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Food for thought: Shojin Ryori at Kenchoji, Kamakura

“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

    The vegetarian shojin ryori meal I had at Kenchoji was rather simple:

  • Rice
  • 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.

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.

Link to The Buddhist Press Volume 3 [PDF download].


7 Responses to “Food for thought: Shojin Ryori at Kenchoji, Kamakura”

  1. I appreciated your article very much. While I was aware of arigatai origin (Buddhist class in Kyoto), I have learned quite a bit on these particular rules around silence. Ramen eaters surely did not learn from the monks!
    Thank you,

    Posted by Denis Plamondon | July 30, 2009, 8:07 pm
  2. Thank you for your comment, Denis. Actually, it’s a good point about ramen. Soba shop owner was saying soba-do introduced today says slurp and suck a mouthful of soba without biting at all. She said it is funny to see everyone at the shop follow the “manner”. Where did it come from, I wonder?

    Posted by Et-chan | July 31, 2009, 9:10 am
  3. Wow, I just found this link on japansoc.com, but this article was a pleasant surprise! I did a homestay in Yokosuka two weeks ago, and my host family took me to eat the vegetarian food at Kenchoji in Kamakura; it was amazing.

    Posted by King and Country 17 | July 31, 2009, 10:54 am
  4. I liked this article a lot. What you say about ‘arigatou’ at the beginning of the post is well worth a mention, it’s true meaning often being overlooked, as you said.

    It looks like you had a really great time; I will definitely be trying something like this the next time I’m in Japan..

    Posted by Ryan Taylor | July 31, 2009, 1:54 pm
  5. Hi, King and Country 17,
    Sounds like you had a very special stay here in Japan with your host family. I really hope many people get a chance to see Kenchoji.

    Posted by Et-chan | August 1, 2009, 7:11 am
  6. Ryan,
    Thank you! I would love to do a bit longer stay at a monastery next time to come back to the thoughts I had at Kenchoji.

    Posted by Et-chan | August 1, 2009, 7:16 am
  7. Dear Sir/ Madam
    When I started reading about zazen and practicing zazen, I felt a real change in my life. I could know how to use my “computer” i.e. my mind and how to think.
    Ok, zazen as not to think about anything and let thoughts come to my mind instead of running behind them, this I understood. But how can I concentrate meditating on onething only through zazen?

    Thank you very much,teacher
    With best regards

    Posted by Amid A. J. | December 30, 2009, 3:34 pm

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