At Korean Buddhist temples, food is a means of cleansing the mind. Through a meal one seeks to gain peace of mind by abandoning materialistic desires and possessions. A meal at a temple, therefore, is tantamount to spiritual practice to attain a pure mind.
Participants of the Temple Stay program at Naeso Temple in Buan County, North Jeolla Province, eat a formal monastic meal. Some 130 Buddhist temples around the country operate Temple Stay programs providing opportunities for the general public to experience the everyday life of monks and nuns.
As a young child, I would accompany my mother to a temple, about an hour’s walk away. On those occasions, my mother would carry the grains she had grown herself in the paddies and fields to make an offering to the Buddha. For three days before going, she would be very careful about what she ate and excluded all meat. When the day came, she awakened at dawn, washed her hair and bathed herself. She was very meticulous about the process as if she was trying to expel all the negative energy that had attached itself to her body and mind. At the temple, as she prostrated herself before the Buddha, she whispered her wishes.
Although I was so young, the fuss of waking up at dawn to get ready did not bother me. Part of the reason was the temple food. I think my first taste was red bean porridge. Made with rice cooked in the liquid of red beans that had been boiled, crushed and strained, the patjuk was delicious. The sticky rice balls in the shape of bird’s eggs, made of glutinous rice dough, in the porridge were cute and tasty. The memory of receiving a bowl of the porridge and eating it as I sat beside my mother is still relatively clear. Red bean porridge is eaten at temples because it is believed the reddish color repels evil spirits and negative energy and provides protection against unexpected disaster. Aside from the porridge, we sometimes ate noodles (guksu) or hot steamed rice mixed with various greens (bibimbap).
On the whole, however, temple food was a bit flavorless to my childish palate. There was no meat, and the food was neither sweet, nor salty, nor spicy, so the time devoted to eating seemed long and the whole meal rather tedious. It was a long time before I developed a taste for such bland food.
As an adult I found myself going to temples for many reasons. Sometimes it was to speak with elderly priests, sometimes to write a newspaper article about a certain temple, and at other times to take a break from everyday life to rest my body and mind. Returning from the temples, I always felt that my body and mind were cleaner, with my thinking expanded and my worldly desires dwindled.
As my visits became more frequent, I became aware that the housekeeping of any temple consists of a multitude of tasks, which are divided among the monks. One monk is in charge of managing housekeeping overall. Another brews tea while other monks cultivate the kitchen garden, tend to the drinking water, light heating fires, and cook meals. They all perform these duties and many others in orderly fashion.
In terms of food, temples are nearly self-sufficient. Practically everything is obtained through the monks’ labor. There’s a saying handed down at Korean Buddhist temples: “A day without work is a day without food.” On one of my visits to a temple, I found all of the monks with their sleeves rolled up making kimchi. On another day, they were mashing boiled soybeans, shaping them into blocks and hanging them up to ferment and dry.
I remember how surprised I was after reading an article about meditation rooms, which the monks use to concentrate on spiritual practice. I fell into self-reproach, thinking of the outsized scale and scope of my possessions. Every summer and winter, Korean monks gather at meditation centers at temples, called seonwon, for a three-month retreat. During this period, the temples take special care to ensure that the monks can fully devote themselves to spiritual practice.
According to the article, the rules stipulate that the head be kept cool and the feet warm, and food be eaten until one is only about 80 percent full — never completely full. The amount of food eaten astounded me; the amount of staple grain only comes to one bowl or about 15 ounces per person per day. They eat porridge for breakfast, cooked rice for lunch, and mixed-grain rice for dinner. For side dishes they mostly eat vegetables and occasionally have a taste of bean curd, laver, or sea mustard. It is an extremely simple diet. Moreover, they never eat between meals.
A Mind Devoid of Greed
One of the Buddhist monks most respected by Koreans is the late Venerable Seongcheol (1912–1993). The sayings that he left behind, such as “Look properly at yourself,” “Help others without others knowing about it” and “Pray for others,” are clear and simple with deep resonance. For eight years, he engaged in the meditative practice known as “long sitting without lying down,” which means he never laid down to sleep. And for 10 years, he never left the precincts of his temple. When he died, all that he left behind were his monastic robe, worn out and patched over and over, a pair of black rubber shoes and a walking stick. His diet mirrored his life. A long-time associate of Seongcheol described the way he ate as follows:
“The Venerable Seongcheol had very simple meals. He had a salt-free diet, so there was no need to go to any pains to properly season the food. The only side dishes he ate were five or six sprigs of mugwort, five slices of carrot about 2–3mm
thick and a spoonful of beans boiled in soy sauce. The main part of the meal was a child-size serving of rice and soup containing julienned potato and carrot. For breakfast, he would eat half a bowl of rice porridge.”
In sum, the Venerable Seongcheol’s meals stressed the minimal. Though he ate the leaves, stems and fruit of plants, he limited the amount and never ate enough to feel full. One wonders whether it was enough food for him to stay healthy. He treated each meal as medicine for spiritual practice and only ate enough to sustain his body. He believed that to desire food was to think like a thief. Moreover, as desire for food leads to laziness, he was vigilant against temptation.
At most temples the front-gate pillar is inscribed with these words: “When you enter the temple through this gate, throw away all that you know.” This is an injunction to cast aside all discrimination, conceit and ill feelings. Buddhist temples are places for cleansing the mind. If that is the case, what does the mind look like after cleansing? What is an inverted mind when it is corrected? It is a mind that is broad, clean, truthful, respectful of other forms of life, generous, and free from desire. To achieve such a mind, we must simplify everything related to our food, shelter and clothing. This tradition has been maintained over the ages, and whenever it faced the danger of decline or collapse, monks have mobilized themselves and responded. To restore the monastic community to a clean state, they have engaged in self-purification. Drawing water, chopping firewood and sowing seeds in the fields to ensure the self-sufficiency of temples are the tasks that are instrumental to self-purification.
Certain rules govern the meals at temples where the ingredients are limited and small portions are the norm. Meals must be eaten in silence, so idle talk is not allowed. The entire focus is on the act of eating. In this respect, the morning meals I had at Woljeong Temple on Mt. Odae in Gangwon Province or at Hwaeom Temple on Mt. Jiri in South Jeolla Province were a very special experience. On a morning when the cold of winter whipped sharply around my body, I ate my meal of rice and a few side dishes in total silence. I concentrated on eating and I saw my naked body and clean mind chewing and accepting the food. And suddenly, I thought, “What does it mean for me to be born and to live in this world?” Tears welled up in my eyes.
On a morning when the cold of winter whipped sharply around my body,
I ate my meal of rice and a few side dishes in total silence.
I concentrated on eating and I saw my naked body and clean mind chewing
and accepting the food.
Also an important part of Temple Stay programs, the Buddhist tea ceremony involves drinking tea while listening to a sermon, which is followed by a discussion session. It is a rare opportunity for the general public to come into close contact with the monks living at mountain temples.
Rules for Meals
“Admonitions for New Monks” (Gye chosim hagin mun) is a book written by the Goryeo era monk Jinul (1158–1210) that gives monks instructions on life in the monastery. It mentions meal etiquette:
“During meals, make no sound as you drink and chew your food, make sure you are careful when picking up and putting down food, don’t hold your head up and look around, don’t favor tasty food and dislike food that is not tasty, eat silently without speaking and without letting idle thoughts come into your head, and realize that receiving food and eating it is the way to stop your body from wasting away and to attain awakening.”
For everyone, whether monastic or layperson, a meal at a temple is hardly anything but mind practice. Occasionally, temples prepare special food for monks. I have been fortunate enough to taste those special treats on several occasions. On muggy summer days, these treats include noodles or dough flakes in soup (sujebi) made with potatoes, or cooked glutinous, sticky rice (chapssalbap). Noodles are especially popular with monks at temples. Just hearing the word fills their faces with glee.
Of the temple food that I have eaten, particularly memorable were radish that had been salted down in autumn, removed on a summer day and splashed with a little cold water (jjanji); soybean paste soup made with squash leaves picked before the first frost (hobangnip doenjang guk); side dishes made with dried radish tops; and lotus and burdock roots boiled in soy sauce or deep-fried. At one temple I was given some scorched rice, which I took home and boiled in water. I can still clearly remember the taste.
The Spirit of the Food
Besides the food, I like the tea that the monks serve. On a spring day years ago, when I visited Silsang Temple in Namwon, North Jeolla Province, a monk working in the fields greeted me warmly and offered me a cup of green tea with a small plum blossom bud floating on top. The scent of the tea is still with me.
These days, temple food is growing increasingly popular. It is good that people are trying not to overeat and to suppress cravings for processed foods. It is also good to see that restaurants serving temple food are appearing in the middle of cities, and that people are learning how temple food is cooked and have even begun preparing it at home.
Fundamentally, a meal at a temple is a meal where the ingredients are obtained from other living beings but in a way that harms them as little as possible. That is why meat is banned. It is written in the sutras that “all soil and water are my past bodies, and fire and the wind are my substance.” From this the Buddhist view of the food that we eat can be surmised.
From time to time, when I feel that my inner self is like a mirror covered in dust, when I feel my desires grow too big and insatiable, I head to a temple in the mountains to meditate. With a plain and simple meal before me, I gaze repentantly at my greedy, worldly thoughts that spread before me like a vine. As I sit in a clean place in a temple and think calmly, I eventually cast aside the wildness of desire.