Lunch with the Bengali Tea Boy

When I was in my twenties, I regularly attended Sōtō Zen retreats (also known as “sesshin”). I attended silent retreats of varying lengths from one day to a week. My favorites are the longer, residential retreats at a zen center. They gave me more time to get settled into the silence of the practice.

During zen retreats, everything is done in a very structured and ritualistic way, including meals. Ōryōki is a meditative form of eating that monks practice in zen monasteries. I learned Ōryōki on retreat and instantly loved it. Every movement, from taking the food and passing the serving dish to the next person to eating the food and cleaning the bowls is done carefully and mindfully. It reminded me of the forms I practiced in martial arts. Each movement was carefully orchestrated and practiced with full intention.

During ōryōki meals, you work together with others as part of the meal. I hold my bowl out and you serve the rice to me and so on. Working in concert with those next to you or across from you in the line helps things run smoothly and allows everyone to stay grounded in the present moment. Well, that’s the intention anyway. Reality doesn’t always go as smoothly, even during ōryōki.

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There was one multi-day retreat when I was paired with someone who, for whatever reason, just didn’t seem to be practicing ōryōki with the same level of dedication as I was. He would do things out of order, place his bowls in his own unique way and didn’t even seem to try to wrap things up correctly at the end of the meal. Even the way he sat and ate seemed casual and even, dare I say it? Lazy.

I was silently, mindfully fuming. After the first day, assuming he was new to it and giving him a “pass” (in my mind), I found myself feeling more and more frustrated with each day. My frustration would spark into anger at him for wasting my precious retreat time by fooling around with ōryōki. I would lay on my mat in my room in the zendo, writing pages of journals about this, filled with contempt and judgment.

At some point, it hit me: this man was my Bengali Tea Boy of ōryōki! There is a Tibetan Buddhist story that has always stuck with me as reminder to be grateful for everyone, especially those who challenge us. Pema Chödrön told a short version of the story in her book “Start Where You Are:”

When the great Buddhist teacher Atisha went to Tibet . . . he was told the people of Tibet were very good-natured, earthy, flexible, and open; he decided they wouldn’t be irritating enough to push his buttons. So he brought along with him a mean-tempered, ornery Bengali tea boy. He felt that was the only way he could stay awake. The Tibetans like to tell the story that, when he got to Tibet, he realized that he need not have brought his tea boy: the people there were not as pleasant as he had been told…

Pema Chödrön – Start Where You Are

The idea of a “Bengali Tea Boy” is short-hand in Buddhism for a person who pushes your buttons, “helping” you to practice kindness and patience. Once I decided that my ōryōki partner was an opportunity for me to practice, rather than a distraction from my practice, I was able to cool my anger and frustration and not stew on it for hours after meal time. I realized that I wasn’t the one to judge his practice and find it lacking. Instead, I focused on my own practice of patience and compassion throughout the retreat, including meal time. In a lot of ways, that ōryōki partner was a great teacher for me, someone who helped deepen my practice and I am grateful to him now, where ever he might be.

Now that I’m a parent, I find myself often pulling on the lessons I learned on that retreat with that ōryōki partner. Family life is hard, we often push each other’s buttons whether we mean to or not. But, as long as we love each other, it’s possible to take those irritations as opportunities to practice being the kind and patient person we want to be in our lives.

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