Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Grace before meals – a Buddhist version


We used to say “grace” before our meals sometimes when I was growing up in Ireland. My parents didn’t make a rule of saying it at mealtimes, but every once in a while we would. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was nice to say it together like that sometimes. 

In Japan, people usually  say “itadakimasu” (i-ta-da-ki-ma-su) before starting a meal. There are plenty of different uses and translations for “itadakimasu”, but in the context of mealtimes it’s an expression of gratitude before eating, and literally means something like “I humbly receive”. This usage is said to have its roots in Buddhism and the idea of respect for all living things, which extends to gratitude to everything and everyone that went into making the meal including the plants, animals, farmers and cook. 

The kind of “grace” they say before meals at Buddhist temples in Japan is different to the usual “itadakimasu”.  Depending on the temple, the monks and nuns may say two or three different verses or chants before each meal. Among them, one verse that is recited at most temples is what we call in English the “Five Reflections”  or “Five Contemplations” (called “go kan no ge” in Japanese). Here is an English version of the Five Reflections that we sometimes say at our retreats.
We reflect firstly upon the insufficiency of our effort in this life. We contemplate the effort which has gone into the preparation of this meal.
We reflect secondly upon our merit. We consider whether we are deserving of this meal.
We reflect thirdly upon the sources of our mental illusions and mistakes. We must avoid greed, anger and ignorance.
We reflect fourthly upon the reasons for eating meals. It is to avoid becoming weak and thin.
Finally we reflect upon the ultimate reason for taking meals. It is only to attain the truth.

Click here for a PDF file of the Five Reflections in English, with the Japanese version on their too.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Japanese Prime Minister Doing Zen Meditation (and a little Zen story)


The Japanese Government have just started a campaign called “Premium Friday” to encourage businesses to let workers finish up at 3 pm on the last Friday of every month. The idea behind the campaign is to stimulate the economy by giving people more time to get out and spend money at the end of each month – which is right around payday - and to also cut down on excessive working hours (and stress levels) among workers. 

Last Friday was the very first “Premium Friday” and the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe took to his Facebook page to describe how he was spending the afternoon. Here’s what he wrote in Japanese:



The translation is something like this:

“Meditating (emptying my mind). I’ve been doing some zazen on Premium Friday. I’m busy everyday, but for the first time in a while I had some quiet time and feel refreshed and calm.
I think I’ll visit a museum in Ueno after this.”

I don’t know if the museum in Ueno that Abe went to after the meditation was the National Museum, but if it was he might have come across the big picture they have in there of a priest in the Obaku School of Zen Buddhism, which was painted about 100 years ago by a Japanese artist named Takamura Shinpu. I was down there recently and (with permission) snapped a photo of it on my phone. Here it is:




When I saw the picture, it reminded me of a Zen koan (short story) from a long time ago about Master Obaku, the founder of the Obaku school, in which the Prime Minister of China visits a temple where Master Obaku is and sees a picture of a reverend monk on the wall. The Prime Minister says that he can see the picture, but would like to meet such a reverend monk in real life. Eventually the monks in the temple introduce him to Master Obaku. When the Prime Minister sees Master Obaku, he asks Master Obaku to give him one or two words to change his life. Master Obaku calls out loudly, “Prime Minister! Where are you?” 


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Zen Buddhist Meditation in Tokyo

Just a note to say our Saturday zazen classes in Tokyo will be starting up again this Saturday, February 25. Click here for more information. Beginners are welcome. 🔰