Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

I recently learned three things from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Hong Kong retreat.

The first thing was mindful eating: chew every mouthful thirty times before swallowing (if the food has not yet disappeared). I had known this for decades, but never put into practice. But during communal meals at the retreat, everyone chewed relentlessly. I did not want to be the first one to swallow, so I munched on doggedly. Then it clicked — a sudden enlightenment!

Making an effort to eat healthfully is an unsustainable drag. But to enjoy eating is easy, natural, and hugely gratifying. With intent mastication, fresh and plain foods taste gorgeous. The depth of flavour is fascinating, a wondrous sensation long forgotten since childhood. Carnivores be warned though: Since meat becomes dry and stringy when over-chewed, the practitioner risks turning vegetarian. If you live in a country which suspects environmentalists, rap artists and vegans, do think twice before trying.

Besides gastronomic pleasure, slow eating carries other benefits.

My stomach is now happily satisfied with half the previous intake. Imagine, if everyone gears down at the eating table, we could feed another few billion with the same food production. Traffic will be unthinkably worse though.

Deliberate chewing would also reduce noisy eating. Chomping endlessly with mouth open is difficult. Macerated paste might ooze out and creep down the chin like lava. The world would therefore be a quieter place if everyone eats mindfully.

In my case, however, there is an unfortunate side effect. Probably due to a higher cellulose content in the system, I have become even more flatulent, something that baffles my family. Fortunately, the pungency in my gaseous passage is gone, replaced by a subtle fragrance and earthy aftertaste, redolent of early harvest.

The second thing I learned was the gong-break. In the retreat, a bell was struck periodically. On its reverberating sound, retreatants would drop whatever they were doing to take three mindful deep breaths (unless they happened to be in the toilet). I’d take the opportunity to relax my ears, drop the eyeballs deep back into the sockets, soften the gum and throat. . . 

I now use an on-line bell: when I work. I set it to go off every thirty minutes. 

I was at first a little skeptical about Master Thich’s popular communication techniques. They made some weep, and stirred my cynicism. Then it gonged! What does it matter? He’s trying to share helpful messages with as many as possible. Given the way the world is, he reaches out effectively. Isn’t that the expedient and open approach advocated by the Buddha? 

Great teachers should be result-oriented, more concerned with the students’ receptivity and limitations than their own sagacious image. And I should not judge what I didn't need or appreciate, after having selectively benefited from what I found useful.That was the last insight I gained, through reflection, after Master Thich had gone home with his musical instruments and parables.


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