Sunday, March 12, 2017

Korean Temple Food

Characteristics of Korean Temple Food

Temple food refers to the food eaten daily at Buddhist temples. At Buddhist temples, everything is considered a part of practice. From growing vegetables to preparing the food, monks and nuns are directly involved in the whole process. Monastic practitioners make it a point to always be grateful for the efforts of all those involved in the preparation of food. They take only the amount needed for their physical sustenance, leaving no leftover food in their bowls. This distinctive approach to food preparation has been gradually shaped over many centuries, based on a foundation of Buddhist philosophy and practice. Temple food is natural, healthy and also a part of Buddhist life. Even today the 1700-year-old tradition is alive at Korean Buddhist temples.

Food as Practice

Korean temple food does not use any animal products except dairy products. Korean Buddhism forbids meat. The Buddha said in the Nirvana Sutra, "Eating meat extinguishes the seeds of compassion." Buddhism teaches that compassion means to embrace all living beings as oneself, and therefore, the dietary culture of Korean Buddhism has always held reverence for life. Korean temple food has also traditionally meant that monks and nuns do not use five pungent vegetables (onions, garlic, chives, green onion and leeks), these are called the "oshinchae", because they hinder spiritual practice. The prohibition of the five pungent vegetables is a preventative measure to guard Buddhist practitioners from possible distractions during meditation. In addition, the prohibition is also meant to prevent any attachment to the flavor of strong spices, which may also disturb practice.

These characteristics of temple food show how monastic meals are a means through which Buddhist monks and nuns realize the interdependence of all lives and that they must strive to establish a world where all live together in harmony.

Natural Food

Instead of artificial flavors, Korean temple food uses a variety of mountain herbs and wild greens, which has led to the development of a vegetarian tradition. As most Korean temples are located in the mountains, providing easy access to wild roots, stems, leaves, fruits and flowers, monks and nuns have naturally become leaders in shaping vegetarian culture. Also, natural seasonings and flavor enhancers have been developed. Examples of common natural seasonings used in temples are: mushroom power, kelp powder, jaepi powder, perilla seed powder, and uncooked bean powder. These seasonings are used when making soup stock, kimchi and vegetable dishes, correcting nutritional imbalance and enhancing flavor. Having been used in temples since ancient times, these natural seasonings are emerging in modern times as a powerful alternative to artificial flavorings which may be harmful to one's health.

Preserved Food

Korea has four distinct seasons, and all kinds of vegetables and plants are available beginning in the spring. To keep these vegetables and plants for the winter, monks and nuns developed various techniques for food preservation. Besides the well-known kimchi and jang, other preserved foods include: jangajji, vegetables preserved in soy sauce, red pepper paste and soybean paste; vegetables preserved in salt. The advantage of these preserved foods is that they can be stored for long periods of time with no loss of nutritional value. They also supply nutrients that may be lacking in vegetables.

Fermented Food

A variety of fermented food is made at Korean Buddhist temples. If cheese, yogurt and wine are typical fermented food in the West, those in Korea are kimchi, soy sauce, soybean paste, red pepper paste, rice punch, and pine needle tea.

The various nutritive elements produced through fermentation not only add a savory flavor to the food but also lower the level of cholesterol, have cancer-inhibiting qualities, and guard the human body from many age-related illnesses.

Eco-friendly Health Food

The assorted vegetables and greens used in temple food contain abundant natural fiber as well as carbohydrates and protein. Korean temple food is rich in various nutrients but low in cholesterol. Although strictly vegetarian, temple food lacks nothing in nutrition. It is advisable for anyone to use any or all of the ingredients of temple cuisine in everyday life for healthier lives and to prevent age-related health problems. The popularization of temple food would contribute to a healthier dietary life for Koreans as well as global citizens.


The Spirit of Baru Gongyang

In Korean Buddhism, formal meals are referred to as "gongyang", which literally means "offering". A meal is not only the eating of food, it is a sacred ritual through which we reaffirm our intentions and vows to live a Bodhisattva's life and to reflect on the Buddha's teaching and the work and blessings of all Bodhisattvas, nature, and all sentient beings. Therefore, eating meals is a form of Buddhist practice. Accordingly, meals are carried out in silence and humility.

Baru bongyang is a formal monastic meal in which people eat from a baru (wooden bowl). After the Buddha attained awakening, two lay Buddhists offered him his first meal. At that time, each of the four heavenly kings offered a stone bowl [sic] to the Buddha, from which the Buddha ate and then stacked together. Following this example, disciples of the Buddha also began using four bowls for their meals, creating a tradition that is still practiced today.

Temple meals are carried out in an orderly manner. They are an important part of monastic practice. The meaning contained in baru gongyang is well represented in the verses chanted at each stage of the meal.
  • Participants pay homage to the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas and the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
  • Participants hold their bowls in both hand and chant: "Through this meal offering may all sentient beings regard the joy of Seon (Zen) practice as their food and be filled with the joy of the Dharma."
  • Participants chant the "Pre-meal Chant": "We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it came to us. We reflect on our virtue and practices and whether we are worthy of this offering. We regard greed, anger and ignorance as obstacles to freedom of mind. We regard this meal as medicine to sustain our lives. For the sake of enlightenment we now receive this food." [Verses may vary depending on temple and region but the core remains the same.]

The spirit embodied in baru gongyang has five aspects:
  1. It embodies the spirit of equality. Regardless of one's social or monastic standing, all participants sit together and share the food without any class distinctions, representing the equality of all people.
  2. It embodies the spirit of cleanliness. Each person serves him or herself, therefore, ensuring proper sanitation.
  3. It embodies the spirit of frugality. Each person only takes what he/she can eat and therefore there is no waste. Even after eating, water is used to clean the bowl and then drunk ensuring not a grain of rice or a fleck of pepper powder is wasted. 
  4. It embodies the spirit of community. All monastic food comes from the same pot and is served at the same time, and therefore is eaten together, ensuring a feeling of harmony and solidarity.
  5. It embodies the spirit of merit. As participants are thankful for their health and for the efforts in preparing the healthy food, their eating gives further vow to fulfill their responsibilities and fulfillment of merit for everything in the universe.

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