I heard my Japanese friend say Itadakimasu before a meal. It seemed like a before-meal blessing, so when all the dictionary offered was: ‘There is no English equivalent for this phrase’, I asked her to tell me what it meant.
I learnt that more than saying, “Let’s eat”, the phrase is often translated as “I humbly receive,” by some, and by others as “I have received from on high.” Japanese Kanji ideograms are open to multiple interpretations, but the real connotation may be said to be, “Bless all the hands of those who cultivated and prepared the food”. So much in a single word!
Masami went on to explain that Itadakimasu is also related to the Buddhist principle of respecting all living things, while helping you remain mindful of the entire process that went into bringing the food to the table. Before meals, Itadakimasu is said as a thanks to the plants and animals that ‘gave their lives’ for the meal you’re about to consume. It also contains thanks to all those involved, ranging from the hunter, farmer, grocer, transporter, seller and the ones in the kitchen who prepared the meal.
Itadakimasu, she told me, is also an attitude that embraces the idea that it is wasteful not to finish what is on your plate. Her parents taught them that if you are really sincere about that Itadakimasu you said, you should eat all your food, since so many had worked hard just so you could be filled and not go hungry.
Not only do people use the term before a meal, but also when they accept something from someone. With the literal translation being, “I humbly receive,” this makes perfect sense. People say it when you give them a gift, or even when they receive a free sample of something at a counter in a store.
At a retreat centre in Thailand, we, as a group, collectively said this prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh: “This food is the gift of the whole universe: the earth, the sky and much hard work. May we live in a way that makes us worthy to receive it. May we transform our own unskilled states of mind and learn to eat with moderation. May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness. We accept this food so that we may realise the path of understanding and love”.
We were also encouraged to keep conversation to a minimum during the meal; rather, we were invited to bring our senses to enjoy the varied colours, aromas, textures and flavours – and this was truly heightened in the absence of chatter.
A modern poet, John Brugaletta, has taken the word and concept, and expanded and woven it into a beautiful poem of gratitude that includes the lines, “I have received water, flowing and pooled, salt and fresh, cold and hot; wind off the ocean, among the trees, over wheat fields; ….”
He includes in his litany sea-creatures, trees, fruit and vegetables in lovely lines and he ends with: “May I never be ungrateful for any shelter, any mouthful of food or sip of water, any friendly gesture, and offer of help, any touch of understanding”.
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