Oryoki, often translated as “just the right amount,” is a highly choreographed ritual of serving and eating food—a ceremonial dance of giving, receiving, and appreciation. It is a practice that was codified in China during the T’ang dynasty and was the model for the sweeping grace of the tea ceremony. Practiced, with a few variations, throughout the Zen schools, it was also adopted—in America—by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan founder of the Shambhala lineage. Practically speaking, it is perhaps the most efficient, aesthetically pleasing, and least wasteful way to feed a large group of people sitting in a meditation hall, or a single person at home for that matter. Yet more specifically—and arising from Zen’s insistence on blending the sacred and the mundane—oryoki unifies daily life and “spiritual practice.” It is essentially a state of mind, a way of being.

Oryoki practice uses a jihatsu, a set of nested bowls: a Buddha bowl, or zuhatsu, containing three or four smaller bowls tied in cloth with a topknot resembling a lotus flower. The set also contains—in a narrow cloth pouch—a wooden spoon, a pair of chopsticks, and a small spatula-like utensil called a setsu, which is used to clean the bowls. The outer cloth, when untied and refolded in an exact manner, doubles as a place mat upon which the bowls are laid in a prescribed sequence. To complete the package, there is a regular-sized cloth napkin and a smaller cleaning towel used to wipe the bowls dry after they are filled with hot tea or water and scraped clean with the setsu.

The nested bowls of oryoki © Zen Mountain Monastery Archives

Participants sit in a meditation posture and wait to offer their empty bowls as the servers bring food and, in a series of hand gestures (beyond the chants of dedication and appreciation, oryoki is practiced in silence), fill the bowls to the requested level. The ecology of oryoki is complete: there is no waste. Participants are urged to take just the right amount of food—not a crumb should remain. The cleaning liquid, after it is used to wash each bowl, is partially drunk and the remainder collected and distributed in the garden. Each movement of oryoki is compact, subtle, and designed to unfold in harmony, demanding meticulous awareness to what is happening in the moment.

For beginners, stepping into this dance can be terrifying. The Zen practitioner and author Lawrence Shainberg writes of his early encounter with oryoki in his bookAmbivalent Zen: “The harder I try, the clumsier I get. Rational it may be, but the ritual seems a nightmare now, one more example of Zen’s infinite capacity to complicate the ordinary.” Oryoki tales abound in Zen. I’ve seen students take too much food (a classic mistake) and then stuff the extra down the sleeves of their robes when they realize that they’ll never finish in concert with the group. Servers have spilled food on people’s heads, bowls have gone flying, minor food fights have erupted, and giggling fits have swept like wildfire through the zendo.

Oryoki is not about living some altered state of sustained “perfection,” nor is it about performance, or even detail—it is simply our lives. Oryoki subtly and steadfastly exposes the patterns and sticking points of our minds and our behaviors. As Zoketsu Norman Fischer, senior dharma teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center and founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, says, “The intensity of oryoki practice is such that you get to see your own tendencies in relation to eating and serving a meal. Someone eating can ask for too much food, and a server can give too little—greed and stinginess arise. Oryoki practice develops kindness and clarity and the sense of not overdoing or under-doing anything. It teaches smoothness and efficiency and the sense of acting with a good heart.”

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