Buddhism (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
BUDDHISM. Buddhism originated in India in the fifth century B.C.E. and from there spread to many lands. The historic Buddha, born around 563 B.C.E., spent most of his eighty years traveling throughout north India preaching the way to salvation by reaching Nirvana and the cessation of rebirths. In some Buddhist traditions, respect for earth deities continues as a reflection of earlier cults of the soil. Animal sacrifices can still be seen in rituals requesting a boon from deities, ancestral spirits, and guardian spirits of localities. Food offerings may be left at stone monuments often containing relics commemorating the life and teachings of the Buddha. But these food practices are not Buddhist.
Buddhism is divided into several branches or ordination traditions. The Mahayana tradition, based on Sanskrit texts, spread into China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. The Buddhism of Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia is also known as Vajrayana. Theravada Buddhism, "the way of the elders," is the form of Buddhism found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. It is based on Pali texts. More recently, Buddhism has spread to Europe, Australia, and North America, where people are converting in large numbers, partly out of interest in Buddhist meditation practices.
Food rituals transmit collective and individual messages about religious principles. Religion influences dietary intake by prescribing or proscribing certain foods, providing ritual foods or meals, and reinforcing key cultural and social values. Unlike Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, Buddhism has less rigid dietary laws defining what people can eat and with whom they can dine. However, fasting and feasting are integral parts of most religious traditions, and Buddhism is no exception. The special foods used in the annual cycle of Buddhist holidays and festivals differ by country. Food is both a marker of religious affiliation and a marker of ethnic identity. It is therefore impossible to identify foods as specifically Buddhist, as opposed to Thai Buddhist or Japanese Buddhist, for example.
In rice-growing Asian communities where Buddhism is practiced, food in rituals reflects the rhythms of food production, including its scarcity or abundance during the year. In some countries, it is possible to see a contrast between ascetic approaches to food (for example, during the rains' retreat from July to October) and festive excess (for example, after harvest in November and December).
Food rites mark changes in personal status as well, serving as temporal boundary markers through the life cycle. Special foods may be prepared for birthdays, weddings, funerals, tonsures, and ordinations, for example, particularly if monks officiate. In Theravada traditions, some of these rituals are Brahmanic in origin and feature rice and milk-based dishes. Harvest celebrations also make confections from foods such as rice, peanuts, sugar,
Dietary abstinence relates to a very widespread idea that giving up something desirable increases spiritual potency. In many religious traditions, food refusal also represents a denial of social relationships, a denial of sociability. Fasting is not central to Buddhist practice except for the monastic community. Most Theravada monks eat only once or twice a day, in the early morning and just before noon, as a part of monastic discipline and their dedication to following the path of the Buddha. The Sanskrit term sambhogakaya refers to the monastic practice of eating together. Theravada monks fast after noon and all night, often joined by pious laypersons who partially withdraw from the lay life of the householder on special holidays.
Monks are expected to show moderation and control in all things, including eating. They are warned that wrong mental states easily come to the surface when collecting or eating food. When Theravada monks go on begging rounds, giving people an opportunity to put food into their bowls, they are expected to show no interest in the qualities of the food and even mix the food donations together.
Chinese Buddhism regulates communal meals as part of monastic discipline. Rather than food being collected from begging or donations as in Theravada communities, food in Chinese monasteries is often prepared at the temple by lay devotees. Mahayana monasteries used to grow their own food to provide vegetables for simple meals with rice or rice porridge. Occasionally lay donors might provide a vegetarian feast to celebrate Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death, or parinibbana, in order to gain merit.
Zen cooking (shojin ryori) is a style of vegetarian cooking developed by Zen monks that acts as an aid to meditation and spiritual life. Food is prepared as a spiritual exercise with attention to balance, harmony, and delicacy. Some Zen and Chinese Mahayana temples practice the three-bowl eating style, making eating a ritual training. The three bowls contain rice, vegetables, and soup. In fact, eating can be a kind of meditationemembering to let go of evil, to cultivate good deeds, and to save sentient beingss each food is put into one's mouth. In such events, food is consumed according to need with no waste and no overconsumption.
Theravada Buddhists believe that by feeding monks they obtain religious merit that assures them of a good rebirth. Laypeople advance on the path to Nirvana by striving for moral purity and doing good works, especially by giving food to the monks. People also believe that giving food to the monks transfers merit to the dead. By going to the temple on the holy day and giving food to the monks, people hope to help their dead relatives who may be wandering the earth as hungry ghosts or living in hell.
Food as Metaphor
Food is often used in Buddhist texts to explain complex ideas in an easily understood manner. Buddhism rejects the asceticism of fasting and denial found in many religious traditions. After the Buddha fasted for six years, he rejected the extreme of starvation as a route to salvation. Instead, he used the experience of eating and digesting food as a means to understand the instrumentality of food. The element of heat transmutes food into body during the process of digestion. Thus, eating is an important metaphor for understanding bodily existence and the transformation of matter and substance. Eating literally makes us human and embodies us.
The Buddhist path is the middle way requiring monks and laity to eat to maintain life and nourish the body but not to cling to the sensual pleasures of eating. In this philosophical interpretation, it is not material substances such as food that block salvation but the craving for them. When Buddhists gain right understanding, they can use this analytical knowledge to guide daily life, as well as for meditation. Food as an object of meditation is a metaphor for the foulness of the body. Monks concentrate on the repulsiveness of food in order to reduce their craving for food. The cessation of craving food is equated with the cessation of the body and the end of the cycle of rebirths.
For the laity, eating, particularly eating rice, is a means of orienting oneself in relation to all sentient beings whose lives are sustained by food and religion. Reciprocal food giving sustains lay communities as well as the monastic community. In general, Buddhist rituals imbue food with sanctity; the sanctity remains in the food after it has been received by the monks. Communal eating is one means of experiencing Buddhist precepts and concepts in a direct and sensory way.
In some Buddhist communities, members of the laity serve monks and the community by preparing and serving food from a communal kitchen. Mahayana services and ritual events are likely to be vegetarian. Most Chinese gods and goddesses are presumed to be vegetarian, but they may be offered meat in an attempt to provide the best, most valued food. Chinese Buddhism honors a number of deities, such as Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. A home altar might contain incense, flowers, tea, and fruit to be consumed later. The Kitchen Goddess helps one eat and drink healthily, and representations of her may be seen in household and restaurant kitchens.
Food given to Chinese deities is considered blessed; its essence is consumed by gods and Buddhas before it is eaten by the worshipers. Following chanting services in many temples, a communal meal is served, which may include beans, bean sprouts, vegetables, fruit, and always rice for prosperity.
Food Distribution in Theravada Communities
Four times in the lunar month, or weekly, the following practices might be seen repeated in Theravada communities throughout the rural areas of Southeast Asia. On a holy day, people bring such food as rice and dishes to eat with rice to the temple. Although the food is the best a household can prepare, people bringing the food cannot taste or even smell the food. A true gift that will gain religious merit must be well intentioned, and only by denying themselves even the smell of the food will the offering bear fruit. The monks chant to accept the food and confer blessings on those who have given food.
At the end of the morning service, after the monks have eaten, the laypeople consume the remaining food offered to the monks. By giving to monks who must follow rules of celibacy and denial, religious merit is increased at a greater rate. Generally, everyone who participates in the service shares in consuming the food that has been accepted or blessed by the monks. Even those who have not contributed food are actively encouraged to share the meal, as if the sharing of food may cause the intention to give generously to arise among all partaking of the meal. Following the meal, participants share the merit accrued from feeding monks with all sentient beings.
Buddhism and Vegetarianism
Buddhism in North America is widely associated with vegetarianism, although not all Buddhists are vegetarian and vegetarianism is not part of canonical Buddhism. This association with Buddhism developed because the key principles of Buddhism include ahimsa, or nonviolence and the avoidance of suffering. Theravada Buddhists in Southeast Asia are not generally vegetarian, although their daily meals may not include much meat. Meat dishes are even given to monks since meat is not explicitly forbidden to them by the rules of monastic conduct. Buddhist texts such as the Majjhirma Nikaya refer to the Buddha eating the proper proportion of curry to rice, experiencing flavor but not greed for flavor.
As more Westerners become Buddhist and as more Buddhist immigrants and refugees settle in North American and European cities, Buddhist vegetarian restaurants have prospered, offering devotees and secular vegetarians an opportunity to consume food exemplifying the Buddhist principle of nonviolence. Practicing Buddhist chefs prepare vegetarian feasts for events such as meditation retreats and cater meals for vegetarian practitioners and health-conscious diners. They may also perform dana, or selfless giving, by providing free food to the hungry.
Values of reciprocity and sharing are extremely important to Buddhists. In the strongly individualized and materialistic communities of North America, it is particularly difficult to maintain models of generosity and reciprocity. Commensalityhe shared meal of Buddhist merit makerss a model of reciprocity, redistribution, and generosity. The act of eating together and sharing each other's food is a concrete and reliable means of establishing a moral community where people know they can develop relations of trust with others and cooperate in joint activities within the domain of religion and in other domains.
See also Fasting and Abstinence: Hinduism and Buddhism; Feasts, Festivals and Fasts; Hindu Festivals; Hinduism; Metaphor, Food as; Religion and Food; Rice; Sensation and the Senses; Southeast Asia; Vegetarianism.
Khare, Ravindra S. The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.
McLellan, Janet. Many Petals of the Lotus: Five Asian Buddhist Communities in Toronto. Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Van Esterik, Penny. "Feeding Their Faith: Recipe Knowledge among Thai Buddhist Women." Food and Foodways 1 (1986): 19715.
Van Esterik, Penny. Taking Refuge: Lao Buddhists in North America. Tempe: Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies; Toronto: York Lanes Press, Centre for Refugee Studies, York University, 1992.
Warren, Henry Clarke. Buddhism in Translations. New York: Atheneum, 1969. Original ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1896.
Penny Van Esterik