Explanation Of The Five Contemplations At Mealtimes To Retain 食存五观的解释

Let food be thy medicine
and medicine be thy food.

– Hippocrates
(Greek father of medicine)

In most Chinese Buddhist temples, monastics take their meals at ‘The Hall Of Five Contemplations’ (五观堂). Usually, in its centre are the following words put up in a frame, to remind all to reflect upon ‘The Five Contemplations At Mealtimes To Retain’ (食存五观). As we shall see, even though they are guidelines for monastics, they can easily be adapted to be applicable to laypeople too.

The First Contemplation: Calculate how much work [was done by many, from farmers to harvesters, transporters to cleaners, cooks to donors…, for] this amount [of food] to come from other places. (计功多少,量彼来处。) Note: Indeed, we have many to be grateful to, even for small amounts of food. Every mouthful of food should be treasured as it was not easy to come by.

The Second Contemplation: Consider if one’s virtuous conduct, is complete or incomplete to receive this [food] offering. (忖己德行,全缺应供。) Note: Especially as monastics, whose food is made possible through the generous contributions of sincere lay donors, for the very purpose of supporting monastics’ spiritual training to be ever more virtuous ones, there should be reflection on whether one deserves it. For laypeople, food self-acquired should be for virtuous cultivation too.

The Third Contemplation: With guarding of the mind to depart from faults, greed and other [poisons] as the goal. (防心离过,贪等为宗。) Note: As spiritual practice is to always be vigilant against the Three Poisons (三毒) of greed, hatred and delusion (贪嗔痴), it applies when eating too. When with tasty, non-tasty and average food respectively, greed, hatred and delusion should be guarded from. There should be mindful eating with a clear, calm and equanimous state of mind.

The Fourth Contemplation: Properly taking as good medicine, [this food is] for curing the body’s withering state. (正事良药,为疗形枯。) Note: Food and drink should all be regarded merely as essential regular medication, for healing the recurring diseases of hunger and thirst. Just as we only take enough medicine for curing ourselves from other illnesses, likewise should we only eat and drink the necessary amounts for sufficient nutritional energy, without the motivation of indulgence.

The Fifth Contemplation: [Only] for accomplishing the path [to Buddhahood], should there be receiving of this food. (为成道业,应受此食。) Note: The key purpose of nourishing our bodies to stay alive is to do what is the most meaningful, which is to learn and practise the Buddha’s teachings, that lead us to our ultimate goal of complete enlightenment, so as to be able to best guide all others to it too. Without advancing towards liberation, we will remain trapped in rebirth.

Everything we do daily can be part of spiritual practice. Even eating can be with compassion and wisdom, or greed and delusion.

– Stonepeace | Books


With the Five Contemplations, if understood, a thousand jīns of gold are easy to dissolve, with the three minds [of greed, hatred and delusion] yet to end, a drop of water is difficult to digest.

Related Article:

How Should All Aspiring For Buddhahood Eat & Drink?

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