The Five Contemplations as a Daily Practice

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When we eat a meal, there are two objects of our mindfulness: the food and the people who are there with us during the meal. Practicing in this way we are sure to find better and better ways of consuming food without exploiting our Earth and other living beings. Before eating a meal you can read, either aloud or to yourself, the Five Contemplations. Of course we don’t just read the Contemplations but we meditate on the words throughout the meal. (From The Mindfulness Survival Guide by Thich Nhat Hanh)

Dear Still Water Friends,

I’ve always liked The Five Contemplations that are said before meals in the Plum Village tradition. They are, for me, an additional reminder that the way we engage in our everyday activities are an essential part of our practice. And they have helped me change some of my old habit energies about what I eat and how I eat. As with anything that is said repeatedly, it is easy just to say the words and move on to our next task or distraction. However, if we really listen to the Five Contemplations, I believe they have a lot to teach us.

Pausing and reflecting before eating a meal has been a part of mindfulness practice for 2600 years. A meal chant used today by Theravadan monks is taken from the a discourse of the Buddha concerned with transforming unskillful habits and states of mind:

Reflecting wisely, he uses alms food neither for amusement nor for intoxication nor for the sake of physical beauty and attractiveness, but only for the endurance and continuance of this body, for ending discomfort, and for assisting the holy life, considering: ‘Thus I shall terminate old feelings without arousing new feelings and I shall be healthy and blameless and shall live in comfort.’ (From All the Taints, Majjhima Nikāya 2, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Dogen, the 13th century Japanese monk who brought the authentic Chan / Zen tradition from China to Japan, included meal contemplations in the daily rituals of the monastery. He called them The Five Reflections Recited Before Meals (Gokan no Ge):

First, seventy-two labors have brought us this food. We should know where it comes from.

Second, as we receive this offering we should consider whether our virtue and practice deserve it.

Third, as we desire the mind to be free from clinging, we must be free from greed.

Fourth, to support our life, we receive this food.

Fifth, to realize the way, we accept this food.

(Translation taken from a blog entry on The Existential Buddhist)

When I first started practicing in the Plum Village tradition in 1990, the Five Contemplations we recited where very similar to Dogen’s Five Reflections — they are probably both derived from a common Chinese source.

Since 1990 there have been many revisions of the Contemplations by the Plum Village community, as well as revisions done by lay practice groups. About ten years ago, the Still Water community adapted the then current version of the Contemplations to create a version which works well for our community:

This food is the gift of the whole universe – the earth, the sky, and much hard work.

May we eat in mindfulness so as to nourish our gratitude.

May we transform our unskillful states of mind and learn to eat with moderation.

May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness.

We accept this food to realize the path of understanding, love, and joy.

All of the versions of the Five Contemplations share a common structure. The first contemplation draws our attention to the reality of interbeing. Each morsel of food, as well as each of us, is a manifestation of the universe.

When we are mindful, we know that the food we eat comes from the cosmos, nature, and all living beings. … If we look at our food for just half a second before putting it into our mouth and chewing it mindfully, we see that one string bean is the ambassador of the whole cosmos. This is the practice of being in touch. (Thich Nhat Hanh from The Mindfulness Bell #6, 1991)

The next three contemplations are vows or promises we make about how and what we will eat during this meal.

The fifth contemplation reminds us of the deep aspirations held by practitioners: to reduce suffering and nourish true happiness in ourselves and all beings.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will explore together the Five Contemplation and focus especially on the parts of the contemplations that have touched us or helped us.

You are invited to join us.

Below is a commentary on the five contemplations by Thich Nhat Hanh and three versions the Contemplations recited at Plum Village, including one for families with young children.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

Family Meals in Mindfulness
by Thich Nhat Hanh from Creating True Peace

One of the best practices for creating peace in the family, regardless of religion or culture, is sharing a meal together mindfully. In the past, it was common for families to bow their heads before eating and say grace, giving thanks for the food before them. During those moments they felt a real sense of togetherness. People were aware that they were a family sitting around a table. You do not need to be religious to feel this sense of gratitude and togetherness. As long as you find something beautiful, good, and true to believe in and abide by, you have the equivalent of God in your life. It is already wonderful that you are sitting around the table breathing in and out mindfully, smiling and feeling together as a family.

In Plum Village, we recite the Five Contemplations before each meal to nourish our gratitude and to nurture our mindfulness as we eat. It is a practice similar to saying grace. At home, when the whole family eats together, you can invite your children to read the Five Contemplations aloud. In the first contemplation, we are reminded, “This food is the gift of the whole universe: the Earth, the sky, and much loving work,” and in the second we ask, “May we live and eat in mindfulness so that we are worthy to receive this food.” It is not difficult to be worthy to receive the food. We need only to be fully present and enjoy eating mindfully. When we eat while we are angry, forgetful, or irritated, thinking of things other than the meal and our family, we do not appreciate the gift of food before us and act ungratefully. The next three contemplations are “May we transform our unskillful states of mind, and learn to eat in moderation. May we take only food that nourishes us and prevents illness. We accept this food in order to realize the way of understanding and love.” During the recitation, everyone should look deeply into the food he or she is consuming, to see that the meal really nourishes his or her body and mind.

When we recite the Five Contemplations, we maintain mindfulness and the feeling of gratitude and togetherness as a family throughout the entire meal. This is the practice of nourishing peace in the family.

The Five Contemplations  of Plum Village (1990)

This food is the gift of the whole universe—the earth, the sky, and much hard work.

May we live in a way that makes us worthy to receive it.

May we transform our unskillful states of mind, especially our greed.

May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness.

We accept this food so that we may realize the path of practice.

The Five Contemplations of Plum Village (Current version)

This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard and loving work.
May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive this food.
May we recognize and transform unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed and learn to eat with moderation.
May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that reduces the suffering of living beings, stops contributing to climate change, and heals and preserves our precious planet.
We accept this food so that we may nurture our brotherhood and sisterhood, build our Sangha, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings.

Food Contemplations
From Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children By Thich Nhat Hanh

This food is the gift of the whole universe: The earth, the sky, the rain, and the sun.

We thank the people who have made this food, especially the farmers, the people at the market and the cooks.

We only put on our plate as much food as we can eat.

We want to chew the food slowly so that we can enjoy it.

This food gives us energy to practice being more loving and understanding.

We eat this food in order to be healthy and happy, and to love each other as a family.

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