Quiet tea, talky tea

Butsuma--a space for the Buddha. Chanoma--a space where people drink tea, eat, chat.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Eating as a spiritual practice

Buddhist breakfast

'Itadakimasu'--the standard thing to say before eating in Japan.  What a phrase, what complex layers of meaning.  Itadaku is a humble verb meaning 'partake.'  Japanese has ways of speaking that reflect the humility of the speaker.  It seems remarkably consonant with one of the Six Verses for Training the Mind from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition: 'In any group, I will consider myself to be the lowest in rank.'  A fairly tough concept for most Americans (including me) to get their heads around.  The verb form itadakimasu is formal, suggesting respect for the food and those who prepared it.  So itadakimasu 'I humbly partake, with respect' is kind of like grace, but no god is involved--makes things so easy!  Probably 100% of school kids in Japan learn to say this at lunch.  No worries about religion in the lunchroom, who goes to what temple or church, or who believes or doesn't.  Just humility and respect.  

I went to a ceremony at the temple Sensoji this morning, starting at 7:00 AM, that involved about 30 minutes of chanting (the sutra of Avalokitesvara, = chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra) in the main hall of the temple.  Then we moved to the Shoin, a traditional chamber in the garden of the former monastery Denboin.  There we did 'sai jiki,' which is a Buddhist way of eating.  The spiritual side is the point, much more than the nutritional side.  The food was about as simple as can be, okayu, which is rice cooked with extra water so that it is almost souplike.  Nothing is added, so the taste is just bland white rice.  By the way, this is a traditional breakfast in many parts of Asia, usually available at a hotel breakfast, for example.  Strongly salted side dishes are eaten with the gruel. Today's meal was typical--yellow takuan pickled radish, kelp boiled in sweet soy sauce, and gobo (a root vegetable) also cooked in a very salty way. But first, there was a ceremony, which I was struggling to read in Japanese.  First there was the invocation of the law, the Buddha and the sangha.  Then, we formed the meditation hand gesture to read affirmations of our respect for the food and  our hope for all sentient beings who hunger, both in the physical sense as well as the spiritual, both in this world and in worlds beyond this one.  A small plate was passed around, and each person added one bite of rice to the plate, as a symbolic offering.  This took five or ten minutes, and then finally we said 'Itadakimasu!'  Everyone ate silently, and finished rather quickly--for me, soupy rice takes a while to eat with chopsticks.  Then, tea kettles were passed around, and everyone filled the empty rice bowl with tea(or was it hot water?).  With one's last slice of radish, the inside of the bowl was wiped clean, and the tea was drunk, leaving the dishes clean.  Many monastics eat all their meals this way.  Next, there was a short sermon.  Afterwards, we took a spin around the garden.  

It is easy to apply an esoteric (mikkyo) Buddhist interpretation to this--actions of body, speech and mind are called mysteries, I think because of the effects they have.  This is karma.  Often, the link between cause and effect can be less than obvious--I don't suppose any homeless people actually had their hunger assuaged by our efforts.  But the idea is that the intention is what counts.  So we chanted and meditated for our minds.  We spoke our prayers and took action in the form of offering food and also eating in a humble and respectful way.  

The setting was probably a bit too luxurious.  The nineteenth-century building was lavishly detailed, decorated with beautiful hanging scrolls, and the entire side of the building facing the garden was completely open.  The group is a kind of club at the temple, and I was able to participate through an introduction by a friend.  

Here is the famous view of the Shoin with the pagoda of Sensoji in the background:

Thanks for reading!  (I think you can see a higher resolution if you click on the photo)


  1. Hi John, this is Doug from the JKLLR. I enjoyed your post on Sensoji. I've been there as a tourist maybe 2-3 times, but I never fail to find something new and interesting there. I've certainly never taken part in any ceremonies there, so it was really fun to read.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for reading! Because it is such a tourist attraction, it can be difficult to figure out what is going on with Sensoji. I have been lucky to have spent a lot of time in Asakusa, so I have gradually found out more and experienced more about the temple.