My inner entertainer and my inner practitioner might learn from one another. I could certainly bring a little more joie into my practice and put a little more sanctity into my dinner parties. In traditional practices, we begin with an invocation of our outer and inner buddhas, and then to please them we offer water, flowers, music. So it’s kind of like a party. I should have that celebratory mind-set when I sit down to practice. At the same time, thinking of a gathering of friends, sangha, or even just one friend on a week night is cause for celebration.
I like checklists. The eight substances of the traditional Sanskrit offering mantra make a pretty good checklist for dinner parties, or for just having dinner with a friend.
Argham (drinking water): May your benevolence mature my compassion. Before your benevolent guests arrive, prepare the drinks. Water is really the ultimate offering. Because we grew up where the water was sulfuric, my father would infuse ours with sprigs of mint or parsley, both of which make the water more refreshing. Or he’d use slices of lemon or cucumber (make sure to really scrub the rind clean first). Everyone has their own theory about what temperature water should be served at, so you might want to give people an option of ice on the side.
Padyam (foot-washing water): May I rest in the ease of profound emptiness. We don’t tend to wash our guests’ feet anymore, but the Indian rajas were on to something. A nice cool splash of scented water on the feet is a delicious sensation. I’m sure Prince Siddhartha’s toes were rose-scented before he headed off to the forest. If you have a “shoes-off” household, it might be kind to let guests know before they arrive so they don’t spend the night fretting over a hole in the sock. A selection of slippers for guests is always appreciated. For a few dollars, you can pick up a variety of different sizes and colors in your local Chinatown or get fancy at the Muji store. And for the barefooted, maybe keep a spray bottle of rose or orange blossom water by the door.
Pushpe (flowers): May I perfect the paramita of infinite generosity. Naturally. Flowers make life beautiful and a host doesn’t need to spend a lot of money. Very small bouquets, or single stems in low vases, are good for dinner parties so that faces are not obscured by blossoms. You can also get creative ikebana-style with stones, branches, pine cones, and leaves that you find right outside; scatter them around the table top, as long as they are not crawling with insect life.
Dhupe (incense): May I perfect the paramita of pure discipline that pleases the noble ones. It’s best not to burn incense or wear a lot of perfume at parties, because there may be someone with sensitivities, and, again, it can overwhelm the taste buds. If you are cooking fish or garlic, try to air out the kitchen or keep the fumes contained. Sometimes before guests arrive I step outside and reenter the house to check the experience of the change in atmosphere. A bit of lemongrass oil or a candle can help balance out certain smells.
Aloke (candle): May you grant me the armor of unswerving patience. In my travels I’ve noticed different conventions in lighting. Asian countries tend to like it as bright as an operating room. I’ve heard it said that suspicion arises if the cook turns the light too low. So we get a lot of over-the-top fluorescent glare and bare bulbs that cast a sickly tint. Personally, I prefer warm lighting; I don’t care what the cook’s got to hide. I found some floating wicks at a Hasidic shop and now keep them in my travel bag all the time. Little tea lights in short cups are easy. Scented candles are good for the kitchen, bathroom, and entryways. My friend freezes her candles the day before so that they will drip less. Light your candelabra when it’s time for people to be seated, and offer the light of wisdom to all sentient beings.
Gandhe (scented water): May you grant me the enthusiasm to cross the ocean of samsara. There isn’t much place for perfume at a dinner party, but you don’t want to be a sweaty wreck when you greet your guests. Yes, you’ve been running around for hours, but you set the tone for the night, so budget some time to reenter your own body, splash some scented water on your neck, take a deep breath. Find your enthusiasm.
Navidya (food): May all beings flourish through the sustenance of samadhi. Food, the ultimate substance at a dinner party. I like to think about everything that went into a meal coming into existence—from the farmers’ initial planting to the markets—and then to honor that work by concocting something wonderful. After navigating everyone’s dietary restrictions, I try to come up with a menu that looks as good as it tastes, with a balance of colors and textures. Making sure there is more than enough to serve everyone and then some is key. If you clear the plates as soon as people finish, you’re signaling the end of the party, so maybe take it slow.
Shabda (music): May I resoundingly sing the supreme melody of prajna. Music is a matter of taste, so do what you will, but remember that your guests might not share your affinity for Supertramp. You can set the mood using the iTunes Genius or Pandora Radio to automatically generate set lists based on a single song. There’s nothing so sweet and sublime as when dinner parties morph into impromptu jam sessions on the porch under the moonlight. Think about inviting people to bring their instruments. If you catch yourself enjoying the music, or even being annoyed by it, you can think that all sound is the supreme melody of the Buddha’s teaching.
You’ve invoked your guests, made your offerings, and everyone is sated. I don’t like to put my guests to work. Unless someone really insists on doing the dishes, let them enjoy the moment with no labor payback at the end. Just soak the plates and face them in the morning.
And remember, while you were enjoying the company of friends, someone out there gulped down their dinner alone in front of the TV last night. Someone served their kids greasy takeout from a fast-food joint. A widower missed his wife’s cooking. A Somali child hadn’t eaten in weeks. It can’t hurt to dedicate the merit, the joy, the warmth and abundance you generated to those who don’t have such blessings, and so whittle down the barriers between life and practice.
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