Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Empty Platter

"I'll tell you what I like about Chinese people. They're hanging in there with the chopsticks, aren't they? You know they've seen the fork, but they're staying with the sticks. . . I don't know how they missed it. Chinese farmer gets up, works in the field with a shovel all day. Shovel, spoon. Come on. You're not plowing 40 acres with a couple of pool cues!"
- Jerry Seinfeld

Back in December 2005, I was a bad boy at sesshin and walked out on the noonday meal rather than go through the oryoki ritual. Oryoki (literally, "just enough"), is a meditative form of eating that emphasizes mindfulness by abiding to a strict order of precise movements, each of which encourages the mind to be present and not wander in discursive thought.

It's also, in my humble opinion, tedious and precious and not entirely sanitary. Nansen said, "Ordinary mind is the way," and there is nothing to oryoki that feel ordinary or natural to me, and I continue to avoid it.

It has, I recognize, become a dharma barrier for me. My discriminating mind has its preferences, and avoiding oryoki - even taking my meals off site during retreats and sesshins if I have to - is an exercise in picking and choosing. I can see this but, like, whatever. I'm still not going to do it. I don't practice calligraphy and I'm not interested in origami or tea ceremony, and oryoki seems to have large elements of both. And don't even get me started on sewing.

I'm a western man living in a western culture. When Zen came to Japan, the Japanese didn't play pretend that they were living in India. Why should I pretend that I'm a 13th Century Japanese monastic? Ordinary mind in the here and now. After all, we've seen the fork. . .

I bring all this up because I received a delightful email last night from a Zen practitioner who had endured oryoki for several years but is starting to have reservations about the form. She came across my prior bad-boy rant, and wrote to sympathize. Interestingly, her experience at an actual Zen monastery was similar to mine at John Daido Loori's Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York - they eat with forks and knives, not in oryoki. It makes me think sometimes the practitioners at the various dharma centers are just being dilettantes.

But as I said, oryoki is my dharma barrier. I whole heartedly encourage you to try the practice with an open mind, to follow the directions of your teachers, and come to your own conclusions. We can discuss it over a hot bowl of miso soup someday, as we ladle the broth down with our soup spoons.

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