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Ōryōki Way to Mindful Eating

Meditative form of eating that emphasizes mindfulness awareness practice by abiding to a strict order of precise movements.

Photo of Mithra Vankipuram
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Ōryōki is a meditative form of eating that emphasizes mindfulness awareness practice by abiding to a strict order of precise movements. The ritualistic preparation calms the mind and prepares it for mindful eating. The bowl sizes automatically help portion control the food. The waiting and chanting prior to eating, allows you to take in the smells and aromas and prepare the body and senses for eating. With such a manner, even simple nutritious foods can evoke the same experience and joy and rich calorie dense foods that are eaten when distracted.

Here is an excerpt from zen-beginner's blog post on their developing love for Ōryōki. 

The very word 'Oryoki' (オリヨキ or 応量器) means something like "just enough in the bowl", so portion control is built into the program. Reading my initial post on the process you can see that I've been fascinated by the form for a while, it's the most complex of the Zendo forms, and the one in which a mistake can be dramatic: hot water being poured from bowl to bowl, the occasional setsu hitting the floor, ceramic bowls which shatter if dropped from the narrow edge of the ton. It turns breakfast, lunch and to a lesser extent dinner (which has an abbreviated, two bowl form) into a bit of a performance, and in that performance my relationship to food has profoundly changed.

First, Set the table. Before eating the bowls are set out and the implements prepared for eating. The unpacking process is a little complicated, to the point where I took a series of photographs depicting the process. Packing it back up is a simple matter of unpacking in reverse, and looking at the full priests set of five bowls (instead of the student set of three) and an additional bowl stand and placemat you start to get a feel for the care that can be taken in setting out your table:

Buddha was born in Kapilavastu,
Enlightened in Magadha,
Taught in Varanasi,
Entered nirvana in Kushinagara.
Now we set out Buddha's bowls.
May we, with all beings,
Realize the emptiness of the three wheels: Giver, receiver, and gift.

Second, Wait to eat. The food is served in succession, one item at a time. The Abbot is first in line, then their Jika, then so on along the ton, where people are typically seated in order of seniority. Only when everyone has been served all three dishes does the meal begin, as a result you have to sit with your food for some time before eating. I can smell the food, notice my body beginning to prepare for it: saliva starts to flow, the stomach starts to rumble, peristalsis starts up and my belly gurgles, a little insulin flows out of my pancreas immediately dropping my blood sugar to almost nothing, hunger intensifies. But I have to wait to eat, and just sit there and feel my body getting hungry for a few minutes, don't react, just feel the hunger and the desire to eat. Just sit with it for a few minutes, then, before eating we chant the Verse of Five Contemplations:

We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.
We reflect on our virtue and practice, and whether we are worthy of this offering
We regard it as essential to keep the mind free from excesses such as greed.
We regard this food as good medicine to sustain our life.
For the sake of enlightenment we now receive this food.

Third, Consider why I'm eating. "We regard this food as good medicine to sustain our life", i.e. it's not entertainment, it's not pleasure, it's what we need to continue our lives, as much as possible we should make that just enough. The food that's served reflects that, simple, hearty and never spicy. Rice or porridge in the first bowl, which you may season with gamasho only. Soup, fruit or pudding in the second bowl, and something delightful in the third, often roasted nuts or a small salad. Once all the good medicine is served, we chant the bowl raising verse:

First, this is for the three treasures.
Next, for the four benefactors.
Finally, for the beings in the six realms.
May all be equally nourished.

Finally, I think of our visitors from earlier. They have wandered into this place looking for nourishment, I hope they got some, and in reflecting can only think of what a great gift it is in life to have more food that you need, and what a waste it is to over-eat when others are hungry and have no roof over their head. Oryoki gives me the time and permission to think about all these things, how and when I eat instead of unconsciously stuffing myself with whatever I can get my hands on.

Full post:

Ōryōki Video Instructions Video:

Nutritious Recipes:

My note: Many cultures have methods to promote mindful eating (for example saying grace before eating a mean). If we can educate (through tech) people on these techniques, they can find the one that works for them and their families and also learn about other cultures at the same time.


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