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Buddhist cuisine

Buddhist cuisine is an East Asian cuisine which is followed by monks and many believers from areas historically influenced by Chinese Buddhism. It is vegetarian or vegan, and it is based on the Dharmic concept of ahimsa (non-violence). Vegetarianism is common in other Dharmic faiths such as Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism as well as East Asian religions like Taoism. While monks are vegetarian year-round, many believers follow the Buddhist vegetarian diet temporarily, similar to Christian Lent.

Vegetarian cuisine is known as sùshí (素食) ("vegetarian food"), chúnsù (纯素) ("vegan"), zhāicài (斋菜) ("lent / fasting food") in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan; đồ chay in Vietnam; shōjin ryōri (精進料理, devotion cuisine) in Japan; sachal eumsik (사찰음식"temple food") in Korea; jai (เจ) in Thailand and by other names in many countries. The dishes that comprise Buddhist cuisine in any given place will be influenced by the style of food there.

The origin of "Buddhist food" as a distinct sub-style of cuisine is tied to monasteries, where one member of the community would have the duty of being the head cook and supplying meals that paid respect to the strictures of Buddhist precepts. Temples that were open to visitors from the general public might also serve meals to them and a few temples effectively run functioning restaurants on the premises. In Japan, this practice is generally known as shōjin ryōri (精進料理, devotion cuisine), and served at many temples, especially in Kyoto. A more recent version, more Chinese in style, is prepared by the Ōbaku school of zen, and known as fucha ryōri (普茶料理); this is served at the head temple of Manpuku-ji, as well as various subtemples. In modern times, commercial restaurants have also latched on to the style, catering both to practicing and non-practicing lay people.


  • Philosophies governing food 1
    • Vegetarianism 1.1
    • Other restrictions 1.2
    • Simple and natural 1.3
  • Ingredients 2
  • Variations by sect or region 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • External links 6

Philosophies governing food


Most of the dishes considered to be uniquely Buddhist are vegetarian, but opinions and restrictions on the eating of meat, and whether it should be prohibited, vary among sects.

When monks and nuns who follow the Theravadan way feed themselves by alms, they must eat leftover foods which are given to them, including meat.[1] (The Pali/Sanskrit term for monks and nuns means "one who seeks alms".) The exception to this alms rule is when monks and nuns have seen, heard or known that animal(s) have been specifically killed to feed the alms-seeker, in which case consumption of such meat would be karmically negative.[1][2] The same restriction is also followed by lay Buddhists and is known as the consumption of the "triply clean meat" (三净肉). Additionally, the Pali Sutras where this rule is set forth tell of the Buddha refuting a suggestion by his student Devadatta to include vegetarianism in the monastic precepts.

In the Mahayana tradition, by contrast, acceptance of the Pali Sutras is contested and several of the sutras that comprise the Mahayana canon contain several explicit prohibitions against consuming meat, in one case saying "One who eats meat kills the seed of great compassion". Japanese Buddhist sects generally believe that Buddha ate meat.[3] All Japanese Kamakura sects of Buddhism (Zen, Nichiren, Jodo) have relaxed Mahayana vinaya, and as a consequence, vegetarianism is optional.[4] Tibetan Buddhism believes that tantric practice makes vegetarianism unnecessary.[5] The monastic community in Chinese Buddhism, Vietnamese Buddhism and most of Korean Buddhism strictly adhere to vegetarianism.[4]

Still, both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists consider that one may practice vegetarianism as part of cultivating Bodhisattvas's paramita.[1][4]

Other restrictions

East Asian "Buddhist" cuisine differs from Western vegetarian cuisine in one aspect, that is avoidance of killing plant life. Buddhist vinaya for monks and nuns prohibits harming of plants. Therefore, strictly speaking, root vegetables (such as potatoes, carrots or onion and garlic) are not to be used as this results in the death of the plant. The respective Vinaya forbid the monks and nuns the consumption of mango and garlic. Both prohibitions followed incidents in which monastics harvested more than they could eat in one day. This restriction of not eating garlic and mango is found in both the Theravada vinaya and in that of the Mahayana. The monastic has to follow this rule on all occasions, not just on holidays.

In addition to the ban on garlic practically all Mahayana monastics in China, Japan and Vietnam specifically avoid eating strong-smelling plants, traditionally asafoetida, shallot, and mountain leek, and refer to these as wǔ hūn (五荤, or 'Five Acrid and Strong-smelling Vegetables') or wǔ xīn (五辛 or 'Five Spices') as they tend to excite senses. This is based on teachings found in the Brahamajala Sutra, the Surangama Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra (chapter eight). In modern times this rule is often interpreted to include other vegetables of the onion genus, as well as coriander. This food regime follows that of the Taoists who are bent on[6] the life of asceticism. The East-Asian Buddhist rationale is the same as that of the Taoists. This custom also draws parallels with some believers of Hinduism and Jainism who also do not consume pungent tasting foods.

An example of shōjin-ryōri taken in Kyoto, Japan at the zen temple of Ryōan-ji.
The food that a strict Buddhist takes, if not a vegetarian, is also specific. For many Chinese Buddhists beef and the consumption of large animals and exotic species is avoided. Then there would be the aforementioned "triply clean meat" rule. One restriction on food that is not known to many is the abstinence from eating animal innards and organs. This is known as xiàshui (下水), not to be confused with the term for sewage.

Alcohol and other drugs are also avoided by many Buddhists because of their effects on the mind and "mindfulness". It is part of the Five Precepts which dictate that one is not to consume "addictive materials". The definition of "addictive" depends on each individual but most Buddhists consider alcohol, tobacco and drugs other than medicine to be addictive. Although caffeine is now also known to be addictive, caffeinated drinks and especially tea are not included under this restriction; tea in particular is considered to be healthy and beneficial and its mild stimulant effect desirable. There are many legends about tea. Among meditators it is considered to keep the person alert and awake without overexcitement.

Simple and natural

In theory and practice, many regional styles of cooking may be adopted to be "Buddhist" as long as the cook, with the above restrictions in mind, prepares the food, generally in simple preparations, with expert attention to its quality, wholesomeness and flavor. Often working on a tight budget, the monastery cook would have to make the most of whatever ingredients were available.

In Tenzo kyokun ("Instructions for the Zen Cook"), Soto Zen founder Eihei Dogen wrote the following about the Zen attitude toward food:

In preparing food, it is essential to be sincere and to respect each ingredient regardless of how coarse or fine it is. (...) A rich buttery soup is not better as such than a broth of wild herbs. In handling and preparing wild herbs, do so as you would the ingredients for a rich feast, wholeheartedly, sincerely, clearly. When you serve the monastic assembly, they and you should taste only the flavour of the Ocean of Reality , the Ocean of unobscured Awake Awareness, not whether or not the soup is creamy or made only of wild herbs. In nourishing the seeds of living in the Way rich food and wild grass are not separate."[7]"


Vegetarian dishes at a Buddhist restaurant in Ho Chi Minh city

Following its dominant status in most parts of East Asia where Buddhism is most practiced, rice features heavily in as a staple in the Buddhist meal, especially in the form of rice porridge or congee as the usual morning meal. Noodles and other grains may often be served as well. Vegetables of all sorts are generally either stir-fried or cooked in broth with seasonings and may be eaten with various sauces. Eggs and dairy are sometimes permitted and may show up on occasion in moderate amounts; dairy is not common in purely Japanese and Chinese preparations but may appear in dishes from American and European monasteries that follow the traditions. Eggs are seen as almost meat and many Buddhists avoid them. Seasonings will be informed by whatever is common in the local region; for example, soy sauce and vegan dashi figure strongly in Japanese monastery food while curry may be prominent in Southeast Asia. Sweets and desserts are not often consumed, but are permitted in moderation and may be served at special occasions such as in the context of a tea ceremony in the Zen tradition.

Buddhist vegetarian chefs have become extremely creative in imitating meat using prepared wheat gluten, also known as seitan, kao fu (烤麸) or wheat meat, soy (such as tofu or tempeh), agar, konyaku and other plant products. Some of their recipes are the oldest and most-refined meat analogues in the world. Soy and wheat gluten are very versatile materials, because they can be manufactured into various shapes and textures, and they absorb flavorings (including, but not limited to, meat-like flavorings), while having very little flavor of their own. With the proper seasonings, they can mimic various kinds of meat quite closely.

Some of these Buddhist vegetarian chefs are in the many monasteries and temples which serve allium-free and mock-meat (also known as 'meat analogues') dishes to the monks and visitors (including non-Buddhists who often stay for a few hours or days, to Buddhists who are not monks, but staying overnight for anywhere up to weeks or months). Many Buddhist restaurants also serve vegetarian, vegan, non-alcoholic or allium-free dishes.

Some Buddhists eat vegetarian on the 1st and 15th of the lunar calendar (lenten days), on Chinese New Year eve, and on saint and ancestral holy days. To cater to this type of customer, as well as full-time vegetarians, the menu of a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant usually shows no difference from a typical Chinese or East Asian restaurant, except that in recipes originally made to contain meat, a soy chicken substitute might be served instead.

Variations by sect or region

According to cookbooks published in English, formal monastery meals in the Zen tradition generally follow a pattern of "three bowls" in descending size. The first and largest bowl is a grain-based dish such as rice, noodles or congee; the second contains the protein dish which is often some form of stew or soup; the third and smallest bowl is a vegetable dish or a salad.[8]

See also


  1. ^ a b c
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^

External links

  • Vegetarianism as a way of life for Buddhists
  • Shojin Ryori: Vegetarian Cooking
  • Tantras on Buddhist food
  • Sutras on vegetarianism
  • Return To The Middle Kingdom: Chinese Vegetarian Eating in East Asia
  • Toshio Tanahashi
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