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Giving Thanks for Our Food

Three Buddhist Verses to Chant Before Eating

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All schools of Buddhism have rituals involving food -- offering food, receiving food, eating food. For example, the practice of giving food to monks begging for alms began during the life of the historical Buddha and continues to this day. But what about the food we eat ourselves? What is the Buddhist equivalent for "saying grace"?

Zen Meal Chant: Gokan-no-ge

There are several chants that are done before and after meals to express gratitude. Gokan-no-ge, the "Five Reflections" or "Five Remembrances," is from the Zen tradition.

First, let us reflect on our own work and the effort of those who brought us this food.
Second, let us be aware of the quality of our deeds as we receive this meal.
Third, what is most essential is the practice of mindfulness, which helps us to transcend greed, anger and delusion.
Fourth, we appreciate this food which sustains the good health of our body and mind.
Fifth, in order to continue our practice for all beings we accept this offering.

The translation above is the way it is chanted in my sangha, but there are several variations. Let's look at this verse one line at a time.

First, let us reflect on our own work and the effort of those who brought us this food.

I've also seen this line translated "Let us reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us." This is an expression of gratitude. The Pali word translated as "gratitude," katannuta, literally means "knowing what has been done." In particular, it is recognizing what has been done for one's benefit.

The food, of course, didn't grow and cook itself. There are cooks; there are farmers; there are groceries; there is transportation. If you think about every hand and transaction between a spinach seed and the pasta primavera on your plate, you realize that this food is the culmination of countless labors. If you add to that everyone who has touched the lives of the cooks and farmers and grocers and truck drivers who made this pasta primavera possible, suddenly your meal becomes an act of communion with vast numbers of people in the past, present and future. Give them your gratitude.

Second, let us be aware of the quality of our deeds as we receive this meal.

We have reflected on what others have done for us. What are we doing for others? Are we pulling our weight? Is this food being put to good use by sustaining us? This line is also sometimes translated "As we receive this food, let us consider whether our virtue and practice deserve it."

Third, what is most essential is the practice of mindfulness, which helps us to transcend greed, anger and delusion.

Greed, anger and delusion are the three poisons that cultivate evil. With our food, we must take particular care to not be greedy.

Fourth, we appreciate this food which sustains the good health of our body and mind.

We remind ourselves that we eat to sustain our life and health, not to indulge in sensory pleasure. (Although, of course, if your food does taste good, it's fine to mindfully enjoy it.)

Fifth, in order to continue our practice for all beings we accept this offering.

We remind ourselves of our bodhisattva vows to bring all beings to enlightenment.

When the Five Reflections are chanted before a meal, these four lines are added after the Fifth Reflection:

The first morsel is to cut all delusions.
The second morsel is to maintain our clear mind.
The third morsel is to save all sentient beings.
May we awaken together with all beings.

A Theravada Meal Chant

Theravada is the oldest school of Buddhism. This Theravada chant also is a reflection:

Wisely reflecting, I use this food not for fun, not for pleasure, not for fattening, not for beautification, but only for the maintenance and nourishment of this body, for keeping it healthy, for helping with the Spiritual Life;
Thinking thus, I will allay hunger without overeating, so that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.

The Second Noble Truth teaches that the cause of suffering (dukkha) is craving or thirst. We continually search for something outside ourselves to make us happy. But no matter how successful we are, we never remain satisfied. It's important not to be greedy about food.

A Meal Chant From the Nichiren School

This Nichiren Buddhist chant reflects a more devotional approach to Buddhism.
The rays of the sun, moon and stars which nourish our bodies, and the five grains of the earth which nurture our spirits are all the gifts of the Eternal Buddha. Even a drop of water or a grain of rice is nothing but the result of meritorious work and hard labor. May this meal help us to maintain the health in body and mind, and to uphold the teachings of the Buddha to repay the Four Favors, and to perform the pure conduct of serving others. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Itadakimasu.

To "repay the Four Favors" in the Nichiren school is to repay the debt we owe our parents, all sentient beings, our national rulers, and the Three Treasures (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha). "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" means "devotion to the Mystic Law of the the Lotus Sutra," which is the foundation of Nichiren practice. "Itadakimasu" means "I receive," and is an expression of gratitude to everyone who had a hand in preparing the meal. In Japan, it is also used to mean something like "Let's eat!"

Gratitude and Reverence

Before his enlightenment, the historical Buddha weakened himself with fasting and other ascetic practices. Then a young woman offered him a bowl of milk, which he drank. Strengthened, he sat beneath a bodhi tree and began to meditate, and in this way he realized enlightenment.

From a Buddhist perspective, eating is more than just taking in nourishment. It is an interaction with the entire phenomenal universe. It is a gift given us through the work of all beings. We vow to be worthy of the gift and work to benefit others. Food is received and eaten with gratitude and reverence.

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