07 July 2007

Learning how to eat

I thought I knew how to eat…

By taking the short end of the stick, you can cultivate virtue.
By putting yourself in another’s shoes, you can develop compassion.
By accepting things as they are, you can be carefree.
By enjoying without attachment, you can always be happy.

Venerable Master Hsing Yun
Humble Table, Wise Fare: Living the Dharma

I was looking forward to dinner. I was hungry.

Our suite of six, led by Ven Miao Hsi, walked in a line arrranged by height down the hill, across the courtyard and into the dining hall. Wherever we walked all week long, we always walked in that line, facing the same back.

Dinner turned out to be a lesson in how to eat for the week, the rules.

In the dining hall, rows of narrow metal tables topped with clear vinyl faced a center aisle where Venerable Hui Sheng, the Director of Social Education at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple, sat on a higher platform to eat. There was so little space between the tables, so little space between the chairs, it wasn’t easy to sit down especially when we were supposed to do so in utter silence. As in no sound at all. No sound when you pulled the metal chair out from under the metal–legged tables, no sound when you slipped your body between two chairs while a couple of hundred others were doing the same, no sound when you pulled your metal chair back under the table - across the linoleum right next to those metal table legs - while sitting on it. And, once you were as close to the table as possible, you had to sit upright, never leaning on the chairback, and still. Utterly motionless. Looking at nothing.

I am not a quiet person.

I am not a motionless person.

I love looking at other people. Love it.

Once we were all in place, Venerable Hui Sheng began our first meal together by explaining Buddhist etiquette, about the reasons for all of the rules. He talked about the importance of mindfulness in all we did, about not disturbing the mindfulness of another, especially another monastic. That was, afterall, what we all were about to become for eight days, Buddhist monks and nuns.

“Now imagine what this hall would sound like if each of you made even a little bit of noise. There are so many people here, it would be very noisy indeed.” So he taught us how to eat so we would disturb no one.

We had two small plastic bowls, a small plastic plate, and metal chopsticks lying right in front of us on a paper napkin. He pointed out that, if we simply picked up the metal chopsticks they would clang together and make noise. To avoid that, we were to hold down the eating end of the chopsticks with two fingers of our left hand while putting the first two fingers of our right hand on the each of the ends of the chopsticks, lifting them up and apart from the other before fully grabbing onto them with our right hand.

Next came the bowls and the plate. During the lengthy prayer we chanted after sitting down, the left bowl was filled usually with soup, the right bowl was usually filled with rice and the plate with an assortment of vegetables and soy-based protein.

Once the chopsticks were in hand, we were to take one side of the left bowl with our left hand and the other side of it with our chopsticks – metal chopsticks against hard plastic – and move the bowl to our right side, closer to us. Then we were supposed to take the bowl of rice on the right, moving it across to our left side.

We then were supposed to pick up our bowl of white rice with our left hand, fingers underneath the bottom, and lift one bite of plain white rice to our mouths. “Don’t dip your head to the bowl or look around. Chew carefully. Taste the rice.” We were to do this two more times before eating anything else at our place. Venerable Hui Sheng told us to eat from the rice bowl, putting whatever else we wanted to eat first into it. There was an elaborate system of communicating if you wanted more of anything as we weren’t allowed to speak or even to have eye contact with the people serving us. Drinking water wasn’t poured until you put one of the food bowls back, empty, near the far edge of the table, signalling that you were ready for it to be filled with water.

No matter what, at the end of the meal our bowls had to be clean. For those of us with no better than B+ chopsticks skills, doing all this without making any noise was pretty near impossible. Our clean bowls were supposed to be silently stacked and neatly lined up with everything else, along the far edge of the table when we were finished. We were then to sit erect, hands in our laps, looking straight ahead at nothing, until we were told the meal was over.

Eating was just plain scary. Every bite, every gesture, became a potential attention-grabbing embarrassment. That we were each responsible for the serenity of every other person in that room seemed to make beans more slippery and bowls of soup more sloshy. Far from being mindful in the sense of methodical and serene, my mind was a battleground of fear, confusion, and desire to excel (read: to please). I wanted to be the best but feared I’d be the worst. If attachment to ego is a cause of suffering, my uncertain eating skills put me deep into it.

Even worse, there was no hiding, no space to make a mistake because they’d put us English-speakers right up front. When I first saw where they put us, I was happy; I like to be able to see what’s going on, up close and in detail. But, not only wasn’t I supposed to be doing that, it also meant that they, too, could see me, up close and in detail. I guess it was so they could easily give us the extra help we were clearly going to need but we were so close to the monk presiding over the large room, every mistake felt huge. And it wasn’t just my imagination. Our mistakes were noticed and, on occasion commented on. “It is important not to make scraping noises with your chopsticks when you clean out your bowl.” “You must ask yourself why you want to eat some food and not eat other food. It is practice to take what is offered.” “Please do not look around. What is there to look at?”

What was there to look at? What wasn’t there to look at? Everything was new. Everything was something I felt I needed to see. Plus I look at people when they talk to me. I could hear my mother’s voice saying, “Marley, look at me when I talk to you! It’s just plain rude not to.” My mom’s first assessment of someone I’d bring home was often, “I like him. He looks you right in the eye when he’s talking to you.” But there, in that room, in that situation, my need to look was even more extreme: how would I know what to do and when if I couldn’t look at everyone else? For goodness sake I couldn’t understand Mandarin and had to wait for the translation of directions that were often issued as immediate commands. It just seemed plain logical to bolster the lagging information with visual cues. Logical, but wrong.

Facing us, right across the aisle, were all of the men with their newly shaved heads. If I’d been able to look at them I would have relied on what they were doing when I wasn’t sure. I would also have tried to figure out who they each were and why they were there. Without conversation or real information except what my eyes could see, I would have filled my empty mind with stories spun from the slightest shreds of visual information, fantasies about who they were and what their lives outside the retreat were like. One was only fourteen years old. I’d have followed his progress all week long had I been allowed to look.Was he having a rough time? Was the guy next to him helping him or did he feel burdened by feeling responsible for someone so young? Maybe the boy was his younger brother. Did they look like they could be brothers? I could have wasted a lot of the retreat in these irrelevancies, none of which had the slightest chance of being true, and all of which would have blocked what the retreat was meant to do, make us collide with ourselves, with the clouds in our minds.

The cost? I would have lost the awareness of what was happening to me – something I do a lot. And I wouldn’t have been able to watch myself panic and rebel; to recognize my dependence on the distraction of others, the way I use them to avoid myself; or to notice, for the first time in my life, that white rice actually has a taste.

7 July 2007

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