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.

11 thoughts on “Oryoki

  1. I sent your “Oryoki” story to a good friend of mine who follows some Buddhist traditions and enjoyed his reply and thought you and others would enjoy it as well. Natalie Goldberg, whom he references, is a wonderful writer and her work is worth a read.

    I’ve never enjoyed an Oryoki breakfast like this, but I often think about an account Natalie Goldberg gives of this in her wonderful memoir, Long Quiet Highway. She was part of a small group cooking these formal meals over several days for a group of Zen priests visiting her zendo in Minnesota. One morning, she found herself alone in the kitchen, and decided to simplify things a little. Without hesitation or concern about upsetting tradition, she decided that she would fill the first bowl with a baked potato, the second with butter, and the third with chives. Period. That’s it—a baked potato with butter and chives.

    She served the meal and went on with her day.

    Much later, she heard that one of the visiting Zen priests had made this Oryoki meal the subject of his dharma talk that day, focusing on the fact that their elaborate rituals could be more earthy, more simple.”

    • Thanks, Frank. What a great story. Thank you for sharing it. Something that came up for me during the oryoki ceremony–and I think the same could be said of many rituals associated with different faiths–is at what point does the complexity of a ritual become less a source of unity and more a way to distinguish one group from another? or a way for one group to feel special or superior? I need to check out Goldberg’s memoir. I really loved Writing Down the Bones.

  2. Coincidentally (i think not) my focus these days is learning to eat mindfully. {since getting a stern lecture from my doctor that I must lose weight/lower blood sugar & cholesterol; and being a lifelong dieter I know I cannot go to diets anymore} The books I’m reading (by Jan Chozen Bays and Thich Nhat Hanh) are making it plain that eating, an activity we all have to do everyday, can have great meaning spiritually. We (especially Americans) tend to eat fast, while doing something else, and in great quantities. By doing the opposite of that, and by doing it with gratitude for all who had a part in what we’re eating, and doing it without judgment, we can have a life-changing experience. I was very interested in what goes on in the oryoki ceremony, and wondered if you would share, Corinna, what went through your thoughts when you “ate each bite deliberately”? What did oryoki show you about food?
    Thanks, love,

    • Hi Shelley, I thought of you when I was putting this post together because you mentioned earlier about struggling with mindful eating. I must confess that I struggle with the same thing, which was another reason I was interested in oryoki. I will inhale in a matter of minutes a meal I spent hours preparing and it can make me really angry at myself and embarrassed. I also want to each huge quantities that, as I get older, I know will not be healthy for me. Honestly, my biggest take-away from oryoki in terms of understanding my own impulse to stuff my face as quickly as possible is how the food we tend to consume is filled with fat and sugar and gooey tastiness that acts like a drug in our brains. The food we were served was not like this at all. Imagine eating plain oatmeal with salt as your only garnish. It slows you way down. As I ate it, I was very aware of it as nourishment because it wasn’t really about buttery, creamy, sweet pleasure. Then there was the tofu dish, which was quite tasty. But, again, it was not my normal idea of breakfast, which helped slow me way down. Now, for me on this particular morning, there were other things helping so slow me down like wanting to watch what everyone else was doing and waiting to eat when others were eating and just the radically different environment in general, which helped me stay very aware of what I was doing. But I came away realizing that part of what makes me eat so fast is the food itself. Like imagine making a baked potato and then just eating it with nothing on it but maybe a sprinkle of salt. You would probably eat slowly and deliberately. It’s not that it would taste bad, it just wouldn’t be cheesy, buttery, creamy. This maybe isn’t the most “spiritual” realization but I think it is very practical in that there might not be any easy solution. All the mantras and attempts to be present can’t work if food is like a drug so that when it’s in front of us all our best intentions go flying out the window. I think it might boil down to simpler, more basic foods and going easy on the sugar and butter. Sorry to go on and on…but I wanted to share my genuine thoughts.

      • Corinna, your genuine thoughts are very much appreciated by me! I relate very well to inhaling the food, almost without tasting, and to wanting to each huge quantities, even if it’s salad. You simply can’t do those things if you eat mindfully. For one thing, if you’re intentionally focusing on this bite, right here and now, you find there’s a whole world in that bite. It doesn’t matter if it’s a plain baked potato or a complex dish full of many flavors. And for another thing, it takes longer to eat, so you really can’t put a lot on your plate — you’d be there all day. And most importantly you find you’re satisfied with a small portion, because you Really Savored It. It’s like a whole new relationship with food is presenting itself to me. And I keep wondering, if this works for food, what about the rest of my daily activities? I’m sure the oryoki ceremony is about much more than what I’m understanding right now, I’m a total neophyte.

        But one thing that keeps occurring to me is that when I was a church going christian, I was always told that Buddhism is a “cult” and that I should stay away from anything Buddhist. Some of my teachers included yoga in that (!) and disdained the word “meditation” because (I am not making this up) if you empty your mind, you’re in danger of inviting the devil into it. So now in this part of my life, I’m finding that many of the concepts and teachings of the Buddha walk hand in hand with what I believe are the real things Jesus taught — things like making peace with all of life; and having compassion for all of life; and just the connectedness of all of life.

        We miss so much when we put up walls around our minds and hearts.

        • You reminded me of the Alliance church I attended for a few years back in the early 90’s – yoga was considered to be a “religion” due to its Buddhist connections and as a Christian, we were told “you must put all appearances of “sin” away”…i wonder what they think of it now, now that there are the cutest line of yoga clothes (love the pants!) out there? At what point does one religion accept the other – when it becomes commercialized to the point of being non-descript?

          I ike what you mention about day to day activities being mindful; not just eating. Having livestock that needs to be fed daily in the winter, in an isolated area where there is no vehicles to be heard comes to mind – all of it becomes mindful as it becomes routine…I like the early evening feedings as the sun goes down; the way the horses sound as they munch on the hay, the crunch of the snow under all of our feet, the visual of the silent rabbit who likes to warm himself by the tank heater…its very beautiful and serene. 🙂

        • Hi Shelley, From my perspective, it seems like Buddhism and Christianity are very compatible. I feel like Buddhism helps a person live more fully–like, notice and appreciate moments of life in a practical kind of way. I sort of see it as helping a person feel a connection to God, or a higher power or unity or whatever one wants to call it. I think anything that makes a person more grateful for the gift of life would be A-okay with Jesus.

  3. Interesting how we peoples can be obsessed with eating… it is a maternal longing? To feel satiated, fulfilled, filled? And hunger pains demand to be care for, like a infant? As a Female mammal, we are capable of making food from our bodies – what a very strong earthy thought – feeding the world…nuturing.

    Another thought – I have backpacked in remote regions before, carrying what i needed and nothing more for 2 weeks at a time – you appreciate every morsel outdoors. And the tastes are absolutely heavenly. But if i were to go to a restaurant and order the same for $25 bucks a pop, i would be pissed at the simpleness of it LOL Such is life…

    on another note, I come from a long line of Otters… we cannot help but turn the most morose thing (death, accidents, etc) to the most benign (cleaning, working, etc) into playtime. Its awful and awkward but dang if me, my daughters, my family and my ancestors know how to have a good time. That being said, I would barely be able to stop from giggling at the sight of you C choking down salted oatmeal…in fact I would be probably asked to leave for instigating other things…and thats probably why I go into remote areas for rest and vacay LOL

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