Oryoki: The Practice of “Just Enough”

Oryoki: The Practice of “Just Enough”

Bridget Hobson

Gesshin Claire Greenwood shares how a Zen ritual can help us find balance in life.

What does it mean to have “just enough”—just enough taste, just enough flavor, just enough love? Zen monks throughout Japan learn an eating style known as oryoki. This word combines the Chinese characters for “receive,” “amount,” and “bowl,” but overall it connotes a sense of “just enough” or the “right amount.”

The Zen ritual of oryoki has much to teach us about eating economically and well.

Monastery work reminds us that no person exists in isolation. Each sound is a signal instructing the community, and often three or four people are involved in a sequence of drums, gongs, and bells. Making a mistake at any point can throw off the whole sequence. Over the years of participating in these sequences, you learn to pay attention to your actions and understand the consequences they have on others. You begin to embody the truth that we are at all times interconnected with the world around us.

Oryoki means “just enough” for two reasons. The first is that, in the ceremony of oryoki, all physical movement is prescribed and ritualized. For example, there is a form for exactly how to open your bowls (not only the order, but which fingers to use), how to hold the bowls when you eat, how and when to bow, which hand to use when wiping your bowls, and so on. This means that ideally you will always be using just the right amount of physical effort. In the beginning it is quite difficult to memorize all the minute details and rules of oryoki practice, but after a few months it becomes muscle memory. This enables you to eat without thinking. However, it is not a mindless, spaced-out kind of nonthinking. It is a nonthinking that is intimately attuned to the present moment.

The second reason oryoki means “just enough” is because meals and portions are designed to be just enough to sustain life, yet also satisfying and delicious. One line monks chant before a meal is, “The five colors and six tastes of this meal are offered to dharma and sangha” (dharma means “truth” and sangha is the community of monks and nuns). The monastery cook is trained to pay attention to the five colors (white, yellow, green, red or orange, and brown/black or purple) and six tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy, and delicate). Each meal is tastefully balanced, not emphasizing one taste, such as sweet, at the expense of others. This balance of flavors makes people feel more satisfied after eating.

Observers of Japanese and Western culture often note that in the West we usually eat a lot of food piled on one plate, whereas in Japan people eat from several bowls during a meal. This has its roots in oryoki practice and also results in increased satisfaction after eating. Because in oryoki food is served in three to five small bowls, you must pick up each dish and give it your full attention while eating. When you want to try another dish, you have to set the first bowl down and then use two hands to pick up the second bowl. This takes time and attention, so you focus more on the sensations of eating rather than eating as much and as quickly as possible from one plate.

In oryoki, we use many small bowls with small amounts of delicious food, and this makes us, paradoxically, feel more full. Quite literally, then, we can design our meals to reflect these principles by using more plates and smaller amounts of food with a wide variety of flavors and colors. In other words, we can change the container of our food to feel more satisfied. Broadly and metaphorically, this strategy can be brought into the larger frame of our lives. We can shift the “container” of our lives, so that no matter how much we have or do not have, it is enough.

Usually, the container for our lives is one big plate. The container is an expectation that we will make a great deal of money, have a lot of sex with the right people, and consume the right cultural products. We pile things on this big plate, but because of the size of the plate, we over eat—we work more, buy more things, have more sex. And yet we don’t feel satisfied. If we were to change bowls, if we were to reframe our value system, then we could see our lives through a different perspective. If we bring awareness to the present moment, if we value wisdom and compassion more than material acquisition, then our lives will always feel full. They will feel full, because all that we need is awareness and the cultivation of wisdom. Within this container of awareness, wisdom, and compassion, even an empty cup seems full.

Excerpted from the book Just Enough. Copyright ©2019 by Gesshin Claire Greenwood. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.

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