The following introduction appears with the kind permission of the author, Lama Tony Duff, director of the Padma Karpo Translation Committee and formerly Vajradhatu Oryoki Master. A complete book on oryoki by Lama Duff is available on his website.
Oryoki–”just enough”– synchronises body and mind through bringing mindfulness to how we eat. Doing oryoki, in the prescribed manner and sequence we use, follows a tradition that began in Zen Buddhist monasteries and has been adopted by our community to promote synchronicity of mind and body. Oryoki was introduced to the Vajradhatu sangha at the 1979 Seminary. Through the Vidyadhara’s teaching and encouragement, our connection with oryoki has deepened, and at the 1982 Seminary, became completely integrated as practice.
Just as shamatha-vipashyana and tonglen are a continuous thread throughout the three yanas, oryoki can be experienced and appreciated at all levels of the path. At one level, the focus of oryoki is on relating precisely with form and detail, learning the technique and experiencing the chants as dharma. This is relating to oryoki as shamatha, with great precision and mindfulness. We do everything in such a way that we are refraining from contributing to any confusion in the world. There are no dishes left at the end of an oryoki meal for someone to wash for us. As the Vidyadhara put it, “We are creating our world, and we are appreciating our world in that way. We are also making sure that our world doesn’t create any further nuisance for others, but in fact provides tremendous vision and inspiration for people to clean things up” (1980 Seminary Transcripts, page 16.
With continued practice, our awareness of environment expands, and we begin to relate to others: servers, monitors and those eating with us. Appreciation for the people who grew the food we’re eating, the people who cut it up, and the cooks who made it delicious, develops. Warmth and communication emerge, and we see that practising generosity is possible. Because we are comfortable with the technique and the environment, a natural sense of relaxation and enjoyment can occur.
Finally, through the synchronisation of body, speech and mind, oryoki becomes celebration, or feast. It can be a practice of connecting with sacred outlook, and with a sense of joy and freedom from attachment to our habitual relationship to eating.
Even at the very beginning stage of learning to do oryoki practice, regardless of our mastery of the technique, it is a living practice. It is always an indicator of our state of mind and a way of connecting further with the mind of the teacher.
The lineage of oryoki as practiced in Shambhala
Historically, oryoki began with the disciples of the Buddha, who would receive a begging bowl with their robes, as part of their ordination. Traditionally, ordination includes receiving a seat, robes, and a bowl, all of which act as reminders of one’s relationship with the Buddha, one’s similarity with the Buddha.
The form for all Buddhist traditions started with the begging bowl. The bowl had to be cared for in a particular way and was not allowed to be given away to others. This is the root of the sacredness of an oryoki set. Owning such a set has traditionally been a sign that someone has fully entered the life of a practitioner.
Over a period of centuries, the early communities of wandering monks and nuns settled down and formed large monastic centres. Simple instructions on such matters as eating were codified and developed into liturgies. At the same time the simple begging bowl developed into a small eating set, and a whole practice of monastic eating developed.
Oryoki as practiced in the Shambhala sangha is a synthesis of the Japanese form of oryoki and the Tibetan liturgical procedure used with monastic eating. These forms and procedures were themselves developed from the teachings and methodologies given to the sangha in India by the Buddha 2500 years ago.
Our oryoki lineage began with Dogen Zenji, who traveled from Japan to China many centuries ago. Dogen Zenji had studied with several teachers in Japan but felt that he wasn’t getting the essence of the teachings there, so he undertook the rather dangerous sea journey to China, where Chan Buddhism was flourishing. After many difficulties he found a teacher with whom he studied and practiced and who gave him the complete transmission of Chan. He also learned the ways of a Buddhist monk, including the monastic eating practice used in China at the time.
Dogen Zenji returned to Japan and introduced that style of eating along with some refinements of form. During a few centuries of practice the great Zen masters refined the practice further and passed it down. The Zen tradition of oryoki as it exists today has a remarkable sense of elegance and fine attention to detail. The form that we use in Shambhala comes directly from the Soto Zen lineage. It was transmitted to us through Kobun Chino Roshi, and is preserved by the Sakyong.
The form used in Shambhala also contains influences from the Tibetan tradition. In particular, this has come through our incorporation of the liturgical procedures of the Tibetan monastic eating practice, rather than the Japanese method of chanting. For example, the way of using the drum during the cook’s offering is Tibetan. Because the Tibetan eating practice has the same source it is not all that different from the Japanese oryoki practice; the Tibetans do most of the same things but in a slightly different way. For instance, the Tibetans come to the noonday meal at the monastery with one bowl (not several) wrapped in a cloth (again, just one), and with a spoon (as the only utensil) to eat with.
The liturgy itself is a text for chanting, compiled with selections from hinayana, mahayana and vajrayana teachings of the Buddha. It has been carefully arranged for use in a three yana context, which is the basic style of all the Tibetan traditions of Buddhism. The liturgy is common to all the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, not to the Kagyu alone. With the exception of the Sanskrit mantras, the liturgy, as we use it, has been translated into English. The text used for the translation is an intact version of what the Tibetans use for the noonday meal at their monasteries