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.