Friends from the sangha were over for dinner a few weeks ago and, as usual, we recited the five thoughts before the meal. One related that they had had dinner with a friend who had found the thoughts “horrible”. I was surprised. The other said she currently finds them a bit harsh.
We recite them daily at meal times. As is often true with something we do regularly, I was no longer hearing them with the same depth as when I first learned them. This exchange made me listen closely and think about them again. What do the five thoughts mean to me?
“We must think deeply of the ways and means by which this food has come.” This has always been fairly profound to me. Carl Sagan said “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
When I think of the ways and means by which this food has come, I think of journeying through the Salinas Valley, the salad bowl of California. All around are the fields of vegetables that end up on our tables. They are tended by mostly latino farm workers in rows cultivating and picking. They are irrigated by long pipes, which are manufactured all over the world. The ore for the metal is mined in Montana and Chile and Canada and… The power to smelt the ore comes from coal and hydro electric. They are delivered by truck and rail, using oil powered engines. And on and on. We are totally interdependent.
And I think of the fact that we are part of the cycle of life. Life is fed by life. Whether we are vegetarian or omnivorous, we are part of everything carbon based. We are not separate.
“We must consider our merit when accepting it.” This is a difficult line for me. It is so easy for me to read this as “do I deserve this?” So what do we mean by merit? As I understand it, we create merit in the world by living in accordance with the precepts. In each moment we act and either move the world towards harmony or towards disharmony. I need to stop fantasizing about doing the big good thing, and just do the next right thing… the simple acts of seeing oneself in others and acting accordingly. Loving thy neighbor as thyself. So, considering our merit when accepting food is remembering that what we eat is to nourish us in creating merit, in living a compassionate life.
“We must protect ourselves from error by excluding greed from our minds.” Does this mean we shouldn’t desire good food?
I love the Ben Geshe story about the yogurt. Ben Geshe was a wandering monk in Tibet in the 19th century. One night he and a number of other monks were invited to dine at the home of a merchant in the town they were in. They were all seated around a long table and bowls of food were passed around the table. One of Ben Geshe’s favorite foods was yogurt. A bowl of yogurt was passed. As it came to each monk and they served themselves, Ben Geshe watched avidly. How much did they take? Will there be enough left for me? Finally, as the bowl was passed to him, he saw clearly what his mind was doing. He passed the bowl on without taking any saying “No yogurt for this yogurt addict.”
A few years ago I was at Shasta Abbey. We were sitting for midday meal. For dessert there were cookies. My favorite! Each trainee took one cookie. They were delicious. When second helpings were offered, I found myself watching the tray and trying to figure if there would be any cookies left when it got to me. I thought of Ben Geshe, and, when the cookie tray got to me, I had to pass it on. It was not the eating and enjoying the cookie. It was my greed for the cookie that would never be satisfied by another cookie.
In Dogen’s Rules For Meditation we recite “Of what use is it to merely enjoy this fleeting world?” I think the word “merely” is important here. It is not a statement that enjoying the world is wrong. We should enjoy the moments of our lives. And we should go beyond pursuing pleasure. This is what the Buddha found. The Way is neither mortification nor glorification of the flesh. When we are given something that is good to eat, enjoy it as it nourishes us. Don’t grasp after it. Don’t want more and more beyond our needs.
“We will eat lest we become lean and die.” Again, the Middle Way. Accept our bodies. our physical needs and desires as normal and appropriate. Nourish and care for our bodies. St. Francis tenderly said “This body is Brother Donkey. I will feed him and care for him, but I will ride him, he will not ride me.” So the Middle Way is to take and enjoy nourishment, but not to let the greed for ever more pleasure to dictate our lives. It is only through our human bodies that we have the opportunity for training and enlightenment.
“We accept this food so that we may become enlightened.” The word enlightenment contains several snares for me. First snare, that there is some place or state of enlightenment. Krishnamurti said “There is no such thing as enlightenment. There is only enlightened living.” I think this is a good understanding for me. No place to get to, just moment by moment living with the choice of being awake or asleep in each moment. “Sentient beings are numberless. May I and all sentient beings fully awaken, moment by moment.” Second snare, that there is some thing to be attained. Just wake up now and now and now. This is the gift of our human bodies. This food nourishes us so that we can awaken each moment.