In college a large group of students was invited to spend time at a local Buddhist temple, located in remote acreage some miles from the school. We had been learning about world religions and spiritualism, and were largely eager to take this opportunity to see first-hand some of the practices we had studied.
Knowing what little I did about Buddhism, I was genuinely intrigued – the idea of oneness with everything, of respecting the greater world, and dedication to higher ideals than selfish joys really appealed to me conceptually. A friend’s mom spent several hours every day meditating while I was growing up, and I thought it would be a useful addition to my schedule as well. Who better to learn from than the masters, right?
Seventy or so of us arrived at the temple and were told that the sanctuary was largely a silent place, with little to no talking permitted. We were going to enter the main prayer room, face a wall, and meditate. After a time a monk would rouse us and discuss the practical philosophy of the temple. Without diving into the minutiae of the experience, I can say that I felt more peace and connection in that first forty-five minute meditation than I did the rest of the weekend.
After the rest of the class had departed, the half-dozen or so of us who agreed to stay the evening took a tour of the grounds, lead by a soft-spoken former banker who lived at the temple full-time, and managed the sanctuary’s website. As the sunlight waned we were told that the call to wake would come very early in the morning, and that the first thing we would do is return to the temple for meditation, before breakfast.
Early it did come, somewhere around 4:30 (we were asked not to wear watches), and we groggy few marched once again into the temple, there to sit for an indeterminable time. Legs crossed and with my face inches from the wall, I only knew that, eventually, my calves and thighs went from aching to painful and finally to icy numbness. Both my fellow students and residents of the temple were attending the morning meditation, and the only sound was the occasional rustle of someone’s clothing as they tried to relieve the pressure of being in an unfamiliar position for so long.
Finally we were told that breakfast was coming. We had been instructed the night prior in the proper performance of the breakfast ritual, including the proper way to unwrap our nested bowls, place them before us, and how to set our simple wooden utensils to show we were ready to receive the morning meal. Once everyone in the room had correctly done so, after several retries from various students, three monks brought in breakfast, to be served individually, and not eaten until all had received their portion.
I want to really paint the picture here, so please bear with me; we had been kneeling on the floor for nearly two hours, taking another ten minutes to prepare for breakfast. When feeding ~50 people from a single large vat, carried by two individuals while a third spooned out its contents, it must be piping hot to ensure it remains warm from the first to the last person. Since breakfast consisted of three ingredients, three trips had to be made to each person.
Before us sat three bowls, descending in size, and each eventually contained the following:
- The largest (or “Buddha”) bowl had scalding-hot plain oatmeal, filled to half
- The second bowl had chunky apple sauce, also filled to half
- The smallest bowl had several ounces of orange juice
Once everyone had been served, the serving monks returning and sitting before their own ritualistic containers, eating could begin. It seemed everyone, not just the students, ate with furious hunger – we had all been kneeling for hours and could not rise until after the morning ritual had completed. This meant we were all shoveling scalding-hot oatmeal into our mouths, trying to ration our cold apple sauce and orange juice to ensure we had enough to temper every sizzling spoonful of oats.
After an agonizing eternity, my legs having regained their ability to feel pain and my tongue having forgotten what it meant to taste anything, everyone was finished with eating, which means the second part of the breakfast ritual, clean up, was soon to begin.
Three monks again went around the room and poured each person enough hot green tea to half-fill their middle bowl, whether or not it still contained apple sauce. Once each person was so served, we could begin washing our dishes – pouring what, if anything, remained in our drink bowl into the tea. After swirling it around to ensure all bits of apple sauce were collected, it was then poured into the Buddha bowl to collect any stray oatmeal grains.
Being students unfamiliar with the complete ins and outs of the ritual, and with the added complications of sleep deprivation and aching soreness, many of us had not finished our oatmeal or even apple sauce, making for quite a concoction at the conclusion of breakfast.
Once everyone had performed the ritual cleansing, we downed the now-chunky green tea in unison, the burning-hot liquid punishing our already-abused mouths and throats. And yet, we still were not done.
Once the bowls had been so emptied, it came time to reverse the set-up ritual and carefully place our bowls and utensils back in the proper configuration, tying them into the white cloth that served as our placemats. Unfortunately it took several students multiple tries to get their final knots correct as none could stand or move until the entire hall had finished completely.
After breakfast, finally able to stretch our legs, mainly by walking to the tool shed, we learned that we were to participate in “Zazen” or “working meditation.” We weeded, hoed, and filled the small on-site garden, remaining in mute silence, until it was time to meditate in the temple once again.
Of my days spent at the temple, I genuinely feel I got more out of the first “sample” meditation than I did any other exercise the rest of the weekend. It was just something about that moment, my mindset, which allowed me to let go in a way that would thereafter escape me.
I am now fifteen years older, and still to this day, whenever someone offers me a cup of green tea, memories of burning mouth, aching muscles, and disgusting oatmeal-tea-apple blend swims through my brain and I have to politely decline the offer; a long-lived reminder of my limited time at the Buddhist temple on the far side of the mountain.