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Balu-gongyang (Traditional Korean Monastic Temple Meal)
Balu-gongyang is the traditional, communal meal practice unique to Buddhist Temples. As the readers may already be aware, only vegetarian foods are served within the Korean temples. Eating is regarded a highly significant religious act in nourishing the body and developing the mind in spiritual progress. In general, what and how one eats is considered significant, and one needs to approach the act of consumption in utmost sincerity and austerity. The thought behind Balu-gongyang is as follows. First, one pays respect to the earth and think upon the grateful efforts made in the production and transportation of food, including the generosity of donors and diligent skills of cooks. Secondly, one is penitent for harboring the discriminating mind which segregates food into groups of superior or inferior, too much or too little. In this grateful mind, one is less likely to be wasteful and finds moderation, which is the goal of the practice. Thirdly, Buddhist practitioners eat to maintain precepts, engage in meditation and develop in wisdom, which in turn reduce the three great poisons which hinder our practice (ignorance, greed and anger). Fourth, practitioners may maintain healthy physical body with the nutritious meals. While some Balu-gongyang is taken informally, monks do not practice Balu-gongyang at every meal, as it is generally practiced in ceremonially or in the seasonal intensive meditation retreats. Balu-gongyang has over the centuries become a part of the important Seon practices of the Jogye Order.
Balu is the bowl used by the monks and nuns of Korean temples and means ‘bowl befitting Buddhist practitioner.’ A traditional Korean Buddhist Balu consists of four matching bowls, spoon, chopsticks, place mat, dish cloth and wrapping cloth. The four matching bowls of different sizes nestle into each other and contain rice, soup, side dishes and water from the largest to the smallest bowl, respectively. Participants must take only as much as they can eat within the time given, without leaving behind one parcel of food.
Balu-gongyang begins with the three clapping-sound of jukbi (a bamboo instrument), and the diners first offer a pre-meal half-bow and a sacred chant. Participants sit in the lotus position on the floor and do not speak or make noise during the ceremony. The participants then neatly unfold the wrapping cloth and arrange the four bowls on the place-mat, removing the spoon and chopsticks to place them on the smallest bowl. With another jukbi clap, the servers pour water in the bowls, and the participants rinse each bowl in sequence, leaving it in the smallest bowl at the end. The rice, soup and side dishes are then served, and each takes as much food as one can eat. When everyone has been served, a silent prayer is offered, and one begins the meal in full concentration of the present task. A piece of kimchi is rinsed in the soup to be used for cleaning the bowls at the end. As the end of the ceremony nears, a jukbi clap announces the serving of tea, poured into the empty rice bowl. The remaining piece of kimchi is used to clean the rice bowls, and the liquid is poured into the soup bowl and the side dish bowl for cleaning. Leaving the bowls spotless, participants then drink tea and eat the last piece of kimchi.
The water poured in the beginning is used for the final rinse of the bowls, using the fingers if necessary. The final rinse is poured into a bucket for inspection, and if the head monk finds a speck of food, the diners are expected to drink the left-over cleaning water. If the final rinse is clean, the water is poured out in front of the dining hall in a symbolic offering to the Hungry Ghosts. Finally, the bowls and utensils are dried with dishcloth, stacked neatly together and bound with the wrapping cloth again. With a clack of jukbi, the diners give a seated half-bow in respect and return the balu kit into the storage cupboard. This marks the conclusion of the ceremonial meal offering.
Balu-gongyang is a unique Korean intangible cultural heritage which raises the consciousness on how one nourishes self and attains harmony in nature. The practice of frugality and avoidance of wastefulness is a much needed virtue to be integrated into our daily lives in these times. International visitors are welcomed to participate in this precious treasure found in almost every Templestay Program throughout Korea.