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Eating with gratitude

Eating with gratitude

Inspired by a student’s question, a commentary on the five contemplations before meals from the Chinese Buddhist tradition that are recited daily before lunch at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Explanations of minor changes in the translation of the contemplations
  • The importance of preparing our minds to eat
  • Becoming aware of the kindness of those who make food available for us
  • The importance of generosity to create the causes for having food in future lives

Talking about food and eating, of course, preparing our mind to eat and our attitude while eating is very important. Yesterday I talked about the motivation we should have and spoke about particularly the fourth and fifth of the five contemplations that we do from the Chinese Buddhist tradition. I’m going to go back today and start with number one because that really prepares our minds for just the general attitude towards the food.

The way we do it at the Abbey it reads:

I contemplate all the causes and conditions and the kindness of others by which I have received this food.

I altered this one a little bit from the Chinese version. The Chinese version doesn’t include “the kindness of others,” it just talks about the causes and conditions to receive the food. I added “the kindness of others” because, to me, when you eat that’s one of the big things that becomes very obvious is that the food came from others.

Here at the Abbey our food comes because of the generosity of people who bring food to the Abbey. Also, even if you’re a lay person (and for us here at the Abbey) the food is grown by others. It’s planted, transported, harvested, processed (or not processed) by others. The whole way of getting our food is dependent on others. Even if some of the food is from our garden, that you grow at home, still unless you were the one who got the seeds and were the one who planted them and took care of the garden and did everything, other than that it came from others. We usually buy seeds, other people help us in taking care of the garden, and so on. Especially people who eat meat, which we do not do here at the Abbey, but then the kindness of others…. My goodness, beings are giving their whole lives for your breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So I think it’s wise really checking about that and having a sense of gratitude towards those beings, because I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be too keen on…. When I’m a bodhisattva I would be happy to offer my body for others’ lunch, but right now I think, I don’t know that I’m quite ready to do that.

Really think about the kindness of others. And then, think about the causes and conditions. Here we can include thinking about the karma that we created so that now we have food that we can offer to the Three Jewels. How do we create the karma to even have food? It’s through generosity, by sharing food with others, by being generous.

In developed countries we tend to take the presence of food on the table for granted. It shouldn’t be taken for granted. It depends on many causes and conditions that function this lifetime in terms of transportation and easy access to food and the absence of war. And it depends on our having created the cause through previous acts of generosity, to receive the food.

That also makes us ask the question: “How much am I generous in this life? Am I continuing to create the cause to have food in future lives?” This is just even looking at the bare minimum of future lives, not even thinking about creating the merit for liberation and full awakening, but just even the merit for having food and drink in future lives. Really think about that.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about that my stinginess in regards to food really comes to the surface. When I’m riding on an Indian train how I’m not necessarily so keen on sharing the little food I have with others. Or when I get some kind of food that I like not sharing it with others but rather sharing the food I don’t like with others in the hopes that they like it. Because very often I justify it: “Well, others have different tastes so they might like this kind of stuff.” More important is my own miserliness and self-centeredness. Take a good look at that kind of thing and creating the causes and conditions to be able to receive food.

I contemplate my own practice, constantly trying to improve it.

This one, too, I altered from the original Chinese. The original Chinese said something to the effect of, “I will examine my practice to see if I deserve to eat,” the meaning being, “Am I keeping my precepts and doing my part of the bargain so that I merit the generosity of other people who are giving food?” But because it talked about “deserving” to have this food, I know that for people in the West that kind of language can be a big button. So I thought what’s the real purpose of this line is to get us to improve our practice, isn’t it? To really ask is my practice sufficient so that it’s worthy of the donor’s offering food to me, and then you come up with, “Well, I want to improve my practice so that I become more worthy.” So I put it in the positive rather than as it was in the original because of the different way that minds work in different cultures. Because I think for many people, especially if people have eating disorders, then thinking about “deserving” to eat…. Or if people have much problem with self-esteem, thinking about the word “deserve” is a very packed word. So I prefer to leave that out.

The point is that we should try and constantly improve our practice and not just remain complacent, that “Yeah, there’s food, so what I’m doing is good enough, just leave it.” But to try and improve our practice.

Along this line, in the Pali canon it talks about four people who receive the offerings of requisites. The requisites can be food, or shelter, clothing, and medicine.

  1. Those who don’t keep their precepts well yet receive offerings are like thieves, getting what is not theirs.
  2. Those who keeps their precepts but don’t have realizations yet, they’re working at it, they’re like debtors who are taking out a loan of the food and so on that nourishes them so that they can eventually gain the realizations.
  3. People who are stream enterers, once returners, and non returners are like people who partake of their inheritance, it’s not their yet, but because they have the realization of emptiness the big “fruit” of buddhahood or liberation is in sight and so they’re partaking in their inheritance.
  4. Those who eat the food like the owners are those who have attained arhatship or buddhahood, because they have completed the path and are the ones who are completely worthy of the food.

I would think we would include eighth, ninth, and tenth level bodhisattvas here, too. But it’s helping us to see that we have an obligation that we voluntarily chose to keep our precepts, and yet we shouldn’t act proud that, “Well, I’m a precept holder so yes,you should give me food.” But realize that we’re like a debtor taking a loan on the food so that we can practice well now and gain the attainments.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.