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itadakimasu part 1

In Japan, before eating a meal it is customary to say “itadakimasu.” This isn’t necessarily a “Buddhist” practice – I would be willing to bet that most people that do it just consider it “Japanese,” without understanding the deeper significance. However, I have had it explained to me in a Buddhist sense, and this is partly what I would like to relate here.

The Japanese language is very different from English in that it has “honorific” and “humble” variants. Depending on the relative status of the person that you are speaking with, the words that you use change. For example, the plain form of the verb for “to be” is imasu. So to ask, “Is Mr. Tanaka there?” one would say, “Tanaka san wa imasuka?” However, if Mr. Tanaka is a superior, then one would say, “Tanaka san wa irasshaimasuka?” Irassharu is the polite form of imasu. There is also a humble form, oru, so if Mr. Tanaka’s wife answers the phone and he isn’t there, instead of answering “Iie, imasen,” she would say “Iie, orimasen.” You can pretty much get away with the neutral level, but if you really want to integrate into Japanese society, work at a company there, etc., then you have to learn these polite and humble forms.

So what does this have to do with “itadakimasu”? Surprisingly, everything. It is the humble form of morau, the verb for “receive.” This implies that we are receiving something from a superior. At a ceremony, when you receive a certificate or something, then you hold it up to your head. This demonstrates in a physical, bodily way that you are “receiving it from above.” An example of this in Buddhism can be seen when we open sutra books: we lift the book to about chest level, then raise it up to our heads, before opening it. This is because the sutras are the sacred words of the Buddha, and by holding them above our heads we symbolically and physically receive them from something or someone greater than us. When we say “itadakimasu” before a meal, we are acknowledging in a similar way, but this time with our speech, that we are “receiving something from above.”

But who or what are we receiving our meal from? My chanting teacher, Reverend Haruyoshi Kusada, said that it is because we are receiving this meal “from the entire universe.” This, however, requires further explanation.

I think it is safe to say that usually, when we have a meal in front of us, we can’t wait to dig in, to satisfy our hunger. We don’t care where the food came from, no time for that, it’s time to eat! “Itadakimasu” is a chance to stop and reflect on all the causes and conditions that made this meal possible. Not only did someone have to prepare the food, but all the ingredients needed to be manufactured, distributed and sold, so everything from the plants and animals that produced the ingredients to all of the people that harvested, collected, packaged, delivered, and sold had a part in this meal.

If we take milk as an example, we can use the cow as our focal point and work in two directions. One is in the direction of the product – the milk needs to be taken, then processed, then packaged, then distributed to stores. Usually we take this for granted, but with oil and gas prices skyrocketing, we can’t ignore the distribution aspect. It is becoming more and more expensive to ship things, whether by truck, train, or plane, and we are seeing the results of this right now. Just in the local Sacramento area I keep hearing about portions getting smaller in restaurants – if they don’t reduce the portions, then they have to raise prices.

If we move in the other direction, then we can see that the cows eat grass. I see this all the time driving up and down I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley – the cows out in the fields chewing their grass. But the grass also needs nurturing, and it receives this from the soil, from the rain, and from the sun. So we can see that the next food or drink that you consume that contains any kind of milk has been nurtured by the earth, the clouds, and the sun. Hopefully, the idea that our food is a gift “from the entire universe” makes more sense now.

To be continued…


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 30th, 2008 09:48 am (UTC)
Your comment about the shrinking portions at Sacramento area restaurants brought to mind another Japanese word that is often associated with "itadakimasu (I humbly receive)": "arigatai (grateful)." The word "arigatai" comes from the combination of "ari- (to have)" and "-gatai (to be difficult)," implying the gratitude we feel when we get something that was not easily obtained. Perhaps smaller portions at US restaurants will encourage us to reflect on the rare luxury many of us enjoy of getting to eat what we want, as much as we want, when we want it. As we become more aware of the fact that the food we eat is a precious commodity obtained with great difficulty, then we might find that we are just as happy eating a quarter-pound rather than half-pound burger the next time we go to Fuddruckers.
May. 1st, 2008 06:30 am (UTC)
Re: Arigatai
Part of me is bummed that the Buddhist meaning behind some common Japanese expressions was never discussed when I was struggling learning Japanese, but at the same time, it was kind of like finding a hidden treasure and got me interested in Japanese again after giving up for several years. Arigatai na!
May. 2nd, 2008 08:10 pm (UTC)
That was very interesting. I did not realize that it was of Buddhist origins.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )