Oryoki and the Oryoki Chant

Author : Duff, Tony

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Oryoki is the Japanese way of turning meals into meditation practice. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche introduced it into his Shambhala community of Western Buddhists in 1980. He adapted it slightly, putting the Tibetan monastic meal liturgy wiith it.

This book starts with a history of Oryoki and continues with a complete explanation of the Tibetan monastic meal liturgy and its use. Although the book was written for the Shambhala community and their practice of Oryoki, the book could be used by any Buddhist wanting to make meals into meditation practice. The liturgy starts with the Sutra of the Recollection of the Noble Three Jewels which is used in one form or another in all schools of Buddhism. The sutra is used for developing faith and strength of refuge in the Three Jewels. The author (who was a member of Trungpa's Nalanda Translation Committee) has translated the sutra and written an extensive commentary on it. He was also one of the main figures in the development of Oryoki in the early 1980's, hearing extensive teachings on it from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

"Food and everything involved with it is a major part of human life, one that cannot be avoided. Because of this, Buddhists in general have looked for ways to bring meal times into practice and have developed highly formalized ways of taking meals. These formal, monastic ways of taking food have a great advantage. They provide a chance to bring eating, which otherwise slips into a mindless affair, into practice…The physical form of eating started with the begging bowl, which was established by the Buddha as one of the three requisites which a monk or nun received at ordination. The bowl had to be carried in a particular way…In this are seen the roots of the sacredness of an Oryoki set..." Tony Duff.

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Food and everything involved with it is a major part of human life, one that cannot be avoided. Because of this, Buddhists in general have looked for ways to bring meal times into practice and have developed various disciplines for doing so. The monastic traditions of Buddhism in particular have developed highly formalized ways of taking meals. These formal, monastic ways of taking food have a great advantage. They provide a chance to bring eating, which otherwise easily slips into a mindless affair, into practice. They accomplish this by providing a container that allows the mind of practice to be kept, and even to be developed further, during a meal.

The monastic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism has a formal way of eating and it was used in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries before the calamity in 1959. However, Tibetan Buddhism primarily followed the Vajra Vehicle so, generally speaking, there was less focus on the outer formalities of monasticism and more focus on the inner disciplines of the Vajra Vehicle. The monastic tradition of Japanese Buddhism, on the other hand, placed great emphasis on outer forms and, with that, developed a very formal way of eating meals that was regularly observed.

In the 1970's, the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was successfully transplanting Tibetan Buddhism into the West. He was teaching his disciples the original approach of his lineage, the Kagyu tradition, in which practitioners are lay people who follow the Vajra Vehicle. A person who practises this way is called a tantrika.

By 1980, his disciples had become well known for their embodiment of the view that goes with the tantrika approach. However, he was noticing that their discipline needed more attention. For example, he pointed out to them that they were losing their practice at meal times, even during intensive practice periods. At this point, his teaching took a new direction and he began to give more emphasis to the basic Buddhist disciplines of the Lesser Vehicle. He still did not want his disciples to be monks or nuns but did want them to be more connected with the basic disciplines of Buddhism that monks and nuns immerse themselves in. Therefore, in 1980, he instituted a monastic style of eating as the way for his disciples to take meals while they were doing intensive practice and in 1981 instituted the lay vows of a Buddhist as something to be taken by his disciples.

The Vidyadhara introduced the monastic style of eating with an innovation. There is a Japanese style of monastic eating called "Oryoki". He took the form of Japanese Oryoki, joined the Tibetan monastic meal liturgy to it, and taught it with the view of his lineage of Tibetan Buddhism-the view of the three vehicles.

I had been a monk in the Tibetan tradition and lived in a monastery for several years during the 1970's. When the Vidyadhara introduced the monastic style of eating, I found it to be personally very suitable and immediately took great interest in it. It seemed natural to learn the whole system and I soon found myself in the role of head server during a string of dathuns done at Rocky Mountain Dharma Centre, as it was then called, during late 1980 and early 1981. After that, I was happy to obtain a position as head server at the 1982 seminary, then Oryoki Master at the 1983 seminary, and Oryoki advisor in subsequent seminaries.

During the early 1980's, the Vidyadhara gave many teachings on the new practice of Oryoki and a great deal of advice on how it should be taken as practice within the community. Because of my extensive involvement with dathuns, seminary, and practice in Boulder at the time, I heard these teachings personally or received them through people such as Ani Pema Chodron, who was also in close communication with the Vidyadhara and intimately involved with practice matters then. My very active role in the Nalanda Translation Committee during those years contributed further to my knowledge of Oryoki and how the Vidyadhara saw it within the community. Later, in 1985 and 1986,I was asked to oversee Oryoki at the seminaries of those years, and to ensure that all the knowledge that I had accumulated was passed on to the servers and head servers of the time.

An oral tradition developed during those years that kept and transmitted all the details of the practice. However, one thing that was missing was an explanation of the liturgy used for the practice. While listening to the Vidyadhara teach the first part of the liturgy-a section called The Sutra of the Recollection of the Noble Three Jewels-at the 1982 Vajracihatu Seminary, and hearing his many comments on how Oryoki should be taken as practice, it came to mind that I should write a full explanation of the liturgy and how to use it. A draft was started during my position as Oryoki Master to Seminary in 1983 and work on it continued during my roles as advisor to Oryoki in the 1985 and 1986 Seminaries. The draft was never brought to final publication, though it did leak out in the late 1980's.

The leakage came to my attention this year, as I was preparing to translate Ju Mipham's commentary on the sutra mentioned above. Ju Mipham's commentary was the same one that the Vidyadhara relied on for his own understanding and teaching of the sutra when he was a young man in Tibet and later, when he taught it at Seminary in 1982. The coincidence of the situation prompted me to complete the work and this is the outcome.

As I took up the task of completing the work, I reflected on my experience that the mention of "Oryoki" usually conjures up the physical form of the practice. However, Oryoki is much more than that. It is a practice that involves the whole person. It has a physical form for the body, a liturgy for the speech, and a view for the mind involved with the practice. In regard to that, this book is not a how-to-do-it manual of the physical form of Oryoki. In the opinion of a number of us who have been closely involved with the practice, the details of the outer form are best transmitted orally. We feel that there are good reasons for not committing them to writing. Let me say here that I hope they are not. However, the liturgy does need to be studied in order to be understood and likewise, so does the view. Therefore, this book is primarily about the monastic meal liturgy that the Vidyadhara selected for use with Oryoki practice and, to go with that, has plenty of discussion of the view and how it is put together with the practice.

The Vidyadhara had called his community "Vajradhatu". After his passing, the community was taken over by his son, called the "Sakyong", and he has renamed the community "Shambhala". The book began as a presentation of Oryoki that followed the Vidyadhara's way of teaching it for his Vajradhatu community. However, at this later time of completing the work, the Buddha's teaching has spread widely across the globe and there is interest in Oryoki amongst Westerners from communities other than the Japanese Zen and Shambhala communities. Therefore, the book additionally addresses the possibility that it could be practised by other communities, too.

As I began to write more inclusively, I came to realize that this was no doubt part of the Vidyadhara's original intent. He worked to propagate teachings that would promote basic sanity across the earth, and in forms that would benefit a wide audience, not just those practicing the very defined path of a particular tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Hopefully, I have included enough in the book so that anyone interested could take a step towards turning meals into practice using what is here. However, if you would like to make "Oryoki" into something that you or your community could use for practice, please do not hesitate to contact me for further assistance.

During my close involvement with Oryoki in the 1980's, I consulted many people to learn more about the practice and liturgy. The explanations here are based on instructions received directly and indirectly from the Vidyadhara, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and help provided by the Venerable Traleg Khyabgon Rinpoche, the Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche, and Zasep Tulku Rinpoche. My close relations with Ani Pema Chodron and Mr. Larry Mermelstein of the Nalanda Translation Committee also added to my knowledge. Then, and very importantly, there were the people from whom I learned Oryoki, both the personal and serving practices; they included Sally Symanski and the various Oryoki Masters of seminary who instructed me before graduating to that position myself Robert Salskov, Roland Cohen, and Giannina Jobson in that order. I thank all of my teachers with an expression of only the greatest appreciation for what they passed on and their time spent teaching it. Thanks to all of them!

Lama Tony Duff
6th November 2008,