The head server was giving us last minute instructions, moments before we were to enter the shrine room. The five servers each held a single metal bowl, for all five bowls used in the lunchtime Orioki ritual.
“Be cheerful. You are making an offering to each person. Part of what you are offering is your cheerfulness.”
Clack! The signal sounded for us to enter. In single file we marched up through the two rows of meditators, bowed to the shrine, then faced each other holding the bowls of food up to eye level.
The group is chanting the heart sutra.
Addressed in this way, noble Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, said to venerable Sariputra, “O Sariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajñaparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature.
Form is empty; emptiness is also form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.
In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are empty.
Thus, Sariputra, all dharmas are emptiness. There are no characteristics.
There is no birth and no cessation. There is no impurity and no purity. There is no decrease and no increase.
Therefore, Sariputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness;
No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind;
No appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas;
No eye dhatu up to no mind dhatu, no dhatu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhatu;
No ignorance and no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death;
No suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment.
Therefore, Sariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajñaparamita. Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana. All the buddhas of the three times, by means of prajñaparamita, fully awaken to unsurpassable, true, complete enlightenment.
The servers bow to each other, and the first server walks to the first two people, sitting on the floor on their zafus and gomdens, their plush stuffed meditation mats and pillows, in front of them their 5 black laquered orioki bowls, laid out on the large blue square of cloth. The server bows, and so do the two servees, hungry from a long morning of silent meditation.
And it’s at that precise moment when the power of the orioki service is manifest. The bow.
We’ll let that moment pass with nothing more said.
Then comes the next moment of magic. The first servee holds out her bowl. I am the first server, and so I have the big bowl of grain. It’s brown rice today. I take a big spoonful and scoop a generous portion, being mindful not to apportion too much, but not too little such that she has to ask for many servings.
Plop. She holds her spoon parallel with her bowl, without moving. This is the signal to hit her again with another scoop. I look at her in the eyes before scooping out another portion. She raises her spoon. I do the same for the next person in the row. Then stand up, then bow again.
Did you catch the magic? Maybe you had to be there. It was a prayer. Giving food was service. There was a beauty in it. A recognition. A joy in service. A happiness. I was serving myself, recognizing myself, giving from that precious space in my heart to another precious space.
From that first time I participated, I had a feeling for that service. Over the years when there were special feasts I’d often be asked to be a server, or a head server. I think people liked to be served by me, and I liked to serve. Especially I enjoyed serving the alcoholic sake rice wine during the wet feasts.
I grew up in the suburbs, and when the bros would party together it was the same feeling. When you say “cheers” before pounding a shot. When you sing along to a song together. The whole ethos of party. Revelers have brotherly love – it’s a common understanding – that our situation is to be celebrated.
“Be cheerful as your offering”, I was told.
It’s good to put a finger on it sometimes.
I was sitting on the cliff, shrouded in three arctic sleeping bags that I had converted into ponchos, staring out over the ice packs that stretch out from Cape Breton shores, staring out past ice to ocean to where the ocean meets the clouded sky. Ravens are playing in the air. I want to do the best that I can in this moment, and it occurs to me – what if my mind were an offering. An offering, to… the Queen of our Commonwealth. White and blue and rock and height and vista and distance and depth, and only me here to see it, and how to make that a good thing, a really good gift. What with all my training.
The question is the answer, as Trungpa Rinpoche used to say. So I gazed, and did my best to make a good gift of my perception. The question is the answer.
The question was how to make this a gift, and the answer was wanting to.