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Buddhist Lunch: This Precious Life

A Report by Sofia Walker '11

Ryumon teaches her students about life and cosmology from a Buddhist context while they munch on tasty food.

"What drew you here today?" asked Ryumon Baldoquin, the Zen priest speaking on "This Precious Life: A Buddhist Perspective on Being Human." Then, eyeing the table loaded with pasta, salad, and cookies, "besides the free food, of course." Those seated in the chapel's Bodman Lounge began to offer their reasons: curiosity, hunger for spiritual knowledge, confusion about what it means to be human.

Ryumon began her talk with an overview of Buddhist cosmology. In the Buddhist worldview, the universe is comprised of six realms: the god realm, the realm of jealous demigods, the human realm, the animal realm, the realm of the hungry ghosts and the hell realm. To inhabit the human realm, as we do, is "precious" because it offers us a chance to end the cycle of rebirth into these realms. To illustrate the difference between the unhappy realms of desire and the heavenly realm where reincarnation is no longer necessary, Ryumon told a fable of heaven and hell. Each is a long banquet table piled high with delicacies and surrounded by hungry diners. The only eating utensils, however, are spoons with handles so long that one cannot feed oneself. In hell, each person at the table struggles with the spoons, hungry but unable to eat. In heaven, the diners use the spoons to feed each other.

This led to the theme of compassion. "If you are in touch with what it means to be human," said Ryumon, "you will feel what others are feeling." A staff member at the lunch asked how to be compassionate without overwhelming oneself, how to care about anything without caring about everything. "It's impossible!" said Ryumon.

Everyone walked away from the meal sure of one thing: life is precious because it is not separate from death. "When I first started practicing Buddhism, said Ryumon, "someone asked me, 'Why are you doing this?' I said, 'Because I don't want to die with regrets,' but it never occurred to me that I could be talking about living with regrets, too."