The following is an excerpt from Omichi no joshiki [Tenrikyo Fundamentals] (pp. 61–65) by Koji Sato 佐藤浩司, assistant professor at Tenri University and instructor at Tenri Seminary. Note: This is a tentative translation at the moment and may require further revision.

Saying “Grace” (Itadakimasu)

I ask you, my readers, what do you do before you eat a meal? Do you say grace or say “itadakimasu” (I shall partake)?

Appetite is the most fundamentally important human desire, for it is essential for the sustenance of our life. Nevertheless, this does not automatically mean that all we need to do is to put food in our stomachs.

In the world there are a variety of different observances relating to eating meals. For instance, there is a set of Buddhist passages known as “The Five Reflections” (Gokan-no-ge) recited at the Yakushi Temple in Nara.

Every year on May 5, a Grand Festival is held at Yakushi Temple in honor of the founder of their school, the great Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang. I go every year as an adviser of the Tenri University Gagaku Society, whose students present a gigaku performance as part of the ceremonies.

Every year we are treated to lunch in a sutra-copying hall known as the “Room of Five Reflections.” “The Five Reflections,” a set of mental observances on how one is to approach each meal, hangs from a scroll in the hall alcove. Every year before our meal we request the priest looking after us to comment on it and recite it once before we join in. The contents of “The Five Reflections” are as follows:

  1. One ought to compute one’s merit and measure the actions of others up to this point (i.e., Think of how much work one has done and appreciate how nature’s blessings and the efforts of many people were involved in bringing the food to one’s plate).
  2. One ought to judge whether one’s virtue and conduct has been sufficient or lacking; frequent or sporadic (i.e., At the partaking of food, reflect on whether one’s actions were worthy of the food that is presented).
  3. To obstruct the mind and express excessiveness can only be taken as one of the Three Poisons (Do not be discontent with the food presented, but partake it as it were the greatest delicacies imaginable).
  4. Precise indulgence in good medicine cannot but lead to the settlement of physical sufferings (Keep in mind that food is the good medicine that contains the life of heaven and earth).
  5. This is for the attainment of the way of Dharma and not intended to engage in worldly temptations (The purpose of partaking this food is to complete one’s work).

Although there are slightly different versions of this text, something very similar to it is often recited at temples, mostly of the Zen tradition.

At Yakushi Temple, following the recitation of this text, prayers are offered in the six directions—up, down, east, west, south and north.

Then, Shinto and Buddhist deities, one’s parents, teachers, companions, siblings, and colleagues are named before saying, “With a mind of modesty, respect, and gratitude, I partake.” The former Head Priest Koin Takada also offered his prayers to those who lost their lives in World War II and the ancestors of the people sitting beside him.

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Now, how should a follower of the path approach the act of eating a meal? Oyasama once said:

Do not waste even a single vegetable leaf.

Anecdotes of Oyasama 112, “Amiability First of All”

She also mentioned the following when animals such fishes or pheasants were presented at a meal:

Everyone, when you eat them, please say ‘delicious, delicious,’ to them. If you eat them with delight, due to the principle of giving joy, the next time they will be advanced. Each time they are reborn, they will progress closer to man.

Anecdotes of Oyasama 132 “To Be Eaten Deliciously”

I believe that we always ought to observe this attitude in our minds.

Further, I would like to write a few other observances based on the teachings that come to my mind:

  • Appreciate the many people and their efforts that helped bring and prepare the food on our plates.
  • The plants and animals we are about to eat once harbored life. Have compassion for them as we are partaking their life when we eat them.
  • Appreciate the blessings of heaven and earth that allowed everything to grow before becoming the ingredients for the food we are about to eat.
  • Appreciate the workings of the body that digests the food we partake, turns it into nutrients, and discharges what is not necessary.

Because we eat meals everyday, we tend to take the above things for granted. Nevertheless, I do wish for all of us as followers of the path to make the efforts to keep these observances in mind.

*Note: This post has been revised since its original publication.