There’s a bit of Zen liturgy called the “Five Reflections” or “Five Remembrances” that is chanted before meals; it’s sort of the Zen version of saying grace. There are a number of translations of the reflections floating around, but they all boil down to this:
First, reflect on all the work that went into putting the meal on the table. This goes beyond just the cooking. There are grocers and truckers and farmers and suppliers of farmers. And all of those people are sustained by food provided by other cooks and grocers and truckers and farmers and suppliers. And don’t forget the non-human creatures represented on the table, from the turkey to the dairy cows and even the bees who make pollination possible. If you think about it, you realize the food in front of you represents a huge web of relationships that spreads across the globe.
Second, reflect on whether you are contributing to the greater good with your own life, and if the work you do is sustaining other people as much as their work sustains you.
Third, reflect on not being greedy.
Fourth, reflect on what food is really about — keeping us alive and healthy.
Fifth, reflect on “attaining the Way,” or realizing enlightenment.
If you want to adapt any part of these for “grace” today, feel free.
One of the things I like about the Reflections is that it reminds us we are not just passive recipients of God’s Blessings, but that we have received what we need to stay alive through the work of countless people. Further, we have a moral duty to contribute to others in return. In other words, it’s a reflection on how interconnected we all are and that we all depend on each other.
There’s an attitude that because we pay money for things like food, clothing, and utilities, we are not dependent on others. But money is just a handy means to facilitate the exchange of goods and services that we need and don’t provide for ourselves. Just imagine if you had to barter with the electric company to keep the juice on (and would they accept chickens?).
When most people in a society are able to contribute their labor and talents in the web of interconnection, and when the work of providing for each other is unimpeded, that society is healthy and probably prosperous. But when there are barriers to people contributing their labors and talents, that society is in trouble.
Poverty itself is a huge barrier, because people without the money to buy the goods and services they need burn much of their time and energy begging, bartering, worrying, and stealing — or doing without. In a society that depends on money to exchange goods and services, the very poor are not just unfortunate; they easily can become incapacitated.
Few opportunities come without some kind of price tag, even if it’s just the cost of transportation and a haircut. And sometimes there are no opportunities within reach. If a person is kept down far enough, and long enough, pulling himself up can require almost superhuman strength.
Unfortunately, people who have never been genuinely poor rarely understand how hard it is to climb out of poverty. They also don’t appreciate that keeping other people cut off from opportunity impacts them as well. A society in which increasing numbers of people are barred from opportunity and prevented from contributing is a society that is dying. If it gets dead enough, the spreading rot will eventually reach everyone, even the wealthy.
A rising tide doesn’t necessarily lift all boats (some boats leak, you know). But when the water dries up entirely, even luxury yachts are stranded.
Americans have become steeped in a mythology that we as individuals are entitled to abundance, but other people aren’t, and that we as individuals are completely autonomous and self-sustaining units with no dependence on anyone but ourselves. But this is a fantasy.
And because too many of us are lost in a fantasy, we don’t see the spreading rot, and most probably won’t see it until it reaches them. (And then they’ll complain bitterly that no one acted to stop the rot.)
Sorry if this sounds gloomy, but it’s what I see. In spite of the gloom do enjoy your dinner.