Where has this food come from?
My virtues are so few that I am hardly worthy to receive it.
I will take it as medicine to get rid of greed in my mind and to maintain my physical being in order to achieve enlightenment

- Pre-meal Chant -

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 need 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. 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 onions and leeks), these are called the "o-shin-chae", because they hinder spiritual practice. The prohibition of the five pungent vegetables is a preventive 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 in which 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 powder, kelp powder, jae-pi 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 flavors. 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: jang-a-jji, vegetables preserved in soy sauce, red pepper paste and soybean paste; vegetables pickled in vinegar and salt; and 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, vinegar, 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 gongyang is a formal monastic meal in which people eat from a “baru” (a 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 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.
First, participants pay homage to the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas and the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
Second, they hold their bowls in both hands 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.”
Third, 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 practice 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.”

The verses recited during temple meals may be a little different depending on region and temple, but the core elements are the same.
The spirit embodied in Baru gongyang has five aspects, often explained as follows.
First, 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. This represents the equality of all people.
Second, it embodies the spirit of cleanliness.
As each participant serves themselves, it is thoroughly sanitary.
Third, it embodies the spirit of frugality.
As each person takes only as much as he can eat, no food is left over and therefore there is no waste. In addition, as each person drinks even the water he used to rinse his bowls, Baru gongyang produces absolutely no waste, acknowledging the limits of nature’s bounty and the importance of environmental protection.
Fourth, it embodies the spirit of community.
As all monastics share food from the same pot in the same place at the same time, there is an added feeling of harmony and solidarity.
Fifth, it embodies the spirit of merit.
As the participants are thankful for their health and the efforts of all involved, and vow to fulfill their responsibilities, they naturally pray for the fulfillment of immeasurable merits for everything in the universe.

[How to Perform Baru Gongyang]

  1. When the bamboo clapper is struck three times, join your palms in front of your chest and bow. Then unwrap the bowls.

  2. Spread your place mat on the floor. Arrange the four bowls on it.
  3. When the bamboo clapper is struck once, bring around the following, in this order : water, rice, soup, and assorted vegetables and greens.

  4. Put the assorted vegetable neatly in a your bowl. Take only the amount you can eat.
  5. The four bowls contain rice, soup, assorted vegetable dishes and water(which will be used to rinse the bowls after the meal is over). When the bamboo clapper is struck once, hold the rice bowl high in the air with two hands and chant the “Meal Offering Verse.” When the bamboo clapper is struck once, lower the bowl to the floor and chant the “Pre-meal Chant.”

  6. To share food with the unseen sentient beings, each participant offers a small portion of his rice. It is collected in a bowl as an offering.

  7. When the bamboo clapper is struck three times, begin eating. Avoid eating too fast or too slow. Maintain harmony by keeping pace with others. Be sure to leave a piece of kimchi to clean the bowls.

  8. When done eating, hold the last piece of kimchi with your chopsticks and use it and a little water to remove food particles from the inside of the bowls. When done cleaning, eat the kimchi and drink the water.

  9. Use the remaining water in the water bowl to rinse the bowls again. When the person comes to collect the water, gently pour the water into the bucket. If there are any small food pieces at the bottom of the bowl, you should not pour them into the bucket but drink them yourself.

  10. Dry the bowls, spoon, and chopsticks with the bowl towel. Then wrap the bowls as before.

  11. When the bamboo clapper is struck once, join your palms and bow. Then chant the “Verse for Ending the Meals”.