When we sit
down to eat in our monastery, we try to be conscious of several
things. We eat in silence because this way you can concentrate
on the food and practice awareness. Then we eat everything
on the plate. This is our way of honoring the conservation
of resources. We also try to make sure that the conservation
of resources takes place before the food even reaches our plate:
the portions we receive aren’t too large, and this way
it isn’t difficult to eat all that’s been given
to us. We also remember the preparation of the food—the
work of the cooks and the cleaners and those who picked the
vegetables and processed the food. We don’t choose what
we eat at the monastery. We’re not in the monastery to
become gourmets. We’re there because we need to cultivate
appreciation and nonattachment to all things, including food.
These ritual behaviors are part of what we call the “five
contemplations.” The first contemplation is to develop
gratitude. We give thanks for the food and how it came to us.
We reflect on the food’s growth from seed to flowering
plant, its harvesting and journey from the fields to the market;
then we appreciate its arrival and preparation in the kitchen,
and the effort it took to supply this food. We acknowledge
the interdependence of all natural things—how they work
together in harmony to bring us what is nutritious and life-giving.
We recognize, too, that life forms may have been harmed in
the gathering of this food (even though we don’t eat
meat, we know that animals may have been disturbed by the harvesting
of the vegetables, fruits, and grains).
The second contemplation is to develop humility. In the monastery
we’re privileged in that we don’t pay money for
our meals. However, we know the meal is not cost-free. We’re
also aware that many in the world don’t have access to
any food, no matter what the price. It’s a great blessing
to us that we have people who cook for us and prepare the tables.
We’re always at risk of taking them for granted—just
as, in society as a whole, we take for granted the people who
work in the factories or the migrant laborers who pluck our
fruits and vegetables from the trees and bushes or pull them
up from the ground. That we forget all those who work out of
sight for our comfort is an unfortunate tendency in our culture.
The second contemplation forces us, therefore, at least for
a moment, to be aware that they exist and that we should be
grateful for them. Perhaps such gratitude will make us more
likely to help these laborers as they advocate for better work
and living conditions.
I remember on one occasion, I was eating with a young man
who asked: “If I paid five dollars for this meal, why
do I still have to say ‘thank you’?”
“Do you think that your five dollars really bought this
meal?” I asked him. “Let’s count up the economic
cost that led to this food coming together in this form for
you. Think about all the causes and conditions that were involved
in terms of time and space for this set of ingredients to be
cooked in such a way and then be available to eat.” And
so the young man and I did just that. I can’t remember
the exact number we came up with, but the amount of money and
the perhaps unquantifiable effort involved were considerably
more than what he had paid. The young man ate a bit of humble
pie with his meal that day!
The third contemplation we perform is to develop restraint.
Restraint means protecting the integrity of our mind so that
we’re less likely to depart from our discipline; this
way we avoid errors such as greed. So, not only should we not
take more than we need but also always practice consideration
in making sure that everyone has what they need. We must be
aware not to become selfish, indulge our tastes, and wish to
take more than our share—whether it’s piling our
plate high or making it so that other people don’t get
enough to eat. We shouldn’t ask why we were given the
food, complain about the taste, or disparage the skills of
those who prepared it. We should accept it with gratitude and
grace, thanking everyone involved for their work and care.
The fourth contemplation is the generation of health-providing
thoughts about the food. We should sense it nourishing us and
giving us energy and vitality, coursing through our bodies.
That’s why the food in the monastery should always be
nutritious. The food prepared should be good for the digestion,
soft on the palate, and flavorful. There’s no reason
that it should be devoid of taste or pleasure. The Chinese
monastic tradition considers food and medicine to be from the
same source. Food is always cooked using herbs and spices together
to combine taste, nutritional value, and the healing power
of those herbs and spices. This is a different conception of
food from that in the West, where nutrition has, until relatively
recently, not been thought of as a key component in preventing
disease and curing ailments. The fourth contemplation allows
us to consider food as a medicinal force.
The fifth contemplation aims to encourage examination of the
purpose of our lives. The entire process of sitting down to
eat, reflecting on food and its preparation, and then the eating
of it should be a method—one among many—to take
us further on the path to enlightenment. This again is why
the food in our temples is vegetarian: because we want to emphasize
the life-giving nature of food and to discourage the taking