How to Bring The Monastery Into Your Kitchen

I recently staffed a four-week meditation retreat, called dathun (which in Tibetan means “moon-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 YouTube 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 ones 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 Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 5.23.32 PMOryoki 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 of 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.



Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teaching and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.

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