At each monastic meal in Soto Zen Buddhism, we recite the Mealtime Verse: “We must think deeply of the ways and means by which this food has come; We must consider our merit when accepting it; We must protect ourselves from error by excluding greed from our minds; We will eat lest we become lean and die; We accept this food so that we may realize awakening.”
This is actually a significant number of koans all bundled together, which is one reason for repeating it so often. Today we will take up ways and means, which are manifold. In particular, does our food come from suffering, disease, death, and destruction?
The Blessed One, Shakyamuni Buddha, originally taught the monks to eat whatever was offered, whatever lay people chose to share with them, except that they were on no account to accept animals being killed for them. This is a straightforward basic principle, but there are long discussions of cases in the Vinaya about who knew what when, and about various people’s intentions. These rules were quite strict for Bhikkhus, but entirely voluntary for the laity. Practice has varied greatly in different countries, with meat-eating standard practice in Japanese Buddhism. In some countries onions and garlic are forbidden to monks, generally on the basis of Chinese medicine, which considers them aphrodisiacs.
Buddhist begging bowls are quite large, so that the monks can collect enough to share.
Firstly, Buddhists have to take farmers and food workers seriously, all the way to service in restaurants and grocery stores. This can get us into the politics of farm subsidies and price supports, into unions and labor law, into oligopoly and monopoly, and into immigration policy.
Then, we have to take the food itself seriously. It is nutritious? Does growing and processing it harm the environment? Does it foster disease, for example with massive overuse of antibiotics or with pesticides and herbicides? Does it involve killing or other cruelty? Thus lobster and other sea creatures boiled alive are right out.
At the next level are veal calves taken from their mothers and confined so they cannot move. So are caged and debeaked chickens, or pigs in CAFOs. You can think of other such cases. We can discuss veganism, if you like, but that is not common in monasteries.
Is your food contributing to Global Warming?
I am going to leave aside for now food as ostentation, in the manner of Veblen’s Conspicuous Consumption, described in The Theory of the Leisure Class.
Have you run into the koan in your own life? How much of your own food is based on somebody’s selfishness? How much are you willing to do about that?
Let me know what you want to hear about the rest of the verse: karma, greed, staying alive, and awakening.
Food as Practice