For Buddhist monks, the foremost purpose of taking food is to use its nourishment to share their awakening with all beings in this world and beyond. Therefore, eating is not for the pleasure of the taste buds or the satiation of hunger; eating is itself a part of spiritual practice carried out through mendicancy (takbal) and the formal monastic meal (baru gongyang).
A formal monastic meal consists of rice, soup, a few simple side dishes and water, which are contained in four wooden bowls placed on a square cloth.
When not in use, the individual bowls of monks are kept on shelves.
In the time of Sakyamuni, the Historic Buddha, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded, Buddhists had a moderate view of eating that did not renounce reasonable consumption of food or the pursuit of good flavor. This differed from other native Indian religions like Brahmanism, which preached extreme abstinence from the intake and enjoyment of food, and Jainism with its practice of severe austerities and self-mortification. Even so, in the early Buddhist tradition, monks were prohibited from eating after noon, which led them to suffer from hunger and posed a constant risk for the violation of precepts. To deal with this problem, the monks practiced mendicancy and other eating rituals.
The Early Rules
Indian Buddhist monks, who relied on alms for their daily food, would take whatever lay donors had to give. This method of obtaining food helped them to resist gastronomic desires. The monks also had their own rules to control their food consumption. “Alms round and taking meals,” one of the 13 precepts in the code of conduct for ordained male monastics, or bhikkhus, stipulated that they stop eating after one bowl, or one meal, each day. When begging for alms, they had to take whatever was offered at the first house that they came across, whether wealthy or poor.
For the monks, it was also against the precepts to ask for a specific food that would satisfy their tastes or to receive food more than once or in excessive amounts. They believed that mental discipline was the key to ridding themselves of greed, and that such discipline must focus not on the object, the food, but on controlling the senses and the awareness of what caused their desire for food. Today’s most well-known version of this discipline would be “mindful eating,” proposed by the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
East Asian Zen Buddhism has a different view of food compared to early Indian Buddhism, which prohibited all food production activities by monks, including farming, on the grounds that it might lead to killing lives. In the same vein, cooking and storing foodstuffs were not allowed, either. Zen Buddhism, on the contrary, considers productive labor as part of the monks’ discipline, as implied by the dictum, “A day without work is a day without food.” The storage of food is also allowed, and the monks prepare their own meals. Based on these principles, China’s monastic vegetarianism (sucai), Japan’s devotion cuisine (shojin ryori) and Korea’s temple food (sachal eumsik) have formed distinct elements of East Asian Buddhist culture.
Labor of Monks
As a branch of this tradition, Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhism has a similar view of eating. It acknowledges the significance of both the flavor and quantity of food as nourishment for the body and mind, and this attitude is reflected in the concepts of the “three virtues in foodstuffs” and the “six tastes of food.” The concept of the “three virtues” maintains that foodstuffs should be: 1) salutary, promoting sound bodily functions; 2) clean in terms of both hygiene and edibility; and 3) in accordance with the Buddhist law, which prohibits the consumption of meat and the five pungent vegetables — garlic, scallions, wild chives, allium and asafoetida. This concept, which manifests a positive view of cooking and realistic approach to foodstuffs, serves as a practical reference for Korean temple food.
The concept of the “six tastes” supposes that all food falls in one of six taste categories: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and insipid. Similar categories are found in other cultures, including the four tastes identified by Aristotle — sweet, sour, salty and bitter — and the five tastes of traditional Chinese cuisine — sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy. While these classifications assume that each taste has equal status, Korean Seon Buddhism lays more weight on insipidity, a fundamental taste embracing the individual qualities of all the different tastes of ingredients to produce a well-balanced flavor.
The food prepared according to these rules is eaten in the ritual of baru gongyang, or the formal monastic meal. Being a collective meal, the food does not cater to the preferences of individual monks but is prepared uniformly with ingredients available according to season, circumstances and the above rules on the virtues and tastes. So, while it may be difficult for monks to satisfy their personal tastes, together they can enjoy the natural flavors of food made with seasonal produce grown in clean air and water.
It is a rule to consume all the food in the bowl without leaving even a grain of rice or a speck of red pepper powder. By doing so, the monks control their desires in terms of the amount or taste of the food.
The nuns at Bongnyeong Temple in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, chant their vows before starting a meal. Throughout their meal, the monks would chant three more verses to share their food with all living beings in this world and beyond.
The Path to Awakening
The mealtime ritual begins with putting the right amount of food into the bowls of each individual. When the food is served, the monks can either ask for more or take some out of their bowls depending on how much they can eat. It is a rule to consume all the food in the bowl without leaving even a grain of rice or a speck of red pepper powder. By doing so, the monks control their desires in terms of the amount or taste of the food. As a daily routine as well as a religious ritual, this mealtime custom is commonly practiced in East Asian Buddhist communities, but in content and practice the Korean version embodies its own ideas and rules.
Referring to the wooden bowls used in the dining ritual, baru is patra in Sanskrit. Buddhist legend has it that the patra was presented to the Sakyamuni Buddha by the Four Heavenly Kings when they saw he had nowhere to hold the food offered by two merchants after he had attained enlightenment. From then on, Buddhist monks have used patra as a bowl for begging and eating food. Currently, under Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia, a single bowl is used for every meal, but in Korea a set of four bowls is used, one each for cooked rice, soup, water and side dishes. They are made of metal, ceramics, or wood, and in Korea mostly wooden ones are used. It is a custom in Indian Buddhism for novice monks to prepare their own monastic robes (kasaya) and patra, but in East Asian Zen Buddhism, they are passed down from patriarchs to disciples who are recognized as their Dharma successors.
The pre-meal chant, called the “Five Stanzas of Insight” (Ogwange), demonstrates that baru gongyang is not merely a way of taking meals, but one of the most important monastic rituals:
Reflecting on the effort that went into making this meal
I feel that I am not virtuous enough to take this food.
Casting aside desire and delusion
Regarding it as medicine for the body
And working to attain awakening, I accept this food.
The food offered to the monks is not for them alone. Consequently, after reciting the pre-meal chant they take seven grains of rice out of their bowls for the beasts, birds and insects. It means that taking a meal is not an individual undertaking for the monks, but a communal event with other living beings.
After finishing the food and rinsing the bowls, the monks clean their bowls, spoon and chopsticks with a dishtowel and tie them with a cloth band with the knot arranged vertically.
A Communal Meal
Furthermore, the food is shared not only with earthly beings like humans and animals, but also with beings in the other world, including dead parents, grandparents and other relatives. This idea is expressed by reciting three different verses (gatha) for the dead throughout the meal. The food is shared by remembering all the living beings in the realm of sensuous desire, including humans, animals and inhabitants of the netherworld, and by invoking the names of the ten Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who reside in the higher realms.
At the end of each meal, the bowls are washed with water without a single speck of food left behind, except for some water for the hungry ghosts (agwi) that is gathered in a collective bowl. According to Buddhist beliefs, the ghosts are permanently suffering from hunger and thirst, but their throats are so narrow — narrower than the eye of a needle — that they are unable to swallow even a grain of rice or red pepper powder. Aside from leaving some drops of water for the poor creatures, baru gongyang is concluded by completely consuming the food received.
Furthermore, the food is shared not only with earthly beings like humans and animals, but also with beings in the other world, including dead parents, grandparents and other relatives.