“To be born human is indeed a rare blessing. This is where the Japanese term Arigatai originates. Ari translates to “being” and Gatai translates to ‘difficult’. Thus, arigatai can be translated as ‘something difficult has happened.’ The word Arigatai is used when something that rarely happens has occurred.”
–from: The Buddhist Press February 2009, Volume 3
Arigato is a such commonly used word that the true meaning sometimes goes unnoticed. At least it never occurred to me to think about where the word came from and what it really means until the day I immersed myself in Zen Buddhism at Kenchoji in Kamakura.
I went there to get the glimpse of the life of a Zen monastery and to feel Zen Buddhism through zazen meditation, a meal, and a monk’s talk. Although a half-day at a temple is nowhere near the minimum three years of training that young monks go through, I felt I came to see just slightly how to appreciate even the simplest food, or for that matter, in a single grain of rice.
A monk’s meal
- Kenchin-jiru – a kind of miso soup that started at Kenchoji which is made by sauteing root vegetables and tofu first, then kombu based broth is added. To finish, miso is added to the soup.
- Fried thick tofu simmered in kombu and soy sauce broth.
- Mizuna and abura-age oshitashi – boiled mizuna greens and sliced fried tofu mixed in soy sauce and kombu dressing.
- takuan – daikon pickles.
The vegetarian shojin ryori meal I had at Kenchoji was rather simple:
Since we were told no pictures are allowed during the session, I tried to replicate the menu from that day at home.
For Zen Buddhists, eating is not a simple task nor a pleasure, but rather it is a discipline and part of the daily training. So, at lunch, I learned their strict rules and followed them as well as I could. One concept particularly stuck in my head from among many rules before the meal and anecdotes afterward. That was to appreciate every single moment and the things around us, including food. Even the moment of pain during zazen meditation is arigatai, because you will not have that same pain again.
Here is an explanation of some of the rules around meals that I learned that day:
- Eat everything with kansha, or appreciation.
- Do not make any noise during the meal. That includes not making the even the slightest sound when you return a bowl to the table. This is an even tougher one, but do not make any sound even when eating crunchy takuan.
- You have to eat everything your chopsticks touched. If you cannot eat something because of some restriction, do not touch the entire dish.
- No talking during the meal.
- Keep your back straight and bring the bowl to your mouth.
The lunch lead by a monk went as follows:
- It started with a short chant.
- Then, everyone set aside seven grains of rice from the bowl for the lives of others such as insects and animals.
- The meal proceeded very quietly without speaking and everyone being extra careful not to make any noise.
- At the end, we were told to leave one piece of takuan.
- Then, we were told to clean our bowls by pouring tea in the bowls, and wiping them with the slice of takuan. Everyone followed the instruction and repeated this with all the bowls we each had used.
- When done cleaning bowls, we were to eat the takuan and drink the tea.
- Then, we stacked the bowls and put them away.
- It ended with another short chant.
After the chanting was done, the monk shared a bit about their very strict training routines and what they usually eat at the monastery. The training starts at the moment they set their foot in the dojo. every task they do from early morning until late at night, such as cleaning, zazen, eating, and chanting is training. Of course, no cell phones, not even for a call home!
And, I was a bit taken aback when he told us that their everyday meals were not as elaborate as the one we had for lunch. As far as those simpler meals go, they are served in the set of bowls they carry. Then, after finishing they wipe the bowls and put them in one bundle to carry around.
The whole experience at Kenchoji was special in the way that it was a good reminder of what we should already know, to simply appreciate our surroundings and food that nourishes us. But it is hard to really keep that in the front of your mind.
If you are interested in zazen meditation, Kenchoji offers English sessions. The next one is scheduled for 15 September 2009. Please apply for the session online at
YouTube: How to use Oryoki bowls in zen meal with English narration
I am a member of a guide association which is planning an event in September in English similar to what I described here to cover both sessions-meditation and the meal. When they put the information on the web, I will link to it here at Tokyofoodcast.
To experience shojin ryori at a temple, you do not have to wait until September! There are a couple of places you can enjoy the temple ambiance. Please check back for my next post with additional information about where to try shojin ryori for yourself.
To learn more about Zen Buddism, English information about the Rinzai School, one of the three main schools in Japan, is available on the Rinzai – Obaku Zen site. Kenchoji is the head temple of one of the branches of the Rinzai School. Some rules and training described here may be for Rinzai School Kenchoji branch.