originally published in De Ideis, the program newsletter of the Core Curriculum at Boston University, Volume I Number 2, January 2002

“On Eating Mindfully”

The Venerable Yifa, the abbess of the Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center and a lecturer at Boston University, had invited me to join some other students on a three-day meditation retreat. So on Friday, I found myself in van surrounded by similarly-seeking students on our way to a place called Deer Park, New York. After a five hour drive full of theological banter, the van ascended the last of the mild mountains and we arrived in the wilderness.

We were greeted by a monk in mustard-colored robes, whom we were instructed to address as fa-shi , “honored.” There were thirty of us, under- and post-grads from Harvard, Yale, SUNY-Purchase, Rutgers, and BU. The first meal was buffet-style, so we lined up for spoonfuls of bok choy, tofu, and rice from an assembly line of layperson volunteers.

After dinner, Yifa gave us a brief history of Deer Park; it is customary at Buddhist monasteries, I learned later, to give guests such an account upon their arrival. She followed this with a primer in kuo-t'ang , the carefully ordered system of eating. As explained, my cynic's mind wondered why eating would have to be so excessively elaborate: in order to cultivate an attitude of obedience, a comfort with following orders no matter how arbitrary? In order that by focusing on trivial details, one's sense of autonomy is weakened? So that the use of particular customs would make it easier to discriminate between novices and practiced initiates, between those who have been accepted into the community and those who are still to feel excluded? Hui Chyuan, the monk responsible for leading the meditation sessions for the weekend, provided a less jaded rationale: kuo-t'ang cultivates mindfulness—the characteristically Buddhist habit of paying attention—as well as of an appreciation of our food and the labor required to produce it. My cynic stilled.

The method of dining at Deer Park is as follows. Everyone joins palms while waiting for the wooden drumbeat signal to enter the dining hall. They file in silently and bow to the smiling “Lucky Buddha” at the front of the room. Stools are taken from beneath the table, held at one's bottom, and placed on the ground under oneself without a sound. The meal is prefaced with the Five Contemplations. Then chopsticks are taken in hand; they and the left hand are used to lift the rice bowl from the far edge of the table across to one's right hand, the soup bowl from the edge to one's left hand, and finally the vegetable plate backward from the edge until it is directly in front of one where we expect all good plates to be. The first three bites of rice are taken to remember to do no harm, to do all good, and that all sentient beings might be saved. The rice bowl is held between the left palm and thumb, as if it were a pearl being swallowed by the dragon mouth of the open hand. The chopsticks move in and out quickly, pinioning portions of rice like a phoenix nodding its head as it feeds. The meal is consumed mindfully, as one considers all people involved in providing a mouthful of rice, and one's unworthiness to receive such favor. There is to be no glancing about or talking; the focus is on the meal, on appreciation and gratitude.

A last bit of bread is used as a sponge to wipe the dregs of broth from the soup bowl, the sauce from the plate, the final persistent grain of rice, so that no food is wasted: a sign that one cherishes blessings. Then the bowls are stacked, and placed next to the plate at the edge of the table once again. The chopsticks are slid carefully between the dishes, symbolizing the Middle Path. After physical and spiritual hungers have been satiated, one stands by holding the stool against the back of the legs to prevent noisy scraping. The diner bows to the Buddha and leaves the dining hall with a sense of purpose.

Mindfulness might have been the theme of the weekend (if Buddhist monks cared to label such things). We were to be mindful as we sat in meditation, folding our legs and relaxing our shoulders to form the shape of a bell, clasping our hands in gentle lotus blossoms. As we traveled, we were to swing our arms in wide arcs, take great paces, walking like the wind. We were to stand like pine trees, tall and solidly planted yet bending to the air. Even in sleep, we were to be mindful, by lying on our sides with one arm beneath our head and the other draped along the torso: “Sleeping like a Bow.

“Walking meditation” was a particular exercise in mindfulness: close eyes; lift one's foot slowly, concentrating on the sensation of weight as the sole leaves the floor, moves forward, and returns to the support of the earth. We were asked to scatter into the woods to find a favorite spot in which to walk mindfully. I could not participate. I could not imagine myself in a place “filled with light and beautiful energy flowing through everything” as Hui Chyuan directed, because I could not detach myself from the immediate reality of a mountaintop in April. Pollen and petals sparked in shafts of yellow light splitting the pines, and I watched my fellow bodhisattva plant themselves along the edge of the lake, in the forest, outside the temple, and walk mindfully through their own heads with their eyes closed. As Hui Chyuan walked among them the tip of his “Zen stick” bobbed over his shoulder. He acknowledged my open eyes with a smile, and I went back to watching my peers lose themselves in mindfulness while spring sprung around them.

The next day, Hui-Chyuan shared a story with us during sitting meditation:

A man is walking on a Mexican beach when he sees a farmer, a local, picking up something and throwing it into the sea. As he gets closer, he realizes they are starfish. The farmer bends, gently picks up the creatures one at a time, and tosses them back to the water. The man says to him, hey, why are you doing that? You cannot save them all! There must be hundreds of them here, and more up and down the beach, thousands, and think of all the hundreds of thousands and more that must be stranded in the sun when the tide recedes on beaches all over the world!

The farmer does not stop, but speaks as he bends down to get another starfish: “Makes a big difference to this one.”

During my retreat, I realized that the temple must be in the valley--that spirituality cannot be isolated on a mountain peak in Tibet or in New York or in the misty shrouds of mythology. It must be among real people who from time to time realize that there is beauty in the mundane as well as in the sublime. I also learned that I could enjoy tofu in more ways than I thought possible, that monks have a transcended sense of humor, and that Buddhism is as clueless as the rest of us when it comes to the problem of suffering. I am still godless, still think the Buddha's smile is a bit too smug, and am unflinchingly devoted to promoting materialism over any alternative. But the weekend in the woods was worthwhile; when I got back to Boston, I went straight to Toscanini's for some Earl Grey ice cream, ready to put into action my freshly-honed ability to be mindful of how great it tastes.

Fo Guang Shan leads a summer monastic program founded by the Buddhist nun Yifa at its facility in Taiwan. Accepted applicants are given financial assistance in finding transporation to the otherwise free program. The Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center sponsors many free events at its Cambridge temple.