- Feb 17th, 2014 at 6:56PM
One of my zen teachers, Brad Warner, gave a great talk a while ago about eating. He went into his favorite vegetarian curry place in LA to get some dinner, and noticed a guy eating alone; he was watching tv, listening to music, and reading a magazine, all whilst eating his curry. Brad wondered, does this guy even know what he's eating? Is he tasting it at all? Is he enjoying it? Does he know when he's full? Does he care how hard the chef worked to cook it? Did he notice that the waitress gave him extra rice? Can he see that he spilled some on his shirt?
Some sects of Buddhism demand total silence when eating. Others require that you chew your food one hundred times before swallowing. Most have chants and special rituals for serving, receiving, and eating. Some consider food as mere fuel, others insist on appreciating the pure joy of eating delicious foods. Many insist on a vegetarian diet, others have no restrictions.
The sect of Buddhism I am in is pretty lax, comparatively. Vegetarianism is common but not required. I've been to several of our yearly retreats, and the food is always "Japanese vegetarian", which usually means there is some seafood. At the retreats we would do the full meal service, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, using traditional serving bowls and utensils.
After a few years, I started mumbling the main chant before I would eat meals, at home or wherever. At first I had to consciously remind myself to do it, usually after my first few bites of food. But after a while, it became habitual, and now I can't really eat a meal without saying it; it just doesn't feel natural.
I hate being That Guy, so if I'm out with friends or whatever, I'll just kind of subvocalize it as the waiter is bringing over the first dish. I can rip through all five verses in about thirty seconds, so no one notices that I've stopped talking as the food is being served. Sometimes I'll put my hands together in gassho, chopsticks between thumbs and first fingers, but again only if it's not gonna be weird and cause minor social awkwardness. I'm not trying to proselytize; it's just my thing.
I do a common chant called Five Reflections. I do it in Japanese because that's how I learned it. There are plenty of English translations, and I think the one we used on the retreats is the best. It's called five reflections because it has five lines, and each means a different thing, relating to an appropriate attitude about food in particular and life in general.
1. We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.
2. We reflect on our virtue and practice and whether we are worthy of this offering.
3. We consider greed to be the obstacle to freedom of mind.
4. We regard this food as medicine to sustain our life.
5. For the sake of attaining the truth we now receive this food.
First of all, unless you are a subsistence farmer, many, many, MANY people made huge efforts to get this food to you. The farmer who grew it, the laborers who picked it and packaged it, the truck driver who delivered it to your local Whole Foods, the cashier who rang it up and put it in your EcoBag. Or the chef who cooked it, the waitress who brought it to you, the busboy who cleaned the plate off of which you eat, scrubbed the pot in which it was cooked. By extension, the construction workers who paved the roads on which you rode to the store or restaurant, the customers who bought your product or service, thus enabling your company to pay you the salary with which you bought the food...
Secondly, after all this effort, what is this food going to do for you? Will it be the fuel that drives you to be and do your best, to contribute positively to yourself, your friends and family, and to society? Or will it be turned into useless fat cells so that you can be lazy and unproductive? After all. The effort that went into making it and getting it to your plate, are you going to enjoy it, appreciate the colors and flavors, the nutritional value? Or are you going to mindlessly inhale half of it whilst surfing Facebook on your phone, then toss out the rest?
Third, remember how lucky you are to even have enough food to eat. The sad reality is that there is more than enough food to feed all the billions of people on the planet. It's a problem of distribution and priorities. Governments, like in North Korea and several African nations would rather horde luxury goods for a select few whilst their people starve needlessly.
Ironically, America makes corn to feed animals to make cheap hamburgers to feed the masses, and the people suffer from preventable diseases like diabetes and heart conditions because of OVER eating. And America throws away enough food every year to solve hunger in countless third world countries. So before super-sizing, or going back for thirds at the buffet, think about what you need versus what you want.
Fourth, remember that eating is a necessity. Your body needs fuel, the right kinds of macro and micro nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, in the correct amounts. Don't confuse eating for pleasure with enjoying a meal. The difference is subtle but important.
Personally, our taste buds are sensitive and wired directly into the pleasure centers of the brain. Eating something that tastes good literally feels good, too. And that's wonderful. But that is not an excuse to stuff your face with chocolate to get that endorphin rush, just like it is unwise to have several pleasurable shots of tequila with every meal.
Socially, because of the fundamental importance of food, sharing food is culturally significant and socially important. What is important is the ritual; being with friends and family, sharing your favorite hidden restaurant or dish, picking up the check, making the laborious effort to cook for or with others, sharing your favorite recipe, holiday meals full of mirth and cheer. What is important is the sharing and camaraderie; food is the excuse to get together, not the sole purpose.
Finally, the best you can do is be a role model. To change the world, start with yourself. Live your life the best you can, in accordance with your definition of what is right. I don't preach to people that they should be Buddhist and exercise regularly. But sometimes, people ask me why I'm not eating a second piece of cake, isn't it good?, and I say "it's delicious, thanks. But I don't have to stuff myself to appreciate the taste. Besides, everyone should get a piece." Maybe that message resonates with them, maybe they ask me how I can eat cake and keep in good physical shape, and I can tell them about Kenzai. Or maybe they'll figure it out for themselves, and I can encourage them directly or indirectly. But I can't make anyone do it; everyone has to live his or her own life, the best I can do is try to lead by example.
Recently, my kids have been copying me. Every night before dinner, my kids hold their hands in gassho, and wait for me to do the chant. If I don't do it loud enough, or start before they are ready, they ask me to repeat it. Sometimes they help me do the counting at the beginning of every line.
That's kind of cool; I hope they come to appreciate what it means and why I do it. I don't force them to do it; they simply see and hear me every night. Maybe they will come to do it themselves, to understand it in their own way, and it will help them appreciate the awesome food that mom cooked for them, and to be the best that they can be. All I can hope for is that others see me trying, and decide to do the same themselves. And one by one, we will change the world.