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The Zen of Eating

The Buddhist Channel, April 22, 2008; Extracted from "The Zen Life", page 156-158; Published by Weatherhill, 1972.

Although we eat everyday, for the most part we do it mechanically, without deep reflection. This is not to say that we do not sometimes hear people say things like "It was delicious" or "I enjoyed the meal very much.".

Most people, however, fail to reflect on such things as how many people's beneficence has made it possible for them to eat a particular meal. Where for example, were the raw materials that go to make up our meals, such as rice, wheat, barley, sugar, vegetables, fruit etc., cultivated? Or where were they harvested, collected and processed? How much human effort has been involved?

Not only that, but how great a part in this process has been played by the so-called natural forces such as the sun's warmth, the earth's nourishment, the air's action, changes in climate?

When it is a question of methods of cultivating rice, or producing other food, not only are the efforts of present day people involved but also those of past ages as well. When we stop to think how the finished foods were transported, then we realize that the number of people who have been involved in enabling us to eat is almost infinite.

Truly, "considering the meal's effect, we reflect on whence it came."

Considering how great has been the kindness of heaven, earth and our fellow human beings, we need to ask, "Am I really worthy of receiving the fruit of such cooperation? Have I accumulated such virtue or moral culture? How apt the saying. "weighing our virtues, we accept this offering."

Zen training is for the purpose of controlling the mind, and curing ourselves of the three primary evil desires: greed, anger and ignorance. Of these three, however, greed is difficult to overcome.

"We must first of all overcome greed" means that when we are about to eat, the food that so many people and things have beneficently provided for us, we should be concerned about other human beings who may be starving, and whether or not we are greedily eating that which rightfully belongs to such unfortunates.

Truly, food should be thought of as a medicine to sustain our physical strength. If this is done, then greed will by itself disappear.

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If we think further about the fundamental nature of this problem, we will come to understand that the reason we are given the opportunity to eat is in order that we may attain the Buddhist Way and realize Enlightenment.

This might also be expressed as the realization of the four great vows of Bodhisattvahood, beginning with the vow, "to save all sentient beings, however innumerable they may be" and ending with the vow, "to attain the Buddhist Way, however infinite it may be."

The vows, expressed more simply, are compressed to, "to attain enlightenment, we now eat this food." The reason the Gokan no Ge are recited at Zen mealtimes is none other than to renew the monks' understanding of the meaning of eating and to deepen their vigilance.

Written by Koji Sato, Translated by Ryojun Victoria

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