“Itadakimasu” is one of those interesting Japanese words that doesn’t have an exact counterpart in English. It is usually said before eating a meal. Literally, it means “I receive.” But – and here is where Japanese and English diverge – itadakimasu is the humble form of the neutral form moraimasu, so it might be more accurately said to mean, “I humbly receive.” That’s one clue as to its deeper meaning. The other clue is the kanji that is used: 頂. My favorite online Japanese dictionary, Jim Breem’s WWWJDIC, gives the following for this character: “place on the head; receive; top of head; top; summit; peak.” “Receive” makes sense, but what’s this stuff about the top of the head or placing something on the head?
One place this character can be found is in Junirai, a text attributed to Nagarjuna, the first of the Seven Masters selected by Shinran. Every fourth line of this text repeats “ko ga cho rai mi da son” meaning “Thus I bow my head to Amida” – cho is the same character as in itadakimasu, and rai means to bow. Lowering one’s head and bowing are expressions of deep respect towards someone. This can be seen in the deepest bow: the full five-point prostration where one gets down on the knees, puts the elbows and hands on the ground, and touches the forehead to the floor. (I remember my uncle getting me to do this to my grandmother when I went to visit them in rural Japan decades ago.) But what does it have to do with eating?
Another movement you may see at temple is when we open the sutra book. Not everyone does it, but the ministers do. Before we open it, we hold it up to our head first. This is the lowering of one’s head as a gesture of respect to the words of the Buddha. I have heard it said that when we do this we “itadaku the book,” in other words, we hold it up to our head to express our reverence for the Buddha’s teachings, the words that we have received. So this word itadaku can also be done with bodily action.
Inversely, one of the interesting things about language is that we can sometimes “do” things with words. This idea was propounded by the British philosopher J. L. Austin, in a lecture released as the book, “How to Do Things with Words.” Examples that he gives include the naming of a ship by stating “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” or a priest or minister marrying two people by stating, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” It is the words that perform the action. And it looks to me that itadakimasu is one such word. By saying “itadakimasu,” I symbolically hold what I am receiving up to my head. Maybe we could actually hold up our plate, but it doesn’t really work in Japan because a lot of times the food is in a bunch of small bowls instead of all mixed together on a plate!
But why are we treating our food with such respect? I’d like to answer this with a story about my chanting teacher, Reverend Haruyoshi Kusada. Among other things, Kusada sensei was the chanting teacher for several generations of BCA ministers. Once, at the end of the semester, he took our chanting class out for lunch. After we said “itadakimasu,” one of the students said to sensei: “I asked my Japanese teacher what itadakimasu means, and she said it doesn’t mean anything, Japanese people just say it before they eat.” Kusada sensei looked appalled, and said, “No, it means gratitude to the entire universe.” The student responded with, “No, my teacher said it doesn’t mean anything,” and Kusada sensei again said, “No, it means gratitude to the entire universe.” He then went on to explain: “The food we are eating is plants and animals that gave their lives. And the plants and the animals need the earth, the rain, the sun. All of those things are in the food we are eating, along with innumerable other causes and conditions. So we say thank you to the entire universe by saying itadakimasu.” Those weren’t his exact words, but you get the idea. I still remember many bits of that day, the ride over with Kusada sensei driving us in his van, the restaurant. Of course I forget most of the other parts, but I’m glad that conversation happened and that I still remember it, and of course I am moved thinking about my teacher, Reverend Kusada. Amazing to think that his words continue to resonate in me today.
So during this time of the Coronavirus and social distancing and Stay at Home/Shelter in Place, when the future is uncertain and many things we used to take for granted are now not so easy and convenient, maybe we should try and incorporate itadakimasu into our daily routine. And if we already do it, to do it not out of habit, but to actually try and experience this gratitude. Taking things for granted means that we consume them mindlessly – instead, we can try and be mindful and aware of how special each meal is, each item we eat, down to a single grain of rice. One way to do this is to say itadakimasu each time we eat something. Of course we should also say Namo Amida Butsu, but I think that itadakimasu means and expresses something special that we can incorporate into our routine and that can help us during this difficult time.
This essay is related to the Dharma Message for Sunday, April 26, 2020: