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.

Jun 212016
 

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On this date in 1986 Deborah Blincoe and I were married. This would have been our 30th anniversary, therefore. Ever since she died (2007) I’ve marked the date in a small way, but this year seems like a good time to do something more. Before I talk about our wedding in particular let me say a little about weddings in general to set the context.

As an anthropologist I’ve lectured and written about marriage and the family a great deal. Weddings are classic rites of passage which have been studied intensively by anthropologists, but I’ve always argued that classic analysis misses the mark in an important way. I have tried to make the case that in LAW, strictly speaking, both the groom and the bride are changing their status, but in the classic Western wedding ceremony the ritual and symbols focus almost exclusively on the woman and her changes, and not the man. Broken down into simple components, the traditional Western wedding symbolizes the passage of a woman from one man’s sphere to another’s, and that was the economic and social reality for centuries – and still lingers in the ceremony even though realities have changed.

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The traditional Church of England wedding takes place in the bride’s home town. Her father walks her down the aisle to the waiting groom and “gives her away” to join the groom, then steps back. That ought to be enough to convince you, but there’s more. She wears white, the universal symbol of transition and purity; he does not. Upon marriage her last name changes from her father’s to her husband’s – his does not change. Furthermore she changes from Miss to Mrs. He’s Mr all along. At one time he did not usually wear a wedding ring either, but she did. In the traditional Anglican vows he promises to love and honor her, but she promises to love, honor AND obey him.  Get the point?

A lot has changed, of course, but remnants persist. Ms has generally replaced Miss/Mrs in many circles, both man and woman usually wear rings, and last names are more fluid. Some women retain their unmarried names (as my wife did), and some women hyphenate their unmarried names with their married names. In the latter case it’s still uneven. The man does not change his name at all, and the woman subordinates her unmarried name to her married name.We both retained our unmarried names, and hyphenated them for our son. But . . . my name is first and hers is last — Forrest-Blincoe. We liked the sound better than the other way around.

Whilst  we are on the subject, “maiden name” is a fraught term. The word “maiden” is an old synonym for “virgin” as it is also in the term “maiden aunt.” The assumption is that a woman is a virgin until she marries. I don’t use the term at all. I find it offensive. Likewise men don’t have maiden names, so there’s no veiled presumption that he is a virgin before marriage.

Despite changes, old parts persist. It’s still common to marry in the woman’s home town, she still wears white, and she is usually walked down the aisle by her father and “given away” with a physical gesture even if not a verbal one. The man’s symbolic role as recipient of the woman is still the same. There is no symmetric gesture of him being given away by his mother. He stands alone and receives his bride.

Whilst I’m on the subject let me have a little rant about vows. In the modern era couples often want to write their own vows. When I was an active pastor I discouraged this practice. Part of the point of ritual is for it to be familiar. The couple getting married may be the focus, but the whole community participates, and not just in a passive way. The whole community is witnessing the event, especially the vows. Vows are promises. That’s what the word means. They are not just cheery statements of affection. The bride and groom are making promises, and the community is there to hear them and afterwards to support them, and, if need be, enforce them. Of course, there is marriage law too, so that if the vows are a bit flaky, the law can step in. All the same, people want to hear the same vows that they made when they married, not some generic love poem. When they hear others repeating vows, they are reminded of their own. That’s proper ritual.

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Deborah and I broke most of the old rules as necessary and kept the ones we liked. Admittedly we agreed to her wearing rings (engagement and wedding) but not me, and I got comments on that after the ceremony. It was partly a matter of expense and partly the fact that I don’t like rings. On the few occasions when I have been given one, it has spent most of its life in a box. I have one now of great sentimental value that sits in a drawer. I never wear it.

The ceremony took place at a friends’ house in their garden near our house. We owned a house on the Neversink River in Cuddebackville, NY and had lived there for 3 years. So there was no business of going to the bride’s town for the service, or of not seeing the bride before the ceremony, etc. Nor did I have a bachelor party. I find them pretty tasteless affairs anyway. We decided on 21 June for the wedding by consulting an almanac. It seemed like an auspicious date because in that year (1986) the almanac listed 21 June as a Saturday, the solstice, and a full moon (called the Strawberry moon). What could be better?

Deborah’s family all came from Kentucky (where she was born) including her parents and grandmothers; her father was there but had no part in the ceremony. We organized the entire affair jointly. Our main idea was to avoid all the usual expensive trappings whilst maintaining a sense of dignity and formality for the ritual part. The whole wedding cost us under $200, including the justice of the peace’s fee. Admittedly my sister contributed the cake and baked goods, and our friends bought the champagne. Everyone agreed it was one of the best weddings they had attended; better than many that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

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The home owners had constructed a white cloth screen backdrop with ribbons and bows for the focal point of the service. I wore a new grey suit and Deborah made a white outfit for herself. We used flowers from our garden – mock orange and roses.

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In the late morning both families gathered inside our friends’ house, and the other guests mingled in the garden where there was a table for the cake, which my sister had baked, and presents, at the back. When the JP came he situated himself by the screen, and a few minutes later Deborah and I came out of the house side by side into the garden, and through the guests standing around. Our neighbors’ dog led the way with a white ribbon around her neck. Deborah called her our flower girl. As soon as we got before the JP, she sat down and went to sleep. Meanwhile our witness party (the two home owners and Deborah’s sister) brought up the rear and then flanked us when we stood before the JP. The ceremony was standard, by-the-book stuff – short and sweet, but covered all the bases.

When we turned around after the ceremony we scanned all the faces. Everyone had come including, to our amazement, two friends from England whom we had invited as a joke more than anything else, just to indicate to them that we were thinking of them. They had kept it completely secret, but co-ordinated with some other friends of ours who picked them up at the airport, housed them, and brought them along. Amazing.

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We had champagne and cake (recipe at the end) and opened our presents with a certain degree of formality. My friend Royston Wood had offered to be photographer and took a stellar set of pictures, which proved to be exceptionally difficult to take because the Midsummer sun was bright that day and reflected fiercely off the white cloth backdrop. This was in the days of chemical film and light meters. After cake, Royston and I sang together the traditional English folk song, the Wedding Song from the Copper family, with him singing bass and me tenor (also playing the concertina). He had been bass singer with the legendary 1960s group, the Young Tradition. He was to die several years later in a tragic car accident.

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After some toasts and general well wishing, we all went back to our house for a garden party. We had a big garden with tons of space. Much to our surprise, our guests had all brought changes of clothes and some games, including a softball set. We all changed into casual wear from our smart clothes and had one big blowout. Deborah and I laid out a big buffet of salads, cold cuts, and what not, and my sister had brought a boat load of cakes and goodies, including chocolate squares with a delectable chocolate cream topping that were so yummy that our English friends’ young daughter literally bathed in one all over her arms and face and went up to her father and spread out her thoroughly daubed arms and said – “Look daddy.” To which he replied, “That’s lovely dear. Go and show your mummy.” Smart lad; he knew what mummy’s reaction would be. Marriage at work.

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The house and garden were packed with people eating and drinking, and generally having a good time. My sister’s son was in his element playing softball, and he had no idea that all my friends were setting it up so that eventually he could win the game with a grand slam which he thought was the highlight of the wedding. At sundown the family helped us clean up after the guests had left, and then went off to hotels to leave us alone. Next day we packed the car and headed off for our honeymoon at Niagara Falls.

For years afterwards people who had come to the wedding commented on how much fun they had had. Here’s the cake recipe that my sister sent me recently. I’ve edited it a little, but it’s basically how she sent it to me.

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Orange Wedding Cake

Ingredients

Cake

2 cups flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder,
1 ½ cups sugar
6 eggs, separated
½ cup vegetable oil
6 fl oz orange juice

Filling

1 cup sugar
1 cup orange juice
10 egg yolks
¼ lb unsalted butter
1 orange rind, grated

Buttercream

2 lb unsalted butter at room temp.
1 ⅓ cups sugar
2 tspn vanilla extract
2 cups heavy cream

Instructions

For the cake

Put the oil, egg yolks and orange juice into a bowl and mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Add the dry ingredients by sifting them over the bowl a third at a time and mixing gently with a wooden spoon until they are thoroughly combined.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff but not dry, and fold them into the batter gently a third at a time

Bake in a 12 inch pan with grease proof paper lining the bottom at 350°F  for about 30 minutes. The top should bounce back and toothpick inserted should come out clean

For the filling

In a non reactive pot put the sugar, orange juice, and egg yolks. Mix and then bring slowly to near the boil over medium heat, stirring gently all the time. When it coats the back of a spoon, it is ready. DO NOT BOIL. Add the grated rind of an orange. Take off the heat

Add unsalted butter and stir to melt

Transfer to a bowl and put plastic wrap on the surface. Refrigerate until cold

Whip 2 cups of cream until it is stiff and fold gently in to the orange curd a little at a time.

For the buttercream

Using a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until they are almost white when. Add the vanilla extract. Continue beating  and slowly trickle in 2 cups of cream.  It will become very smooth and spreadable.

Assembly

Slice the cake horizontally into thirds. This takes experience. Best to use a long, serrated bread knife and put toothpicks into the side of the cake all round so you can use this to guide the knife.

Use the orange mousse for the filling by placing the bottom third of the cake on a plate, adding half the mousse on top, then spreading it evenly. Next place the middle layer of cake over the mousse, spread the other half of the mousse on it and spread it. Then add the top layer of cake.

Using a flat spatula ice the sides of the cake with buttercream. When the sides are finished put a healthy layer on top and smooth everything. If you are able, pipe stars all round the bottom of the cake where it meets the plate. Finish it off with either sliced oranges or a cluster of pretty flowers. We used pink roses.

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.