Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 28
What do you eat?

In Germany, there is a saying that you should "eat like a king in the morning, at mid-day like an emperor, and at night like a beggar". Basically, the meaning is that you should eat more at breakfast and lunch, when you still have work ahead of you, rather than after work, before you sleep. In fact the only warm meal was lunch in my family, while breakfast and dinner consisted only of bread, and I think that for many Germans lunch is the main meal, rather than dinner. In Japan, on the other hand, people seem to eat most at dinner, sometimes even nothing at all at breakfast and also not so much at lunch. Even during the sesshin at Antaiji I saw monks who wouldn't touch breakfast, saying that fasting in the morning would help them to stay concentrated during zazen. They ate a lot of fried vegetables (tempura) and noodles at lunch instead, and slept through all afternoon zazen. There must be cultural and personal differences here, but I doubt that it is so wise too eat more during the latter half of the day than in the morning, when you need energy for the tasks that lie ahead of you. In Buddhist tradition also, monks were originally not allowed to have meals after mid-day, that is why dinner is called "yakuseki" in Japanese Zen monasteries, which means "medicine stone" - i.e. it is not supposed to be a meal in the first place. And that is also why you do not find Dôgen Zenji mentioning dinner (not even "yakuseki") in the Tenzo-Kyôkun - after the cook has cleaned up after lunch, he starts with the preparations for the next day's breakfast right away. We only here Dôgen Zenji say in the Eihei-Shingi that drinking how water was possible in the shûryô - a kind of room were the monks could spend time and study outside of zazen hours. This "hot water" could have contained some rive left over from lunch, so maybe it was more like a very thin soup. Only later this rice soup turned into thick gruel, which in turn became a proper meal.

Today in most monasteries in Japan the emphasis seems to have shifted towards eating after mid-day, just as in secular society. Officially dinner is still called "yakuseki" and normally eaten in a less formal way, without sutra recitation, as it is not regarded an official meal in the first place. But often it is much more nutritious than breakfast, which envolves much ritual but may consist of nothing but a very thin rice soup and a pickled plum. Sometimes monks will start to really eat only after night sitting is over and lights are supposed to be out: In places like Eiheiji that is the time when sandwhiches with ham or tuna appear with beer to wash away the stress of a Zen monk's long day of ritual show performance in front of the tourists. For them, Buddhist practice - including the meals - is nothing but a "day time job". If on the other hand we understand practice not as a performance but as our very life, the question of what we eat becomes a vital one. Many who come to Antaiji for the first time are surprised to find that the meals are not strictly vegetarian. That includes myself - I was a vegetarian from childhood, although I ate eggs and dairy products. Maybe it was just the displeasure of chewing on bones that made me prefer a diet based on cereal, or, as my parents would put it, "it is not that this boy can't eat meat - he is just too lazy too chew it".

Be that as it may, I had a quite hard time at first in Antaiji, where I found that not only were the monks not strict vegetarians, also they expected me to eat the same as everyone else, which might include fish or meat. For me it seemed to make no sense that a Buddhist monk should be forced too eat meat, while they were not used to a member of the sangha who would state his personal preferences. Anyway, I had to learn to adapt, and now I eat meat and fish whenever it appears on the table. This however only happens when someone donated such food to the temple, more than 90% of what we eat is what we grow in our own rice and vegetable fields. So the reason why we don't refuse to eat fish or meat is that we don't refuse any kind of donation, even if it is not in accord with the precepts. Interestingly, many of those who come to Antaiji and insist on not eating any meat still have no problems with drinking alcohol, or if they don't drink alcohol, they prefer Marihuana, or girls, or whatever. So often it seems to be not so much a strict adherence to the precepts that makes people become vegetarians, but just a personal idea of what you want to eat or not. At least that was the case with myself, and my practice had to do much with learning to give up these ideas, which proofed to be more difficult than sticking to a particular diet.

Again, what is asked for here is the perfection of patience - or acceptance, or a "soft mind" as Dôgen calls it. That doesn't mean though that it doesn't matter at all what we eat. I wouldn't go quite as far as saying that "you are what you eat", but what you eat certainly determines a good part of what you are. You can easily verify that if you sit in zazen after eating very spicy food one day, and then after eating sweet stuff the next day. Your zazen won't be the same, because you won't be the same. So if we accept all of what appears on the table as part of our meal, then that means that the tenzo (cook) has to think well about what he wants to put on the table in the first place. In the Hôkyôki, a first hand record of Dôgen Zenji's experiences in Sung China, we hear Nyojô Zenji warn against consuming "the five spices, meat, too much honey or milk, alcohol, impure food, raw and hard (un-cooked) food, mountain tea that has gone too old, medicine against colds, mushrooms, dairy products, too much dried plums or chestnuts, too much fine and raw sugar" and may other things. As I said, even fish and meat are sometimes donated to Antaiji, but they are considered a rarety and for those who like to eat fish and meat therefore represent a special treat. That is why the tenzo might sometimes store fish and meat away for use during sesshin, when people have to put up with so much pain that they appreciate a delicious meal all the more. Still, I don't think that it is wise when fish and meat appear everyday during sesshin, because it will make zazen harder than it already is, and the same is true for onion and garlic which can enhance delusive thoughts and are therefore not part of the traditional Buddhist diet (but appear from time to time at the table in Antaiji). On the other hand, I also don't see the point of eating according to a strict Buddhist diet during sesshins only and then indulging again right after sesshin, because the days outside sesshin are just as much part of our practice as are the sesshin. Food always counts.

What also counts is the work we do and the fatigue we experience, a problem which I will return to next month: Why are we so tired!?

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