The spring bugs were out in full force as we stood around the meal table hands pressed palms together in front of our faces. I held before me a small light brown piece of paper and in a halting whisper of a chant tried to keep time with the rest of the group, all the while feeling a mix of reverence, embarrassment, and excitement. It felt right to be giving thanks and recommitting to practice, yet at the same time I experienced the uneasiness of past forms that had felt meaningless as a youth.
The year was 1979, and though I had been introduced to zazen in 1972, this was my first time to visit a real Zen Buddhist monastery and my first time to recite the meal chant. I had come in the day before, a pilgrimage of sorts, hiking from Esalen Institute on the Big Sur coast to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center deep in the Santa Lucia Mountains. Much of this first visit to Tassajara remains fresh in my memory, and much has continued to grow and live on in my life today. I would like to share here how something as simple as my fascination and growing fondness of the meal chant has come to change and live with my family and me.
Every year for the next eighteen years I hiked over to Tassajara each spring. For the first ten years I had only walked in, never using the winding dirt road. I primarily knew Tassajara as a wilderness monastery. In my experience, Tassajara’s connection to the outside world was a long, overgrown, trail that was reached only on foot and with sweaty effort. After the long journey, food, even if it was only beans and rice, never tasted so good. The meal chant stood out as one of the practices that had real and immediate meaning. It was the only chant of many practiced at Tassajara that I carried back out of the mountains to incorporate into my daily life.
Over the years different versions of the meal chant have been used at Tassajara. Though there is now a different translation being used, the following is the one that was in use for many years and the one I originally worked from.
Innumerable labors brought us this food;
We should know how it comes to us.
Receiving this offering, we should consider
Whether our virtue and practice deserve it.
Desiring the natural order of mind,
We should be free from greed, hate, and delusion.
We eat to support life and to practice the way of Buddha.
This food is for the Three Treasures,
for our teachers, family and all people,
and for all beings in the six worlds.
The first portion is to avoid all evil
The second is to do all good
The third is to save all beings
Thus we eat this food and awaken with everyone.
In 1992 I fully entered family life with the birth of the first of my two sons. Life changed as only kids can change a life. Many of the practices that I had been able to sustain in single life had dropped to the wayside in married life. With kids in the picture even more practices bit the dust or were replaced by changing diapers, walking my son to sleep, and other noble practices that are not so clearly laid out in Buddhist texts. I decided to take action, and make the chant fit the life I was living.
Having tinkered with many things before I really understood what I was messing with, I was aware of the dangers of changing and altering practices I don’t fully understand. With great respect for the tradition and lineage that this chant came out of, I began to do some historical research. Initially I asked questions of different teachers at Zen Center about the meal chant. I found, to no great surprise, that it is very old and that there are many translations of the meal chant with no complete agreement, yet an apparent common theme. The Tassajara version that I worked with is not that different from Dogen’s Regulations for the Monastic Life from 1246. It is fairly clear that the meal chant came from China with at least part, if not most, of its roots dating back to India. Feeling more courageous after finding so many variations of the same chant I forged ahead on thin dharmic ice. I began to study the many versions I found and then to rewrite this ancient text to fit my life.
I wanted to make the chant fit with my home, family, and diverse community or friends and yet keep the flavor of the Tassajara meal chant. My primary task was to bring the language closer to what I was familiar with, have meaning, and reflect my evolving understanding of Buddhism. My earlier training in Gestalt Practice informed some of these changes. First, I wanted to bring all the language into the present tense (e.g. brought to bring). Second, I wanted to instill a quality of equanimity and refrain from language that I could use to judge myself (e.g. eliminate “should”) Third, I was interested in language that was non-denominational and that was inclusive of those that are from different spiritual traditions (e.g. I removed the word Buddha). Forth, in the spirit of non-dualism I took out the words “good” and “evil” although I admit I did this in part because of my ambiguous understanding of the definition of good and evil. Fifth, I removed some sections that had little or no direct experiential meaning to me (e.g. I have only read about the “six worlds” and not experienced them). Lastly, I wanted a chant that enlivened my feeling of gratefulness. Here is what emerged:
Innumerable labors bring us this food
We are aware of how this meal comes to us.
Receiving this offering, we consider our own integrity and practice
Seeking a natural order of mind
We eat to support life and to practice the way
This food is for our teachers, family, friends, and all people
and for all beings seen and unseen.
We eat this food and awaken with everyone.
[quote text=”Three elements came forth: interdependence, recommitting to a wakeful life, and primarily—gratefulness.”]
After some dinnertime field testing it seemed time to distill the chant to the essentials of what was important to my growing family. Three elements came forth: interdependence, recommitting to a wakeful life, and primarily—gratefulness. I looked to what was the essence of gratefulness. Earlier in my life I had many opportunities to travel abroad and the chance to visit and sometimes live with the native peoples of the world. No matter where I was, living with the Maasai in Kenya, the Inuit in northern Canada, the Sherpa in the Himalayas, I was always struck by how often and in how many ways that gratefulness for food and the other necessities of daily life was expressed. I grew to appreciate how what I had come to take for granted is actually given. Acknowledging what is given and then gracefully receiving acknowledges our interdependence. I admired the genuine gratefulness I saw in peoples hearts as they sat down to another meal of beans and rice, practically the only meal they had ever known, and gave thanks—genuine heartfelt thanks.
Thus, emerged our most often used version and the ones my sons know by heart:
We are thankful for the many labors that bring us this food
We eat to support life and to practice the way
This food is for all our relations
We eat this food and awaken with everyone
When my sons were much younger I decided that whoever wrote the original chant did not have children, or if they did, had a parenting style much different that my own. It was after all written for monastic practice. I cut to what I thought was a bare bones meal chant:
We are thankful for this food
Eating this meal we awaken with everyone
However, in all honesty, when the kids were very young, hungry, and cranky and/or their dad was in a similar condition we used our “kid simple” version. It can be practiced before, during, after the meal, or in spontaneous outburst any time of day:
Thanks (followed by vigorous clapping)
All together the group weaves a collective prayer or tapestry of gratefulness that is spontaneous and inclusive of the whole of the group.
As my exploration has continued I have searched for ways to keep a quality of aliveness to the chant and to our thank-giving. Being a workshop leader I usually get willing participants in my experiments. I started by asking members of a group I was leading to hold hands in silent thanks before a meal. Then I took to asking if anyone had a thanks, a prayer, or a song before we ate. I was struck at how embarrassed many people were to share a thanks and at the same time how much people appreciated this simple act. Currently, my favorite group thanks is to hold hands, and after a moment of silence, each member of the group says one word that expresses what they are grateful for in that moment. All together the group weaves a collective prayer or tapestry of gratefulness that is spontaneous and inclusive of the whole of the group.
What is most interesting about this multi-year experiment is its contagious effect. When friends and families come over to dinner we share some form of a thanks-giving. I have discovered that the children of these families are often the ones that carry it back to their homes. I have been surprised that a number of families have started evolving their own blessings because their child’s initiation and inspiration. Our adult friends have often commented how they appreciate our ritual and now remind us to do a blessing should we forget. And, while I am sure that I have some evangelistic tendencies in my gene pool, this has not been my intention.
My friend, and Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast says “…happiness is not what makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.” It strikes me that children and adults alike are doing what comes natural and makes them happy— giving thanks for the food we eat. Acknowledging that we are all in this cyclic interdependent dance of consuming each other.
From one moment, a meal chant, deep in the mountains thirty years ago, the ripples of the dharma continue to grow enlivening myself, my family, my friends, all my relations. Eating this may we awaken with everyone.
Steven Harper is a wilderness guide, author, consultant, and father. He has taught at Esalen Institute for over 30 years and is a resident of Big Sur, California. A student of Buddhism since 1972, he has an MA in psychology. For eighteen years he led a weeklong wilderness workshop hiking from Esalen to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. He currently leads retreats at Esalen, Tassajara, and Green Gulch Zen Center.