Oct 052017
 

Today is the Thadingyut Festival (သီတင်းကျွတ်ပွဲတော်) this year (2017) in Myanmar, and I am fortunate to be living here this year. The festival is held on the full moon day of the Burmese lunar month of Thadingyut. The festival comes at the end of what some Westerners call the Buddhist lent (Vassa), which corresponds with rainy season when many monks spend time in constant mediation instead of journeying out of the monastery. One of the religious justifications of the practice is that during the rainy season it is easy to kill insects unaware (by stepping on them, for example) because they are so plentiful.  Thadingyut is a festival of lights and is the second most popular festival in Myanmar after Thingyan Festival (the New Year water festival around April). Thadingyut festival is the celebration to welcome the Buddha’s descent from the heaven after he preached the Abhidhamma to his mother, Maya, who was reborn in the heaven.

Thadingyut festival lasts for three days: the day before the full moon day, the full moon day and the day after the full moon day. Buddha descends from heaven on the full moon day itself. Buddha’s mother, Maya, died seven days after the Buddha was born and then she was reborn in the Trayastrimsa Heaven. In order to pay back the gratitude to his mother, Buddha preached Abhidhamma to his mother for three Lenten months. When he was descending back to the mortal world, Sakra-devanam-indra, the ruler of the Trayastrimsa Heaven, ordered all the saints and evils to make three precious stairways. Those stairways were made of gold, silver and ruby. The Buddha took the middle one of ruby. The Nats (Deva) came along by the right golden stairway and the Brahmas took the left silver stairway. Theravada Buddhists in Myanmar celebrate Thadingyut to welcome the Buddha and his disciples by festooning the streets, houses and public buildings with colored electric bulbs or candles, which represent those three stairways.

During Thadingyut Festival, there are Zat Pwes (Myanmar musical plays), free movie shows and stage shows on most of the streets around the country. There are also food-stalls, which sell a variety of Myanmar traditional foods and shops, which sell toys, kitchen utensils and other stuff. In Mandalay the streets are packed (more than usual) with people just hanging out. Fireworks are common after dark on all three nights, and the sound of fire crackers is fairly persistent.  I’m told that this year in Mandalay things are a little quieter than in past years. Some people send up fire balloons (which reminds me of New Year’s Eve in Mantua, and Christmas in Buenos Aires).

During the festival days, Buddhists usually go to pagodas and monasteries to pay respect to the monks and offer food to them and to the Buddha. A few Buddhists fast on the full moon day itself, but the night before is a big party night with many families gathering for big dinners.. Young people usually pay respect to their parents, teachers and elderly relative and offer them some fruits and other gifts. While paying homage the younger people usually ask for forgiveness for the sins they have done to their parents or other elderly relatives throughout the year. Traditionally the elders tell their youngsters that they forgive any of their wrong doings and continue to bless them with good luck and with gifts of money. It is also usual for younger siblings to pay homage to their older siblings and in return the elder siblings wish the younger ones good luck and give them some pocket money.

You’re on your own for a recipe for today.  I’ll give you a little gallery of dinner last night on the lake south of Mandalay.  You don’t stand a chance of replicating northern Myanmar cuisine unless you live here. Here was my dinner last night and breakfast this morning:

Jul 192016
 

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Today is the 8th full moon of the lunar year. As such it is celebrated as Asalha Puja in the Theravada Buddhist  tradition. Asalha Puja is one of Theravada Buddhism’s most important festivals, celebrating the Buddha’s first sermon in which he set out to his five former associates the doctrine that had come to him following his enlightenment. This first pivotal sermon, often referred to as “setting into motion the wheel of dharma,” is the teaching which is encapsulated for Buddhists in the four noble truths:

there is suffering (dukkha)

suffering is caused by craving (tanha)

there is a state (nirvana) beyond suffering and craving

the way to nirvana is via the eightfold path.

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All the various schools and traditions of Buddhism revolve around the central doctrine of the four noble truths. In scriptures ascribed to the Buddha the eightfold path is described as follows:

Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of birth… becoming… clinging… craving… feeling… contact… the six sense media… name-&-form… consciousness, direct knowledge of the origination of consciousness, direct knowledge of the cessation of consciousness, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of consciousness. I followed that path.

(Nagara Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya ii.124)

This first sermon is not only the first structured discourse given by the Buddha after his enlightenment, it also contains the essence of all his subsequent teaching. At the end of the talk, one of the five participants recounted his understanding of what had been said and asked to be received as a disciple, a request the Buddha granted, thus establishing the first order of monks.

The day is observed by donating offerings to temples and listening to sermons. The following day begins the period known as Vassa, the Rains Retreat. Vassa lasts for three lunar months

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For the duration of Vassa, monastics remain in one place, typically a monastery or temple grounds. In some monasteries, monks dedicate the Vassa to intensive meditation. Some Buddhist lay people choose to observe Vassa by adopting more ascetic practices, such as giving up meat, alcohol, or smoking, hence it is sometimes casually called “Buddhist Lent,” although the analogy with Christian Lent is not really appropriate. Commonly, the number of years a monk has spent in monastic life is expressed by counting the number of Vassas he has observed. In some SE Asian countries, notably Myanmar, young men may become ordained monks during Vassa, but afterwards return to a secular life.

Most Mahayana Buddhists do not observe Vassa but it is normal in the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and SE Asia. Vassa ends on Pavarana, when all monastics atone for any offense committed during Vassa. The Vassa tradition predates the time of Gautama Buddha. It was a long-standing custom for mendicant ascetics in India not to travel during the rainy season as they might unintentionally harm crops, insects or even themselves during their travels. Many Buddhist ascetics live in regions which lack a rainy season. Consequently, there are places where Vassa may not be typically observed.

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. The exception to this alms rule is that when monks and nuns have seen, heard or known that animal(s) have been specifically killed to feed the alms-seeker, consumption of such meat is considered karmically negative and should be refused. 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 fact one tradition asserts that the Buddha died from eating tainted pork.

Some Theravada Buddhist sects follow a cuisine for monks and nuns that prohibits the killing of plants. Therefore, strictly speaking, root vegetables (including potatoes, carrots or onion and garlic) are not to be used because their use results in the death of the plant. There is also a prohibition on eating mango based on an old tradition.

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Today I’ve prepared a dish of lentils, pasta, and fresh porcini mushrooms for my meals, not because I follow either a vegan or a Buddhist regime, but because that’s what my body wants today. For several years I’ve been very careful to eat only foods that appeal when I first begin the cooking process, and not rely on whim or convenience. If nothing I have on hand appeals, I go out to the market or I don’t eat. I am never driven by hunger or appetite. I found the porcini mushrooms in the market and they instantly appealed to me.

May 212016
 

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Today is the May full moon for many parts of the world (including mine). In Asia and Australia it will be tomorrow because of the way time zones work.  Because I am now using the blog to focus on movable festivals (those that move about the Gregorian calendar), there will be lunar celebrations here every month, especially those fixed to the full moon. The moons all have names in cultures that use a lunar or lunisolar calendar pegged to the name of the month they begin. In cultures that use solar calendars the names of the moons are associated with annual activities such as Harvest Moon or Hunter’s Moon.

In Anglo-Saxon times the May moon/month was called Þrimilce-mōnaþ (Month of Three Milkings) in England. These days it has various titles —  Milk, Grass, Corn, Flower, Root, etc. depending on the Almanac you choose.

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In Buddhist cultures, today is a special day reserved to celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE), usually known as the Buddha.  In Japan the day is fixed on 8 April in the Gregorian calendar and I have already mentioned this tradition  http://www.bookofdaystales.com/buddhas-birthday/ . In most Asian cultures, however, it is pegged to the lunar calendar and has various names, although the underlying significance is generally the same. For convenience I’ll use the Sanskrit name, Vesākha.

Tradition ascribes to the Buddha himself instruction on how to pay him homage. Just before he died, he saw his faithful attendant Ananda, weeping. The Buddha advised him not to weep, but to understand the universal law that all compounded things (including even his own body) must disintegrate. He advised everyone not to cry over the disintegration of the physical body but to regard his teachings (The Dhamma) as their teacher from then on, because only the Dhamma truth is eternal and not subject to the law of change. He also stressed that the way to pay homage to him was not merely by offering flowers, incense, and lights, but by truly and sincerely striving to follow his teachings. This is how Buddhists are expected to celebrate Vesākha: to use the opportunity to reiterate their determination to lead noble lives, to develop their minds, to practice loving-kindness and to bring peace and harmony to humanity.

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On Vesākha day, devout Buddhists and followers alike are expected and requested to assemble in their various temples before dawn for the ceremonial, and honorable, hoisting of the Buddhist flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the holy triple gem: The Buddha, The Dharma (his teachings), and The Sangha (his disciples). Devotees may bring simple offerings of flowers, candles and incense to lay at the feet of their teacher. These symbolic offerings are to remind followers that just as the beautiful flowers will wither away after a short while and the candles and incense sticks will soon burn out, so too is life subject to decay and destruction. Devotees are enjoined to make a special effort to refrain from killing of any kind. They are encouraged to partake of vegetarian food for the day. In some countries, notably Sri Lanka, two days are set aside for the celebration of Vesākha and all liquor shops and slaughter houses are closed by government decree during the two days. Also birds, insects and animals are released by the thousands in what is known as a ‘symbolic act of liberation’; of giving freedom to those who are in captivity, imprisoned, or tortured against their will. Some Buddhists wear simple white clothes and spend the whole day in temples with renewed determination to observe the Eight Precepts of Buddhism.

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Some temples also display a small statue of the Buddha in front of the altar in a small basin filled with water and decorated with flowers, allowing devotees to pour water over the statue; it is symbolic of the cleansing of a practitioner’s bad karma, and to reenact the events following the Buddha’s birth, when devas and spirits made heavenly offerings to him.

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Devotees are expected to listen to talks given by monks. On this day monks will recite verses uttered by the Buddha to invoke peace and happiness for the government and the people. Buddhists are reminded to live in harmony with people of other faiths and to respect the beliefs of other people as the Buddha taught.

Celebrating Vesākha also means making special efforts to bring happiness to the unfortunate like the aged, the handicapped and the sick. To this day, Buddhists will distribute gifts in cash and kind to various charitable homes throughout the country. Vesākha is also a time for great joy and happiness, expressed not by pandering to one’s appetites but by concentrating on useful activities such as decorating and illuminating temples, painting and creating exquisite scenes from the life of the Buddha for public dissemination. Devout Buddhists also vie with one another to provide refreshments and vegetarian food to followers who visit the temple to pay homage to the Buddha.

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Buddha’s Delight (罗汉斋) would be suitable to celebrate the day. This is basically a Chinese stir-fried vegetarian dish that varies according to taste, the cook, region, and what’s available. Common Chinese ingredients include:

Arrowhead (慈菇; cí gū)
Bamboo shoots (笋; sǔn)
Bean curd sticks or bean threads (腐竹; fǔ zhú)
Black mushrooms (冬菇; dōnggū)
Cellophane or mung bean noodles (粉絲; fěn sī)
Day lily buds (金针; jīnzhēn)
Fat choy (Cantonese) or black moss (发菜;  fà cài)
Ginkgo nuts (白果; bái guǒ)
Lotus seeds (蓮子; liánzǐ)
Napa cabbage (大白菜; dà bái cài)
Peanuts (花生; huā shēng)
Fried tofu (炸豆腐; zhá dòu fǔ)
Water chestnuts (荸荠; bí qí)
Fried or braised wheat gluten (面筋; miàn jīn)
Wood ear or black fungus (木耳; mù ěr)
Red dates or jujubes (红枣; hóng zǎo)
Lotus root (藕; ǒu)

Collect the vegetables you want for the dish, making sure you have plenty of variety. Cut them all into bite-sized pieces. You’ll need cellophane noodles as well. Soak them in warm water until they are soft. For the sauce prepare a mix of vegetable stock, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and cornstarch.

Stir fry your vegetables over the highest possible heat in a wok or skillet with a little vegetable oil. Add the noodles (with some water clinging) to heat through, then add your sauce, turn down to a simmer and mix all the ingredients and sauce together.

 

Apr 082016
 

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The birthday of the Prince Siddhartha Gautama (that is, the Buddha), is a holiday traditionally celebrated in Mahayana Buddhism. In most Asian cultures it moves about the Gregorian calendar, but in Japan it is celebrated on this date and is called Hana Matsuri, that is, Flower Festival.

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According to the Theravada Tripitaka scriptures, Gautama was born in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, around the year 563 BCE, and raised in Kapilavastu. The date of Buddha’s Birthday is based on Asian lunisolar calendars and is primarily celebrated in Baisakh month of the Buddhist calendar and the Bikram Sambat Hindu calendar. In Nepal, which is considered the birth-country of Buddha, it is celebrated on the full moon day of the Vaisakha month of the Buddhist calendar. In Theravada countries following the Buddhist calendar, it falls on a full moon Uposatha day, typically in the 5th or 6th lunar month. In China and Korea, it is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. The date varies from year to year in the Western Gregorian calendar, but usually falls in April or May. In leap years it may be celebrated in June.

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As a result of the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in lieu of the Chinese lunar calendar in 1873. Therefore, in most Japanese temples, Buddha’s birth is celebrated on the Gregorian calendar date April 8. The day is celebrated with parades featuring images of the baby Buddha, the white elephant seen by his mother in her dream just before his birth, and cherry blossoms carried by children dressed in traditional Japanese clothes. The famous sakura (cherry) trees bloom at this time, and so are given as offerings to adorn the nativity celebrations and ‘amacha’, sweet tea symbolic of the heavenly rain is poured over the baby Buddha.

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According to legend, briefly after the birth of young prince Gautama, an astrologer named Asita visited the young prince’s father—King Śuddhodana—and prophesied that Siddhartha would either become a great king or renounce the material world to become a holy man, depending on whether he saw what life was like outside the palace walls. Śuddhodana was determined to see his son become a king, so he prevented him from leaving the palace grounds. But at age 29, despite his father’s efforts, Gautama ventured beyond the palace several times. In a series of encounters—known in Buddhist literature as the four sights—he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a corpse and, finally, an ascetic holy man, apparently content and at peace with the world. These experiences prompted Gautama to abandon royal life and take up a spiritual quest.

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As long-time readers know, I am reluctant to give Asian recipes for people who don’t live in Asia, but I do make them now and again when I can get the ingredients.  So here’s my recipe for Japanese rice and greens with miso sauce. Use oriental greens such as pak choi or baby bok choi. Use starchy short-grained rice. This is a vegetarian dish, suitable for celebrating the Buddha.

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Japanese Rice and Greens

Ingredients

140g short-grained rice
1 tbsp sesame seed, toasted
1 tbsp sunflower oil
250g baby bok choi or pak choi sliced lengthways
6 spring onion, cut in 1” pieces

sauce

2 tbsp white miso paste
1 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
2 tsp finely grated ginger

Instructions

Soak the rice in cold water overnight.

Mix the sauce ingredients together and marinate the greens in it overnight.

Next day, boil the rice in the soaking water for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Drain.

Meanwhile remove the greens from the marinade, and reserve the marinade.

Heat oil in a wok or skillet over high heat.    Add the greens and stir fry briefly. Then add the rice and reserved marinade and heat through.  Serve sprinkled with sesame seeds.