As people arrive, we make our way into the zendo. Inside, exposed support beams create a series of lovely wood arches overhead. The windows are high and designed not so much for looking out as for adjusting air flow and light; some are propped open, letting a gentle breeze circulate. A simple altar occupied one end; around the perimeter of the room sit raised platforms covered in straw mats and cushions. I select a spot and hop up. After adjusting my pillow, I settle in.
It’s a full morning that’s planned here. We will enjoy a special ceremonial breakfast, called oryoki, served inside the zendo followed by walking meditation and a dharma lecture.
Oryoki is no ordinary breakfast; it involves nesting bowls, a tiny spatula, loads of bowing and other small gestures to communicate in the absences of words. It’s so complicated that I stopped by earlier in the week for a 20 minute tutorial. At some large monasteries, this is how Zen monks regularly take their first meal of the day. It is meant as a hybrid of meditation and eating, the idea being that you are so intimately familiar with the movements that they become second nature and you can relax into a tranquil breakfast ballet. The ritual also has a utilitarian quality; as part of the ceremony, every person washes their own dishes so nobody is stuck with all the cleaning.
The breakfast is served in pairs, and I am coupled with a resident monk, an older white guy in an elaborate robe. His eyebrows reach up and out into an impressive wing span, making up for what he lacks in hair. He understands I am new to this, and indicates with a slight nod to follow his lead.
As previously instructed, I lay out my three bowls from big to small, and arrange my utensils on my creatively folded paper napkin. When the server reaches us with her vat of oatmeal, my monk and I bow to her in unison. I raise my smallest bowl, and bow again. I lift my cupped palm of my right hand to indicate to the server that the content of one ladle is sufficient. Small bowls of condiments sit between me and my monk. While we wait for everyone to be served, he sprinkles his oatmeal with a topping of sesame seeds and sugar. He bows and hands me the bowl. I garnish mine generously, only to find it is sesame seeds and salt. Everyone eats methodically, in silence. I had worried that I would eat too quickly, a problem solved by the taste of briny porridge.
The second course, served in the middle bowl, is a tofu stir-fry. Not a typical breakfast, but surprisingly flavorful. I eat each bite deliberately, sneaking peeks at everyone around me to make sure I am doing it right.
The last and biggest bowl, called “the Buddha bowl,” is filled with orange juice. I recalled the instructor saying that when I was finished using the middle bowl, I should place my chopsticks across its rim. She said it with such firm urgency; it seemed like a vital piece of information. As I lay my chopsticks there, I congratulate myself on remembering this small detail.
Finally, we clean our bowls. The server pours hot water into the biggest bowl. We wash out that bowl and pour the hot water into the next bowl, and then repeat this procedure for the last bowl. At the end, the water is dirty with leftover bits of oatmeal and stirfry, but we are invited to drink it as everyone offers a final chant that includes, “…the water with which we wash these bowls tastes like ambrosia.” I sipped and said these words but I didn’t believe them. The water didn’t taste horrible, but I would hope that nectar of the gods would have a more pleasant flavor.