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Food and Eating in Tibetan Buddhism

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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FOOD AND EATING have long been objects of study for anthropologists and historians of Asian cultures and regions. Some have decoded the symbolic languages of food or analyzed eating as a performative activity, and others have thought about the economy of food exchange and the eating of sacrificial leftovers.

Ravindra Khare's edited volume, The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists (1992), investigated a South Asian (mainly Hindu) “gastrosemantics” that describes the “depth and density” of a culture's many uses of and attitudes toward food.

Historians of South Asian religion have looked at food as a taxonomic principle that is interconnected with social, legal, ethical, ecological, or medical realms of knowledge and practice.

By contrast, food and eating are somewhat less thoroughly studied in Buddhist, and especially Tibetan Buddhist, contexts.

To explore the role of food and eating in Tibetan Buddhism, we take as a case-study the ritual activity known as Accomplishing Medicine (sman sgrub).

1 An eight-day performance of the Accomplishing Medicine ritual took place on the grounds of the Tibetan Medicine Factory in Lhasa in July 2001.

2 The ritual performers were physicians affiliated with the Lhasa Tibetan Medicine Hospital (sman rtsi khang) and its Factory, and the ritual master (rdo rje slob dpon, vajrācārya) was a highly regarded physician and Sakya (sa skya) scholar, Tsultrim Gyaltsen (Tshul khrim rgyal mtshan, d. 2001), who is also a member of the Yuthog Yonten Gonpo (G.yu thog yon tan mgon po, 1126–1202) lineage.

3 Yuthog Yonten Gonpo is the figure responsible for compilation of the Four Medical Treatises (Rgyud bzhi), the primary text of Tibetan medicine still in use today.

Some physicians engaged in the 2001 ceremonies were old enough to remember seeing it performed yearly at the medical school of Chakpori, where it had been practiced for several hundred years, and occasionally at the Hospital, led by Dr. Khenrab Norbu (Mkhyen rab nor bu, 1883–1962), from whom they learned the ritual.

The public practice of the ritual was halted in Lhasa in 1955, however, and it did not resume until 1987. Younger physicians have thus learned the practice only recently.

All physicians engaged in the event possessed the empowerments (dbang), oral transmissions (lung), and instructions (khrid) of the Yuthog Heart Essence (G.yu thog snying thig) tradition, which authorized their effective performance of the ritual.

The Yuthog Heart Essence textual collection comprised the manuals for this performance.4

A tradition with a long and complicated history and an extensive textual existence, Accomplishing Medicine is practiced widely by Buddhists of all sorts in Tibet; it is also one of the main religious exercises for Tibetan doctors.

Most centrally, the practice involves the consecration of various “medicines,” or, to put it another way, the transformation of various substances into medicine, but, as Frances Garrett has suggested elsewhere, “it also accomplishes much more than this, bestowing on the practitioner long life, miraculous powers, or an understanding of the mind's true nature, blessing a community of practitioners and lay people, alchemically transforming impurity into purity, attacking disease-causing demonic forces, and so forth” (Garrett 2009: 210).

While a practitioner can perform Accomplishing Medicine in various ways, with varying degrees of elaboration,5 this article considers events extracted from the narrative structure enacted at the particular 2001 performance conducted in Lhasa.

In this form, the procedure is akin to other Great Accomplishment (sgrub chen) practices that may be enacted for various other aims, in which groups of practitioners gather for a week or more to perform extensive series of sādhanas and other activities together.

As a major event, the 2001 Accomplishing Medicine contained numerous large and small procedural “modules,” such as burnt offerings (sbyin sreg), feast offerings (tshogs ‘khor), and various kinds of empowerment (dbang).

These formulaic components, found in many major ritual events, are modular practices shared across a wide range of Tibetan rituals, sometimes with only minor modifications.6

Following the traditional pattern of a large-scale Great Accomplishment ritual ceremony, the first day of the Lhasa event involved various preparatory activities.

In a medium-sized meeting room on the Factory grounds, a three-dimensional maṇḍala was constructed, and seating for ritual performers was arranged on three sides of the room.

The maṇḍala was decorated with various medicinal compounds in bowls, in the form of powders (thang), pills (ril bu), gruels (sde dgu), and butters (sne mar). A central spot was reserved for special medicinal substances.

On the maṇḍala's east side, facing the vajrācārya, were arranged the five medicinal roots; on the south side, honey and flowers; on the west side, warming substances; and on the north side, cooling substances.

The maṇḍala was also decorated with various “offering cakes,” or torma (gtor ma), as prescribed in the Yuthog Heart Essence,7 as well as various offerings substances, an ablutions vase, and other ritual implements.

The four walls of the room were covered with hanging paintings (thang ka) of the main protector deities, lineage holders, and other historical figures important to the Yuthog Heart Essence tradition.

As we note below, these paintings were not merely decorative, as they depicted key participants in the week's activities.

After the day of preparation, the actual event began, such that Accomplishing Medicine itself was said to take seven days.

Three days were each organized into six practice sessions, during which the assembled participants conducted various ceremonies of invocation and offering to deities, protectors, and lineage holders of the Yuthog Heart Essence.

On the twelfth day of the Tibetan month, an empowerment initiation was held,8 and in a courtyard outside, a series of burnt offering (sbyin sreg) rituals commenced.

In preparation for the burnt offering, a sand maṇḍala was created on the ground in front of the officiant's throne, and covered with dung patties for fuel.

Foodstuffs and medicinal substances were arranged on a table to the right of the officiant, and handed to him to toss into the fire at the appropriate moment, while a row of physicians in ceremonial dress in front of him recited from ritual texts.9

First came the pacifying burnt offering (sdig pa zhi ba), aimed at purifying misdeeds, turning away evil spirits and dispelling illness.

On the thirteenth day of the month, the enriching burnt offering (rgyas pa'i sbyin sreg) was performed, aiming at the extending of life and fortune, and the following day featured the magnetizing burnt offering (dbang gi sbyin sreg).

In 2001, the wrathful fire offering (drag po'i sbyin sreg) was not conducted because, as one participant commented, no one qualified was available to do it, and so it would be too dangerous (Garrett 2001).

On the final day, the fifteenth of the Tibetan month, a public long-life empowerment ceremony was held, during which audience members were offered various consecrated foods and medicines.

During the week, an observer might be struck by the abundance of foodstuffs on display and in circulation throughout the public spaces of the event. In this article, we look at these objects, and at their relationships to the event's various participants.

We suggest that it is indeed these edible substances—and the activities of creating, transforming, and eating them—that shape the narrative structure of the week-long ritual.

The pantheon of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities, protectors, and lineage holders are invited to the site and fed daily; Agni, the god of fire, is fed during the burnt offering rituals in the middle of the week; and the lay attendees of the long-life ceremony are fed at the end of the week.

Over eight days, many other instances of human and nonhuman feeding and eating accomplish ancillary activities within larger ritual sections, or facilitate and mark narrative transitions from one mode to another. Numerous kinds of torma (Figures 1–4) are offered and consumed, as are grains, gruels, butters, nectars, pills, soups, and waters, in all manner of occasion as the days pass.

By attending to the creation, transformation, and eating of these various substances, the relationship between food and ritual is foregrounded in interactions between the characters enacting a ritual narrative.

We examine how actors are variously positioned, in the course of a ritual event, as creator of food, through craftsmanship, imagination, or ritual transformation; provider of food, as an act of compassion to hungry ghosts or lay devotees, as an appeaser of malicious spirits,

as a devoted follower of the lineage and the Buddhas and bodhisattvas; and consumer of food, as an enlightened deity consuming nectar or sharing a feast, as a initiate consuming empowerment torma and as a yogin or layperson consuming longevity pills.

In the process, we make observations about the place of food in Tibetan ritual, commenting on how food underpins the narrative content of many Tibetan ritual procedures and suggesting avenues for further research.