2.6 School education: Zen roots and ukereiru in table manners and cleaning duties

Sachiko: Yamashiro Elementary school menu is not only about nutrition but it is also states calories, so the children are naturally educated on what amount is suitable, that is why they are not so fat. And also, it is prohibited to the students to eat beside the school lunch. During the breaks, they are not allowed to have any food, no candies, no soft drinks, they only eat the school lunch. So, when they grow up they don’t eat all day.

In addition, I have noticed a two more connections between today’s schooling and Zen teachings. The first concerns the way of serving and eating food. At school, the prepared food is arranged in the serving room (pantry) for each class. The children on duty carry the food from the pantry to each classroom. The children on duty are usually four to five, and they wear white caps and aprons. In classroom, after all the other children have been served, the children on duty join hands “gassho合掌” (it literally means: palms together in front of your heart), say “itadakimasu頂きます” while bowing, only then the meal starts. The teacher also eats lunch with the children every day. That is very similar to what happens at Eiheiji: when the meal is ready, the monks on duty come from the monastery. Meals are first brought to the front of the kitchen, where the tenzo and the monks on duty do gassho and bow nine times, and then the monks on duty take the food to the monastery to have it.

Also, the way in which monks lift and hold their bowls and have the food. Only Japanese hold up the dish and have the lunch. And in school lunch it’s the same: not as high as the monks, sure, but children do lift up the bowl a little bit and then have the food. And, of course, once finished eating, they say: “gochisosama deshitaごちそうさまでした”, meaning “thank you for the meal”. This is all very similar to what the monks do at Eiheji. I noticed it after reading your book and watching the video, I didn’t notice it when I was a school teacher. I should have noticed!

Scott: Marking the beginning and the end somehow concentrates the attention and deepens your awareness, so it makes the whole food experience more mindful also because of those little rituals, you don’t go straight to the food. And the other thing is that it’s not only about the food, it’s also the whole experience of the rituals that are associated with it, and the fact that everyone is engaged in a group experience. Not eating like an animal, it is very different.

Sachiko: I really feel that Dogen’s teachings are still alive in school.

Scott: It is very interesting because you wouldn’t guess that it’s true but it’s true. I think you are right.

Sachiko: In my opinion it is wonderful that almost all Japanese people have a food education that incorporates Zen teachings in the childhood. That is true for 99% of the Japanese people. And I didn’t know that the first school lunch in Japan was started by a monk!

Zokinkake雑巾かけwhich literally means cleaning the floor with a cloth, is the other common daily practice in Zen monasteries and in schools: after the meal, all the children clean up the classrooms as well as the common areas… I wonder if this comes from Dogen too!

I don’t know what happens in American schools, but I think Japan is a little bit different from other countries, as the children clean the whole school after lunch: after the meal, all the children clean up the classrooms as well as the common areas… library, gym, science room, hall… children are divided into groups and share the task. So it’s very similar to Eiheji. When I was a school child, I used zokin 雑巾(cloth), take a bucket, fill it with water, put the cloth in it, squeeze it and swipe the floor. Recently children use the mop but my husband Kazunari watched a local news some days ago, about zokinkake still done in Fukui prefecture elementary schools and then the broadcaster said: “This is Zen”

Scott: It is all connected. And it’s interesting what you say: even without knowing it, even without thinking about it, it is connected.

Although we cannot give full credit to Dogen for the positive features of eating in modern Japan, from healthy and balanced school lunches to an emphasis in many homes on seasonal cooking, he got the ball rolling by writing a book that demands that people think about what they are eating and consider its spiritual implications. (page 182)

Sachiko: Preparing and consuming food can be a chance to deepen our awareness, to embrace and feel the blessings of nature…

[…] At ryokan […] meals are served and eaten slowly and prepared painstakingly. With precision and slowing down, this is food that demands your attention. Observing the serving vessels, how each one is laid out on a table, the hands of a server positioning the dishes, by the time you actually lift morsels of food into your mouth you’ve already been removed from reality and its stimuli unrelated to the act of eating. (page 176)

Nearly every morning, when I say farewell to the guests, they comment on the food they had at during their stay. Food plays such a big role in the ryokan experience! It can be a Zen-like experience… and if it is “divinely Zen” – like at Beniya Mukayu – that’s even better!

Going back to the core concept of your book, Why Be Happy? I think that acceptance or, in Japanese, “ukeireru” is part of the Zen mindset. Japanese people acquire this mindset while being educated in school in various ways: through food, cleaning duties and learning by heart the poem by Kenji Miyazawa宮澤 賢治  in the first year of junior high school – which you fully quote and translate on page 187. Without noticing, without knowing it, we are educated. Scott: That’s right. That has more cultural weight in a way, it’s not that you study it, it is a way of life, really. This kind of acceptance starts very young and it is in all areas of life. I mean, it does not always work, it’s not a perfect system, there’s a lot of problems and challenges but I like the concept. It has a calming effect, when it works.