I'm just out of a 6-day sesshin, Zen retreat, with Norman Fischer and most of the local participants of the Everyday Zen practice period. There were about 48 of us sitting at the Santa Sabina Retreat Center in a large room from 5:30 am until 9:00 pm every day, steeping ourselves like tea bags in the clear water of silence.
A big part of Zen sesshin is a somewhat arcane meal practice called oryoki. During meals, instead of eating in the usual way, each person has their own set of three bowls, nested inside one another, wrapped up in a particular way in a cloth. The photo above shows one person's bowls all wrapped up after a meal.
Oryoki is an acknowledgement of the ancient Buddhist practice of begging for and receiving food. The Buddha ate from a begging bowl, and even today Theravadan monks have only a bowl and three robes, and they only eat if someone places food in their bowl each morning. The life of a monk is a life of radical dependence on others and trust in interconnection. When Zen monasteries started developing in China, monks grew their own food and cooked for themselves, but they maintained the tradition of the importance of the bowl, and the recognition of humility, gratitude and interdependence that it symbolizes.
Oryoki is truly a trial by fire for new Zen students. Each movement of unwrapping the bowls, of chanting, of eating, has its own choreography, and there's no way to get it entirely right, even after years of practice. For someone new to oryoki, remembering even the most basic sequence from one meal to another is a challenge, especially after hours of meditation and the general spaciness that develops after a few days on retreat. I'm sure there are people who have fantasized about throwing everything across the room with a shout, grabbing a plate and a spoon, dishing out their own food, and going outside to eat in peace.
I know this because one of my jobs for the last few years has been to provide an orientation to oryoki at the beginning of sesshin. I invariably feel like I am torturing people as we go through the innumerable steps, bewildered faces turned toward me, tension in shoulders and trembling fingers. I wish there was some way I could make it easier, but there's no way to skip a step without getting even more hopelessly lost. So I doggedly go on, hoping and praying that with humor and kindness I can ease the anxiety a little.
Then, the very next morning at breakfast, we all dive in to oryoki practice. Much of the daily rhythm and structure of a Zen monastery (and a sesshin is a temporary monastery, even if it is held at a Catholic convent!), is to some degree built around the ritual of giving and receiving that is at the heart of oryoki. It is really not intended to be a sadistic torture device, as much as it might feel that way to someone struggling with it for the first time. Its intention, from start to finish, is to help bring powerful awareness to our usual mindless relationship to receiving and eating food, the life that makes it possible for us to live.
The Zen kitchen, which is Soto Zen is as much a practice place as the meditation hall, is focused on providing just the right food and the right amounts for those three little bowls. The kitchen is also engaged in a ritual while they're cooking. They bow to an altar in the kitchen before starting, they work in silence, and, if all goes well, the food appears at just the right moment at the beginning of a meal.
In the monastery, oryoki meals are eaten right at one's place in the meditation hall. To begin a meal, one just turns around and picks up the bowls that are right beside the meditation cushion. A team of servers bring in the pots one at a time, bowing in silence to pairs of people, dishing up the food (and there are ritualized signals for "that's enough"), then bowing again. A hall full of sixty people can all be served their food in about 15 minutes this way.
We at Everyday Zen eat at tables in the old convent refrectory, but we still serve one another in silence. Each person serves the person across the table, bowing before and after, using the same signals. We chant verses of gratitude before the meal and after. My favorite line is "May we realize the emptiness of the three wheels, giver, receiver, and gift." Everything is connected: those who grew and cooked the food, those of us who receive it, and the food itself in all its glory. Nothing can be separated out or could exist without the others.
At the end of the meal, still sitting at our places, we serve each other hot water in the largest bowl. Then, with another series of choreographed movements, we clean all three bowls and our utensils, drink most of the leftover water, make an offering of a small amount of water to the spirit world ("This water, which tastes like ambrosia, we offer to the many spirits to satisfy them"), dry everything, and pack it all back up into its neat little package. No waste, no dishes, no mess. It's brilliant.
Now's my chance to sing the praises of oryoki. As an ecologist, everything about oryoki delights me (except for the suffering it causes people who are new to it - I could do without that, but there doesn't seem to be a way out of it). I love that it is the practice of "just enough" in a culture of "never enough". I love that from the beginning to end it acknowledges interconnection, and the the interpenetration of our food and those who bring it to us and our own lives. I love that it requires attention, and even love, for what we normally think of as inanimate and use without appreciation. And once past the initial terror and awkwardness, the movements are beautiful: literally a dance of awareness.
And there is something of a feeling of a "full circle" to oryoki, even to the water offering that is poured on the base of a plant or tree outside the kitchen door. If we lived in the same way as we do oryoki, perhaps things would be a wee bit less dire than they seem to be. Much of monastic life offers similar possibilities.
The multi-religious theologian Raimundo Pannikar, in his gorgeous book on the "monastic archetype,", Blessed Simplicity, suggests that in this era monks may not be people living in monasteries in robes, but are rather people who are "called to a interiority, to a search for the center and for the heart," whatever their life circumstances. I would venture to say that with that search and commitment comes to a growing awareness of interconnection and sacredness, and from that place, naturally unfolds a monastic approach to life: a life of care, of simplicity, and of awareness. Each person who makes this choice helps the world.
And on that note, just a few throughts about ringing the wake-up bell for sesshin. That's one of the many jobs of the shuso during practice period: to go into the dark, cold meditation hall, very early in the morning, do three bows to the Buddha, pick up the bell from behind the altar, then run (run!) with the bell ringing wildly, one full circuit of the meditation hall and then past every door of every person in the sesshin. It's an ear-splitting racket in the midst of so much silence and slowness. It's like a fire alarm or an air-raid siren: "Wake up! Wake up! There's an emergency here! No time to waste!"
I was dreading getting up so early (two alarms set for 4:45 am, and hardly sleeping the first night out of a fear that I would oversleep), but I hadn't expected what it would feel like to ring the bell. Running around the meditation hall felt like a purification of the space, washing out all the stickiness from yesterday's sitting, making it fresh for a new day. And running the bell through the dark hallways, sleepy people jumping out of my way (sorry, everyone), it really did feel like an emergency. Truly, there is no time to waste.
There is a big wooden block that is struck with a mallet to call people to meditation, called a han. Hans generally have calligraphy on them that says something like what ours says: "Birth and Death is serious business, swift as an arrow, soon gone. Wake up, everyone! Don't waste this life."
I have always taken that admonition as a reminder that life is short, and so, don't put off what matters, wake up as much as you can to the nature of things, and to compassion. But now, with everything that is happening in the world, I hold it a little differently: we need every one of us to wake up, NOW, as much as possible, and find a way to live lives of greater acknowledgment of our interdependence ---- with each other, with all the creatures in this world, and with the whole world itself, even the very air we breathe, the ocean currents, the rain, the clouds. There is no time to waste.
And as oryoki teaches, there is also all the time in the world. Each moment is endless, if we're there for it. So, yes, wake up, but wake up to gratitude, to joy, to appreciation for this beautiful world, and the beautiful people all around us. Then we won't have wasted this precious life, so brief, so essential.