The spirit of Baru Gongyang
In Korean Buddhism, eating meals is referred to as “Baru Gongyang”, which literally means “offering.” Having meals 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 services and graces of all Bodhisattvas, all 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 a meal for the first time. At that time, each of the four heavenly kings offered a stone bowl to the Buddha, which the Buddha ate from and stacked. Following this example, disciples of the Buddha also began using four bowls for their meals, shaping a tradition that is still kept in present times.
Temple meals are carried out in an orderly procedure. They are an important part of monastic practice. The meaning contained in Baru Gongyang is well represented in the verses chanted during every stage of the meal. First of all, participants should pay homage to and praise Buddha, the Bodhisattvas and Buddhism’s Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Second, they hold the 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 Dharma.” Third, participants chant the “Verse of Five Contemplations”: “We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes 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 life. 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 idea that all people are equal. 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 they can eat, no food is left over and therefore there is no waste of food. In addition, as each person drinks even the water they use to rinse their bowls, Baru Gongyang produces absolutely no food 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 the food produced 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 immeasurable merits of all things in the universe.