Thursday, 4 June 2015

Hermitcraft: Bindle Oryoki Set

Though the word translates as "just enough", oryoki has grown to mind-numbing complexity in Zen monasteries, where every second of every meal is carefully choreographed. Beginners often view this mealtime ritual as an onerous pack of made-up fuss, but in fact it's the most efficient way to get lots of people through a full-course meal and back to work. (Once everyone's mastered it, anyway.)

Centrepiece of the ceremony is the monk's dining set, which consists of three or more graduated bowls (details vary from house to house) nested and knotted in a large napkin, along with a range of utensils. Diners start and end each meal in the same position: seated before a neat, perfectly-packed oryoki set. Watching a well-trained sangha perform this bewildering kata, from opening through serving, eating, cleaning, and closing, is a memorable experience. (Participating in it is even better. As neurotic as it sounds, oryoki is curiously satisfying. I've never met a monk who doesn't consider it one of the most powerful – maybe the most powerful – liturgies in the monastic day.)

Having said that, I didn't intend to observe oryoki when I began my 100 Days on the Mountain; too much falderal for a man alone. But I quickly realised that it's even more necessary in the woods than in the artificial forest of institutional Zen. When you're sitting lotus on the ground, with only your lap for a table, you're forever reversing tea on yourself, scuffing dirt into your rice, knocking over the water bottle… those first meals without oryoki were a chaotic, wasteful fiasco. Fortunately I had the basic elements of a bowl set with me, and after some intensive assembly and invention, managed to reduce accidents to virtually none. (Absolutely none, if you subtract mishaps due to neglect of the forms.)

Out in the Red Dust World, storebought oryoki sets are often lovely works of art… and the money needed to buy some of them could keep their lacquerware Buddha bowls full for many years. By contrast, the kit you see here serves admirably for "bindle oryoki": an eremitical version of "just enough" that's, like, just enough. It includes only two bowls: a Buddha bowl for rice and beans, and a smaller one for tea; only two cloths (wrapper/wiper and lap cloth/spoon case); and – most heretical of all – a single utensil (still folded in the lap cloth in the photo at left). Fact is, forest practice doesn't require anything but a spoon. It'll put rice in your bowl, take rice out of your bowl, and scrape the bowl clean afterward. Mission accomplished.

All of this, properly (make that, obsessively) cleaned, wrapped, and knotted, fits nicely in my little tea kettle, and then both of those in my larger rice kettle.

The elements, with approximate prices new, in US dollars, are:

2 melamine bowls, $7.50
2 bandana handkerchiefs, $5.00
1 wooden mixing spoon, suitably modified and finished in trinity tar, $5.00

Total cost: less than $20.00. If that's still too much, you can buy the bowls at a dollar store or garage sale; make the cloths from old sheets or shirts; and whittle the spoon out of scrap wood. In fact, with due diligence, you could probably reduce the total investment to $0.00.

The spoon is the only component that requires careful consideration. I actually used an old stainless steel spoon on the mountain. Metal is tough and holds an edge, and so it scrapes the bowl well at meal's end. Also, a heat-proof utensil is handy; you never know what you might need to do with it. On the other hand, Japanese tradition favours the natural beauty of wood, and appreciates the fact that a wooden spoon makes less noise in the mouth. (One of the many neuroses of monastery etiquette.) This is germane to the forest as well, where a monk must keep the lowest possible profile for tactical reasons. Wooden implements also are non-reflective, and don't ring or sink if dropped.

The kettles came from an ancient camping cookset my parents bought in the early 60s with S&H Green Stamps. You can't get quality like that today – at least not at the price – but sharp eyes at the Good Value Army, or careful crafting of tin cans (for further consideration see this post), could get you into a serviceable pair for very little.

One way or the other, this set-up fed me with radiant adequacy for 100 days. I'm sure it'll do as much for you.

May each of us carry our bowls through this world with mindful resolve.

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