and cutlery. 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 for the final bow.
At first I thought the whole thing was insane. I was perpetually out of sync, there were dribbles all over my serving cloth, and my lotus flower was a mess. Doshin took me aside for some 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 feared 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 “the least possible equipment.” That part I could appreciate from the beginning, having travelled and lived by bicycle. I know how to condense a full kitchen down to just one small pot, a swiss army knife and a spork. How to 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, finish the meal by washing my socks in the last of the rinse water. Efficient, minimal and self-contained: that part I get. But the lotus blossom lost me.
Through meal after meal, I began to get oryoki as Zen in 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 “72 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. The bowls must 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 honor them all. And we also consider the experience of the neighbour on the next cushion, that her elbow not be jostled, and that she be able to savour her soup without hearing me slurping at mine. Everything interdepends, and 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 think of teenage boys at McDonalds, wolfing back fistfuls of factory meat with barely a thought beyond ordering the meal, and barely a sensation past the moment of taste between lips and gut before it is on to the next big bite. Oryoki contradicts that mindless consumption, with the food considered in a continuum from the planting of the rice to the honoring of the spirits. Too 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 rules is that you are not allowed to refuse anything, and you have to 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 onto it, it still tasted like paste, and I had to eat it—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 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 says, there is the poetry and 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 and 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.

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