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Under the Holy Bodhi Tree, There Is A Bowl of Porridge
- Labazhou, Porridge of Lunar 8 December (腊八粥)

14 January 2008
 

Lunar 8 December is the day when Buddha Sakyamuni attained his ultimate enlightenment. According to the Buddhist beliefs, between lunar Dec 1 and 15, (the period from the new moon to the full moon), the credit for any of our good deeds will be multiplied by 100,000 times, which means if you spare $10 to help someone in need, it would be equivalent to donate a million dollars; and if you save a single whale, you're virtually saving a hundred thousand of the endangered creatures. Note, only during the time between lunar 1 and 15 April around Buddha‘s birthday on lunar 8 April, we’ll have another chance to strike such a bargain.

Anyway, let’s go back to lunar 8 December in year 525 BC when a gentleman named Sakyamuni sat under a Bodhi tree, half dead from starvation after half dozen years of continuous meditation with no time for sleeping and eating and anything else.

“This is not going to work,” Mr Sakyamuni - by then he was not yet a Buddha, therefore was equally unenlightened as you and me and easy to get confused just like we do - thought and left the tree. As he walked along a rural path searching for food, he met a shepherd girl. It appeared that the girl not only knew how to tender her flock, but also could cook rice porridge with milk. On that particular day she filled a jar with porridge and somehow decided to carried it around, so when she met the dying Buddha-to-be, it became very handy for her to accumulate some intangible credit (with 100,000 percent of interest) by giving away the tangible porridge.

The goat herder girl's porridge was proven to be incredibly nutritious. Immediately after the meal, the full strength returned to the Buddha-to-be who was then able to return to the Bodhi tree. Later that night, at a certain moment, Mr Sakyamuni suddenly recalled all things he ever experienced since the time-no-beginning, and became fully aware of all occurrences in the entire universe, and attained a clear vision of all prospects for the future-no-end. This ultimate liberation of his consciousness from the perceived confinement of a certain individual transformed him from a man into a Buddha.

Later in China, the legend of Buddha-making porridge was retold through porridge eating custom. Each year on that day, monasteries would set up a huge pot at the front gate, cooking rice porridge with Chinese characteristics - which means they were flavoured with no milk but nuts - and offer the porridge as free lunch to the public, in particular the homeless and the poor. Soon, the practice developed into a nation-wide festivity, and almost every Chinese, whether he/she be a Buddha-like-to-be or Buddha-rather-not-to-be, would cook plus eat or eat without cook rice porridge cooked with eight different types of nuts.

In many parts of China, especially in affluent eastern provinces Jiangsu and Zhejiang, porridge is traditionally served as the standard entree (breakfast) and finish (the last dish in diner) in daily meals. When the time comes to make laba porridge, you know it's at the hand of true experts. In Zhejiang, the nuts for the porridge could include walnuts, pine nuts, jujube, lotus seeds, fox nuts and dried litchi meat; and in Suzhou, the porridge was further offered in both sweet and salt flavours, with cigu (茨菇), water chestnut (荸荠), black fungus (木耳) and dried daylily (金针) added in.

But in nowhere the laba porridge was prepared in a more elaborate manner than that in Beijing, where everything was heavily influenced by the imperial preferences. In a Beijing style porridge, you may find two dozens of different kind of nuts with its sweet tenderness seductive enough to turn you into a porridge cult fanatic.

The nutritional value of porridge, especially the nuts-rich laba porridge, has long been discovered by the Chinese medicine. In the Porridge Menu (《粥谱》 ), author Cao Yanshan (曹燕山) recommended it highly for its benefits in helping restoring the yin-yang balance of our internal organs, including stomach (和胃), spleen (补脾), heart (养心), liver (利肝), lung (清肺) and kidney (益肾).

Here is an ancient poem paying tribute to this ancient tradition that is still very much in fashion:

家家腊八煮双弓,
榛子桃仁染色红。
我喜娇儿逢览揆,
长叨佛佑荫无穷。

Pre: A Recipe of Laba Porridge
Next: Chinese New Year Starts in Soup Kitchen

 
 
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A Free Lunch Tradition Back to Fashion

On lunar 8 December (15 January 2008), the 1,400-year old Cloud Abode Temple (云居寺) in Beijing is said to resume a time-honoured tradition by offering free laba porridge to public (腊八舍粥).

 

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