Buddhism began with a meal. Having abdicated the lap of royal luxury to seek the meaning of life, the Shakya prince Gautama Siddhartha wandered the wilderness with a band of ascetic extremists, wasting away until his limbs “were like the knotted joints of withered creepers” and his ribs pierced his skin. “Now I can claim to have lived on a single bean a day,” he later told a disciple, “on a single sesamum seed a day—or a single grain of rice a day. . . .” Yet, rather than glorify the success of this austerity, Gautama went on to report: “Never did this practice . . . or these dire austerities bring me to the ennobling fits of superhuman knowledge and insight.” The disappointing self-mortification brought him instead to accept a small offering of boiled milk with honey. As every biography emphasizes, reinvigorated by physical energy and a sense of well-being, he then sat down under the Bodhi tree and began the meditation that turned him into Buddha, “the awakened one,” a man who forever changed the world.
Because Buddhism has no savior gods but rather a path to enlightenment paved by personal behavior, Buddhism more than any other religion (except, arguably, esoteric Manichaeism) is concerned with what and how human beings eat. “Anyone who has tried to meditate,” the late Buddhist scholar Edward Conze noted, “must have observed that the weaknesses and disturbances of the body are apt to interfere with continuous meditation.” But the idea of purifying oneself of greed, anger, and ignorance through the willful control of behavioral impulses has always held powerful sway over seekers in all traditions.
Indeed, almost fifteen hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha, the great Tibetan Buddhist yogi Milarepa lived in a cave and tried eating only scavenged nettles until he deemed such dire fasting a futile avenue to awakening. The only result was that his skin turned green. Horrifying bronzes of a severely emaciated Buddha still sit in Asian monasteries as warnings against despising or ignoring the fleshly body.
When Gautama began his spiritual quest by engaging in extreme forms of fasting, he was doing no more or less than following the customs of the wandering holy men of his day. But he rejected this in favor of “the middle way.” His subsequent teachings incorporated detailed instructions on diet, and appropriate etiquette for the taking of meals. This attention to the body, to the strength and physical well-being of the seeker, was a radically new approach at a time when the prevailing spiritual path demanded the subjugation of bodily needs to discipline and willpower. Introducing what we may now call a “holistic” view of body and mind, the Buddha’s view had far-reaching ramifications. It has been suggested that many aspects of Chinese herbal healing remedies, for instance, developed in part because Buddhist missionaries, like many missionaries since, found that they made more converts by helping the sick than by arguing fine points of theology.
Chinese and, equally, Tibetan medicine (the latter a specifically Buddhist study) are based on balancing the humors of the body—bile, phlegm, and wind—through the metabolic process. For example, particular mushrooms, concoctions of roots, or potpourris of herbs are used for the restoration of harmony, or healing. In the way Chinese medics in America recently prescribed eating a stew of almonds, lily buds, and a particular pear to combat my winter bronchitis, and in the way Indians ingest hot curries to cool the body through sweating, early East Asian Buddhists subscribed to a diet of steamed and boiled, spiceless vegetables because it was known to “cool” the body. Such simple meals were digested quickly without inflaming body temperature, which was deemed appropriate to calm a mind for meditation. In the fourteenth century, the Soto Zen patriarch Keizan Jokin described this method of restoration in his work Zazen Yojinki, “Precautions to Observe in Zazen,” which admonishes meditators to eat two-thirds of their capacity, consuming rice with particular pickled/acidic vegetables and alkaline seaweeds, foodstuffs that accompanied Zen’s transmission to America.
Abhidharma logic makes alcohol anathema to Buddhists because it dulls the mind; abstinence from intoxicants is one of the five major vows an ordained Buddhist must take every morning. On the other hand, the same logic makes caffeine the drug of choice for those committed to focusing the mind; a cup of tea is still the first thing a visitor to any Buddhist monastery is offered. “It could have been any beverage—examine the relationship of coffee to Islam, wine to Christianity—but . . . it was tea that came to be most closely associated with Buddhism,” Rand Castile writes in The Way of Tea. Chinese legend traces the origin of tea drinking in that land to its Buddhist saint Bodhidharma, who upon discovering that he had fallen asleep during meditation, was said to have immediately cut off his eyelashes; falling to the ground, they sprang back up as tea bushes. Tea was a stowaway on Buddhism’s travels from the Middle Kingdom to Japan and, more recently, to the United States, where its consumption is creating new taste trends, especially for green tea and Indian spiced chai.
What we Americans know as tofu allegedly originated when Chinese converts to Buddhism tried to please their Indian teachers by catering to their eating habits. They had to solve the dilemma of how a lactose-intolerant people could produce dishes that appeared to contain yogurt and paneer, a curd cheese favored by Indians. Cleverly, they seized upon an obscure local invention, soy-bean curd, which ably imitated both. Dofu, as the Chinese call it, started its journey to our local supermarkets as a prized monastic dairy substitute and evolved into a monastic meat substitute when a new generation of Chinese Buddhists, more fiercely devout than their Indian forerunners, interpreted the Buddha’s admonition to do no harm as a mandate for absolute vegetarianism. The Japanese monk Ennin visited a Chinese temple in the 840s and wrote in his diary that wheat cakes and dumplings were the special fare cooks created to greet important guests or to serve as the fancy food at feasts, replacing meat.
It’s uncertain whether we therefore owe steamed buns and potstickers to the Buddha, but we do know that during this period, Chinese monasteries doubled as inns for travelers and pilgrims and were thus the country’s first public restaurants.
So in the Sung dynasty, when real restaurants began to open inside cities, temple kitchens were all they had for reference, and their menus proudly featured what was called “temple food,” dishes cooked in the style of Buddhists. Buddha’s Delight and other vegetarian specialties, including many of the tofu variations found in your local Chinese restaurant, were on those menus a thousand years ago.
The opposite of starvation is indulgence, and in the Dhammapada we read, “The man who is lazy and a glutton, who eats large meals and rolls in his sleep like a pig which is fed in the sty, is reborn again and again.” A surprisingly large portion of the Vinaya’s two hundred and fifty rules advocate a proper way to eat. “A lot of things are based on this idea of eating food properly,” the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught his American students, “which is how to behave as a basically decent person.” The Vinaya, for instance, proscribes such wanton behavior as eating out of turn, hoarding food, and putting in your mouth food that has not been offered.
The Vinaya is also responsible for the difference in the way Western and Eastern food comes to the table. The Buddha was a pacifist whose first precept, still the first vow made by every Buddhist, is not to take or harm life. A thousand years after his lifetime, new Chinese converts, taking his proscription seriously, created an auxiliary disciplinary code to the Vinaya, called the Fan Wan King, which added a ban in their country on owning or wielding swords, clubs, knives, or any object that might kill a living being. Still, they had to eat. By necessity a chef was permitted one knife, which was confined to the kitchen and used to prevent the need for any other implement of violence. It is for this reason that we find so much preparatory chopping involved in the making of a Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese meal; East Asian food evolved to bite-sized tidbits that could be nabbed with chopsticks. The absence of knives among people sitting down to share a meal signals not only the absence of aggression but also how unnecessary it is. Our Western way of serving a slab of meat or half a chicken is so frowned upon that even modern Thais, who have adopted silverware, do not set places with anything but a fork and spoon. Their unwritten cooking rule is that each morsel of meat or fish must be prepared so that when eaten with half a spoonful of rice it makes a complete mouthful.
The Vinaya also specifies when and when not to eat. The right time is when the day is light enough to see the lines on the palm of the hand; the wrong time is between high noon and dawn the next morning. A maximum of two meals may be taken during the right time. The supposed advantages of this schedule are a large block of time free from thinking about the next meal, a lightness of body that means not waking with a food hangover, and freedom for the laity from having to prepare extra evening meals for holy passersby.
Just as the Buddhist pursuit of self-control delineates right and wrong times to eat, it defines right and wrong foods. Determining the category of a specific food requires a simple test: does it promote pleasure in and thus craving for and attachment to eating? “For food, let them eat what they wish, but let them not taste the poison of enjoyment” is among the tantric sayings of Tibet. The practice of “one taste,” or nondiscrimination among foodstuffs, takes many forms: the happy acceptance of whatever lands in the begging bowl of South Asian monks; the Chinese practice of banning onions, garlic, chives, and leeks because these are “adored foods”; and the Japanese Zen instructions that the cook should not handle plain food carelessly and rich food carefully but should see the Buddha in a cabbage. As Zen Master Dogen said, “The many rivers which flow into the ocean become the one taste of the ocean. . . . There are no such distinctions as delicacies and plain food . . . just one taste.” All ingredients are thus generally equal in Asian cooking.
It is often presumed that meat is a “wrong” Buddhist food, but the Buddha, in his insistence on “one taste,” consumed meat when it was offered. The canon contains his response to his cousin Devadatta’s question about whether or not monks should abstain from eating meat: “The eating of flesh that is pure in three respects, that is to say, that the eater has not seen, heard, nor suspected that it has been killed especially for him, is allowable.” The Buddha also reputedly said that the evils of ill conduct are far more harmful than eating meat. Accounts of his death stress how the infirm and aged holy man saved the life of his disciples by reserving for himself the spoiled pork innocently offered by a nobly intentioned donor.
Shakyamuni’s only known prohibitions on carnivorism are for fish or meat that has not been cooked (purified), or the meat of dogs, snakes, tigers, hyenas, elephants, panthers, lions, horses, and human beings. The actual taboo he propagated—doing harm—was revolutionary at a time when new iron-weapon technology had increased tribal warfare, excessive animal sacrifice, and peasant cruelty. Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of this taboo during the lifetime of the Buddha was the Indian cow, for Shakyamuni’s doctrine of “no harm” called into question the orgiastic Rig Veda cow sacrifices occurring around him.
The brahmins’ ritualistic extermination of cows for their feasting pleasure had created widespread peasant famine by destroying the most productive agricultural tool in all of India. The Zebu cow was the best plow animal, the single source of dairy nourishment and dung for cooking fuel, and did not compete with human beings for food. Although we cannot say for certain whether or not the sacred cow policy began with the Buddha—some argue that it was a development of the Jain sect, a religious movement contemporary with the Buddha that also emphasized non-killing—the policy nonetheless grew in popularity so rapidly that it forced brahmins to reverse their practices from extermination to conservation in order to survive politically. To this day, Indian food does not contain beef.
The relative prosperity that followed India’s adoption of the “no harm” precept propelled the idea of the sacred cow abroad as part of Buddhism. The Chinese applied it to their bovines, which they viewed as indispensable agricultural servants, and the veneration of cows became so institutionalized in succeeding generations that even the most vociferous adversaries of Buddhism among the ruling elite of the late 1800s were vigorously opposed to slaughtering them for food. “Everywhere we went in Fukien,” a Dutch traveler wrote in 1893 in his diary, “we saw these admonitions [against killing cows] posted in cities and towns along the roads and on the bridges. Many have the characters arranged to form a buffalo surrounded by urgent warnings.” Killing cows was a punishable crime, and enforcement of the law was so energetic that an attempt to purvey beef to Western embassies provoked a major diplomatic scandal. A century later, Chinese cooking still centers around fish, pork, and chicken, although nowadays one can occasionally find Mongolian beef included. The sacred cow also accompanied Buddhism from China to Japan, influencing the latter’s meal preferences for a millennium, until postwar exposure to Western culture encouraged the imitation of Western ways, and beef was added, albeit tentatively, to Japan’s culinary repertoire.
Chinese Buddhists took the Buddha’s admonitions one step further, forbidding consumption of any meat or what the rulebook calls “the flesh of any living being”; even the act of encouraging others to kill or eat meat was forbidden. Perhaps this ban was a tempering response to the fact that the Chinese historically had no food taboos whatsoever. Liang dynasty edicts for the preservation of fish and fowl were revitalized during the T’ang dynasty, the very time new Japanese converts were busy importing Buddhism to their islands. Zen Buddhism thus started out associated with vegetarianism, a dietary regimen popularized in America after Zen Buddhism captured the countercultural imagination.
As the simple story of the Buddha’s newly full stomach indicates, without food we have no clear mind or strong body with which to perceive and understand reality. The central daily rite of lay Buddhism throughout Asia is therefore the offering of food to monks, Buddhas on a shrine, or lower beings in the wild. In Tibet a family ritually renews its links to the world of which it is a part: after a ceremony in front of its shrine, the family sits down to tea, and each member, upon being served, sprinkles a few drops in the direction of the four compass points as a symbolic offering to all beings. In Thailand, a pitcher of water is placed in front of the house for the benefit of thirsty travelers, and more rice than required is prepared in case someone unexpected should arrive. “Generosity,” a Tibetan Buddhist meal prayer says, “is the virtue that produces peace.”
Many, if not most, of Asia’s seemingly idiosyncratic food ways evolved from Buddha’s first meal, whether it is the Tibetan policy of subsisting on large animals so that it only takes one death to lengthen their lives, or the Burmese practice of selling only cracked eggs to gain the merit of saving a customer’s soul because truly virtuous Buddhists would never “kill” a potentially living being by breaking the shell themselves. With the world fast becoming an interconnected village, perhaps more of these food-related mores will soon take their place beside our tea, tofu, chopsticks, and curry powder, adding to the Buddha’s delight. ▼
Sandra Garson, a student of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, is a freelance writer and editor. Her fascination with the psychology of food once led her into catering and then into the study of food history at Harvard University’s Radcliffe College.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.