The Wheel of Food: Together Eat, Together Die

by on Apr 17, 2015Zen Master Gu Ja

Not long ago, I asked one young resident woman at the Zen Center Berlin, Sophie Vandenkerchove, to give an introductory dharma talk. Since we both share a passion for making kefir, I suggested she talk about the fermentation process. She happily agreed and gave a beautiful speech about bodhisattva bacteria:

Since my wish to keep a pet at the Zen center could not be met, I am happy now to own kefir grains to raise. A kefir grain is a mixture of yeast and bacteria. It is white in color and has the shape of a mini-walnut. It needs to be fed with milk and must be kept in a warm place to feel well and to grow. So I take care of them. While they are growing, a process of fermentation takes place. At the same time, something good happens to me: I get this delicious and nutritious kefir drink! These kefir grains most probably don’t think, “We want to keep clear mind and help other beings.” They are just naturally helpful, while they are doing what they do. And they do it without wanting to be someone or something else. Through them I realize the meaning of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching: “If you are clear, you help the whole universe.” And thanks to them, I hear Zen Master Seung Sahn asking me strongly the question: “Why do you eat every day?”


Kefir grains are complete as they are and in what they do. We are the same, so long as we do not make anything special. So at this point everything is just simple and clear: If you are hungry, what do you do? Eat. If someone is hungry, then what? Give food to this person. Thus, eating food is dharma, and giving someone food is dharma.
So why is food considered one of the obstacles that binds us to suffering?
We certainly all need food to sustain our body and mind. This is neither good nor bad. But humans unfortunately become attached to many things, and thus some follow the wheel of food instead of turning the wheel of dharma. What does following the wheel of food mean? It means: I am hungry—I don’t eat. I am not hungry—I eat. If someone is hungry—I keep my food for myself.
We call this attachment not only to food, but also to the idea of an independent being called “I”: I want this food; I don’t want that food. Food for my health, for my body, and everything for me! The whole universe becomes our stomach. The more we eat, the hungrier we get, hungry not only for food but also for love, appreciation, satisfaction and so on. Here we run wild like a gerbil in a wheel, and there is no stopping, and there is never enough.
How big is the pile of shit we produce in our lifetime? It is indeed our choice whether we ferment and transform our food into humus—from which flowers of insight and compassion can grow—or whether we make only a stinking pile of pollution.
This choice starts with why and with what mind we eat food. A chant that monks and nuns sing in some Zen halls in Korea before each meal, makes this point clear: “As we receive this food, may all sentient beings including ourselves come to realize our true nourishment, which is the happiness of meditation, and to be filled with dharma . . . Food is a medicine for curing the decay of the body. Let us take it for the purpose of perfecting our practice.”1 The food we eat helps us to return to our original true nature. Our practice to find our true nature does not seek to live well and die well, since our true nature is not dependent on life and death. Rather, our practice goes beyond life and death.
Once a student asked Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Sir, let’s say there are several shipwrecked people in a small boat in the vast ocean. They are all starving and only a little food and water is left. What should they do? Who should take the food?” As fast as an arrow Zen Master Seung Sahn answered. “Together eat, together die!”

What is this thing that remains always clear during all times of together eating and together dying? If you attain this point, the whole universe says, “Thank you! Please enjoy your meal!”

1. From Martine Batchelor and Son’gyong Sunim, Women in Korean Zen: Lives and Practices (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005).