How to Bring The Monastery Into Your Kitchen

I recently staffed a four-week meditation retreat, called dathun (which in Tibetan means "month session"). Dathun was designed by Chogyam Trungpa in the early 1970s as a rigorous form of group meditation, a way for his students to take the next step on the path. Over the years, dathun evolved to include taking meals according to the tradition of oryoki, a form of dining developed in Zen Buddhism. I had a chance to re-experience oryoki in the dathun I staffed; here is an excerpt from my journal:

Twenty-eight days of meditation. A strict schedule. Taking meals in the oryoki tradition, a silent form of eating using spoon, chopsticks and four nested bowls, with cloths used to wash the bowls after you eat from them. The demanding rules of oryoki are at first intimidating and tedious, but ultimately rewarding in the way that any way of life that could go on forever is. You might not talk, but laughter is prevalent.

Initially oryoki, like meditation, can be irritating and tiresome. Every movement from untying the bow that holds the set together to the final moment of retying it is specifically choreographed (the choreography can be seen in full on this video). There is a strict order of eating and all food taken must be consumed. If the pinto beans from the kitchen are semi-raw one must still eat them! But once the form is learned it become effortless and warmly communal. Oryoki also makes huge environmental sense. Not only does it generate no waste - no paper napkins, no plastic spoons, no landfill items - but it conserves water in the extreme. A spatula is used to pre-clean ones one's bowls and then rinse water is brought around to wash them. What happens to your rinse water once your bowls are clean? You drink it.

Typically, converts to oryoki leave meditation retreats longing to continue, at least in some way, this most mindful way of eating together. Oryoki, however, was designed for the monastery and it is not easy, or perhaps even advisable, to continue practicing it in your fifth-floor walkup or suburban kitchen. But there are ways to bring the monastery into the kitchen.

. . .

The etymology of Oryoki is telling, and apt to any kitchen or dining room:

O: the receiver's response to the offering of food.
Ryo: a measure or an amount to be received.
Ki: the bowl.

Oryoki means the bowl or plate we eat from, the amount of food we receive and, most significantly, our state of mind when we receive (and eat) the food. Normally we think a lot about the food we eat, but not much about our response to receiving it. Normally we might be polite to the wife, husband, mother, father or waiter who serves us our food, but we don't emphasize those moments, we don't cultivate them, we don't regard them as moments of potential awakening.

And how often do we give thanks to the food itself, to the creatures - from earthworms to chickens - who gave their life so we could eat? We don't often give conscious thanks to the plants and animals or to the resources - water, gasoline, even price tags - that brought the food to our table.


Bringing the monastery into the kitchen and dining room is about the first paramita (or transcendent) act in Mahayana Buddhism: dana or generosity. Transcendent generosity is a state of consciousness that includes gratitude. It is a state of mind that recognizes giver and receiver are one. Any simple of act of generosity - including, of course the receiving, the oryro of oryoki - is a potential transcendent act.

The history of oryoki is again apt. The largest of the nested bowls in the oryoki set is called the "Buddha bowl," and symbolizes the tradition of spiritual mendicants carrying a single bowl as they begged for their meal. This tradition has been part of Buddhism since Shakyamuni's time, but the way of life precedes the Buddha and was practiced in many religious sects. Buddhism formalized the tradition as a hallmark of dana paramita, with the notion being the layperson gave food and the monk gave dharma.

. . .

There are many ways that contemporary practitioners can bring the spirit of oryoki and dana into their homes. One might be to create a "kitchen shrine" (see my article, How to Create a Shrine). Chogyam Trungpa suggested his students do this. The shrine could hold, for example, a depiction of one's teacher or the Buddha (or whatever object symbolizes one's faith) and perhaps a candle and/or tea or water offering. Before one cooks and eats one could light the candle and or make the offering, thus "opening" the shrine - and one's heart/mind.

Saying a form of grace is another vehicle for dana awareness (oryoki is practiced with elaborate texts chanted before and after the meal). You can look up chants online; here is a beautiful one from the Nichiren Buddhist tradition:

The rays of the sun, moon and stars which nourish our bodies, and the five grains of the earth which nurture our spirits are all the gifts of the Eternal Buddha. Even a drop of water or a grain of rice is nothing but the result of meritorious work and hard labor. May this meal help us to maintain the health in body and mind, and to uphold the teachings of the Buddha to repay the Four Favors, and to perform the pure conduct of serving others. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Itadakimasu.

The monastery is a place where guidelines for mindfulness prevail twenty-four hours a day. Many of the guidelines are actual forms: ringing gongs, chanting texts, folding one's robes in specific ways. Oryoki is one example of using form to promote mindfulness. A contemporary practitioner can adopt traditional forms - such as kitchen shines and meal chants - and invent her or his own. We seldom think to do this, create our own forms to encourage mindfulness. The kitchen and dining room is a great place to start. How many can you think of?


Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism




A recent article from Lion's Roar magazine listed "10 Buddhist Books Everyone Should Have." Not surprisingly, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialsim by Chogyam Trungpa was one of the ten. As the article put it, "CTSM defines basic principles not only of Buddhism but of spiritual practice altogether. (It is) always contemporary and relevant, a profound influence on how Buddhism is understood today."

I first read CTSM in 1974, or I should say I read the first few chapters. I wasn't quite ready for Chogyam Trungpa's high-octane education in all the ways the spiritual path goes wrong. I picked the book up again two years later and within a matter of months - as fate, intention and ausipicious coincidence would have it - I'd become Chogyam Trungp's student. Now, forty years later, I've just finished reading the book again. CTSM remains as challenging and educational as ever.

Spiritual materialism is dangerous, ubiquitous and unavoidalbe - and it is also a paradox. Dangerous because spiritual deception can become more intractible and slippery than other forms of deception. Ubiquitous because it is human nature to try to incorporate every genuine spiritual experience into our own territory - Trungpa Rinpoche calles this "ego's game." Unavoidable because ego, parodoxically, is not an enemy but a tendency, not a noun (it does not "exist") but a verb, a secondary process, an overlay onto immediate experience that must be gradually seen or cut through. This includes the process of making friends with ego, hence the paradox. Spiritual materialsim is the material of the path each of us treads on. It is said that great bodhisattvas or saints were out the last vestiges of spiritual materialism only moments before their final awakening.

CTSM, like most of Chogyam Trunpga's books, is actually an edited transcript of a series of talks he gave to his earliest American students in the fall of 1970 and spring of 1971. In talk after talk, Trungpa Rinpoche stripped away gross and subtle vestiges of wishful spiritual thinking and exposed the various way we deceive ourselves. One of his many definitions of deception is this:

Self-deception means trying to recreate a past experience again and again, instead of actually having the experience in the present moment. Self-deception needs the idea of evaluation and a very long memory. Thinking back, we feel nostalgic, getting a kick from our memories, but we do not know where we are at this very moment (page 68).

We can study this excerpt in light of the the chapter Development of Ego where Trungpa explains the traditional and ancient (3rd Century BCE) Buddhist abhidharma teaching of the five skandas, but with the tantric underpinning that runs through all of Trungp's teachings. The "basic ground" of our experience is where complete openness and stunning non-dual intellegence is found, but we cover up this ground through the five stage proccess of ego, which begins with a "blackout" from which we deliberatly ignore our own freedom by developing an increasingly fast-moving process of centalizing on a fundamentally non-existent self.

In the five skanda process, first we develop a crude sense of self and other, a seperateness. In the second stage we begin to feel the engaging and repelling qualities of seperation. In the third skanda we begin to react and make judgements according to our crude feelings; our reactions are the traditional "three-poisons" of Buddhism: passion, aggression or ignorace; being attracted, being repelled or remaining ignorant. Finally, in the fourth skanda we develop elaborate conceptual schemes that justify our feelings and in the first skandha we experience continuous thinking, the "uncontrollable and illogical patterns of discursive thought."

"Thinking back, we feel nostalgic, getting a kick from our memories, but we do not know where we are at this very moment." With his characteristic skill in the vernacular, Trungpa described the five-skandas free of terminology, an unmasking so accurate it hurts. Yes, that is what we so often do, dwell in memory rather than actually inhabit the present moment.










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