Monday, February 22, 2010

The Mindful Mouthful

In Thich Nhat Hanh's tradition, we are invited to recite The Five Contemplations before every meal. There have been several versions over the years; here is the most recent:

The Five Contemplations

This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings and much hard and loving work.

May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.

May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to eat with moderation.

May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet and reverse the process of global warming.

We accept this food so that we may nurture our sisterhood and brotherhood, strengthen our sangha and nourish our ideal of serving all beings.

I confess I don't recite this, unless I am on retreat with others in this tradition. It has never engendered in me the kind of humble appreciation that I think I'm supposed to experience. It is based on a teaching that the Buddha gave, which is recorded, I learned, in the Sramanera Vinaya, or rules of conduct for novices. I wasn't able to track down a translation, but I found this summary by Ronald Epstein.

Five Contemplations While Eating

1. I think about where the food came from and the amount of work necessary to grow the food, transport it, prepare and cook it and bring it to the table.

2. I contemplate my own virtuous nature. Is it sufficient to merit receiving the food as offering?

3. I guard my mind against transgression, the principal ones being greed and so forth.

4. I realize that food is a wholesome medicine that heals the sufferings of the body.

5. I should receive the food offerings only for the sake of realizing the Way.

Every version and commentary I read referred to the importance of guarding against greed. Some emphasized that the food should be considered only as medicine for the body, and one should eat only enough to ward off physical weakness. Personally, perhaps because of a history of issues around eating, I find it not useful to dwell on whether or not I deserve to eat, or on whether greed is getting the better of me. I do find it helpful to think of food as medicine (but not only as medicine).

But what I find most useful of all is, instead, to recite (silently) the gatha for the First Four Mouthfuls. Here, Thay has fleshed out the idea of taking in food for the sake of the practice by inviting us to develop the Four Heavenly Abodes (the Brahmaviharas) as we eat. These four immeasurable virtues are Lovingkindness, Compassion, Joy (or Sympathetic Joy), and Equanimity.

The First Four Mouthfuls

With the first mouthful, I vow to practice loving kindness.
With the second, I vow to help relieve the suffering of others.
With the third, I vow to see others’ joy as my own.
With the fourth, I vow to learn the way of non-attachment and equanimity.

One evening, the night of a sangha tea ceremony, during which we eat and drink tea mindfully together, the facilitators came up with a new formulation. With the first mouthful, we were invited to nourish our capacity for lovingkindness. With each mouthful, we nourished an aspect of ourselves. This resonated so beautifully for me that that is how I now recite it.

Recently, at a small, mostly-sangha gathering, I offered to lead the group in taking the first four mouthfuls together. In order not to exclude anyone who might find the Four Immeasurable Terms rather foreign, I came up with yet another formulation, which went something like this:

With the first mouthful, we nourish our capacity for lovingkindness, a universal friendliness toward all beings.

With the second mouthful, we nourish our capacity for compassion, the desire and ability to ease suffering.

With the third mouthful, we nourish our capacity for sympathetic joy, the ability to find happiness in others' happiness.

With the fourth mouthful, we nourish our capacity for equanimity, the ability to accept life just as it is, this very moment.

May you be so nourished.

P.S. This is a slice of sorghum bread I made; for once, a successful batch of gluten-free bread. I'm learning ...

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