Alexa, Flip the Lights.

Nowadays there are three new personal assistants that everybody is hiring, and they all have one of the same names–Alexa, Siri, and Google.  You just summon one of them and voila!

That’s probably one of the first things that come to mind when you think of lights huh?  It’s okay.  It’s common.  Tonight’s the last full moon of the lunar year, I hear there’s some crazy moon going on too.  Unfortunately, it’s too cloudy on my side of town so the moon isn’t all that bright tonight.  Most of the temples around the SGV are probably doing some sort of closing ceremony to dedicate all the efforts and merits accumulated from the previous year’s worth of practice.  This is probably more common with temples that offer lamp offerings for the whole year, thus you will probably hear the term yuan deng or 圓燈, a term most likely coined by FGS to better name the occassion.

So what’s special about light?  We pay a monthly fee to light up our showers so we don’t get soap up our noses, light up the oven to watch our cakes rise and puff up, light up the road so we don’t run into each other, and the electricity that powers light powers our wifi connections, charge our phones, and ignite our TVs so that we can watch the Rams win the Super Bowl right? Well, 2500+ years ago light came from burning a wick from a vessel of oil, then you wrap a paper mask around it, and you have a lantern.

If you were in a room, and the lights all of a sudden went off, how you would you feel?  Would you feel worried?  Scared?  Agitated?  Unsecure?  Not sure where anything is at?  Not sure if your nose is still on your face?  You feel you’ve lost a little confidence about yourself too, right?  When the light’s come back, you get the opposite–you feel safe, confident, comfortable, etc.

When we offer light, we are offering those qualities to all beings.  The Buddha told Sariputra the many benefits of offering light in “The Merits of Giving Light Sutra” (T16n0702 if you want the Sutra reference in the Taisho Canon).  Giving light doesn’t have to always be in the form of offering candles or oil lamps, light bulbs and other alternatives aren’t too bad either.  Though, I still think there’s something special candles and oil lamps bring that I can’t really describe.  Of course, safety is always first.

At the temple this afternoon I joined in an offering ceremony where everyone held an electric candle and sang the lamp offering song:

 

 

There’s also something special about when the room is darkened and everyone’s candles still on and then in formation in front of the altar, that’s something Siri can’t help you with for sure.  It’s a peaceful feeling I think, something really helpful as we face what’s ahead this upcoming year.

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Photo by Ven. Kuanqing

 

Have You Had Your Porridge Yet?

So today is the eighth day of the last lunar month of the year, otherwise known as laba in Chinese or rohatsu in Japanese. You might notice your local temple inviting you to have porridge with them on this day or help them distribute porridge to community members.  Is there something significant about this porridge?  Well, yes and no.

I saw an advertisement that claimed that Laba is a Buddhist holiday and the custom of offering porridge is to remember the bowl of milk porridge that the Buddha received from the shepherd’s daughter right before he attained enlightenment. Of course, we can’t forget that it the Buddha was inspired by that bowl of porridge to seek the middle way and from there moving onto awakening, but that didn’t really spark a tradition of offering porridge world-wide (yet).  This then later became to be recognized as Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, or Bodhi Day, or FGS likes to call it Dharma Day.

The term la or 臘 in Chinese ceremonial texts refers to the celebration of year’s end or gratitude for the year’s harvest whether by farming or hunting.  That means a lot of ceremonial offerings to the heavens and the ancestors.  When Buddhism came in, then the celebrations became big business.  The imperial court ordered the lamas at Yonghe Palace to cook tons of porridge to be distributed to officials and to more remote areas.  Apparently there’s a big wok at Yonghe Palace that was made specifically for this porridge, like with a volume of 4 tons according to history, but when I visited it was raining and I was too busy admiring the tall Maitreya statue that I didn’t bother to look for the wok.  Have you seen it?

So being the eighth day of the month, symbolically there would be eight ingredients in the porridge, not including the rice.  Google even made a graphic a few years back here.  The recipe used at Yonghe Palace had ground lamb meat, of course, most of the temples that offer porridge are vegetarian if not vegan.  I tried cooking this porridge at work once and the prep work involved was so intense I didn’t want to do it again.  The porridge tradition only exists in China though, and as I mentioned earlier, it was an offset of the worship/offering rituals before Buddhism came into China.

So what else is done on this day besides binging on porridge?  Well, some traditions would host intensive meditation sessions, or chanting retreats, or workshop presentations on what they studied throughout the year.  Some temples even hold ordination ceremonies on this day as well, which makes it quite meaningful for the newly ordained.  The temple I grew up in when I was young, used to hold their annual Emperor Liang Repentance retreat that week, that was special.  I also heard one of the local temples used to hold their 10,000 Buddha Repentance retreat where each participant made 10,000 prostrations over the course of one month but because there aren’t enough resources anymore, these grand events ended up being history.

Mapo Tofu

I was shopping at the market the other day, and I noticed a special on mapo tofu sauces.  If you have seen them before, they come at a variety of spice levels depending on what you’re looking for.  I would usually get the spiciest one, but that doesn’t seem to fulfill my needs for spice anymore.  I’ve also noticed the ingredients in those packs are as complicated as linear calculus.  So I thought to look up if there was a way to make this dish from scratch.  Lo and behold, I found it.

This recipe can serve a potluck, or be one of those dishes you can eat for days.  The ingredients are pretty simple:

1 pack of soft/silken tofu, drained and cut into cubes.
2-3 vege hamburger patties, diced, or you can use about 1/2 pack of your favorite vege ground meat substitute (make sure it’s unflavored though, or else the flavors might get mixed up).
10 preserved black beans, whole beans
2-3 Tablespoons of chili bean paste, depending on how spicy you want the final product to come out, an alternate would be to use one part chili bean paste to however many parts pure chili paste you want to avoid the excess salt from the bean paste, but you may want to have a fire extinguisher handy if you take that route…
About 2 cups of water or enough to cover the tofu later.
Mushroom Powder
And sugar to taste.

If you can’t find any ground meat substitute, you can dice up some trumpet mushrooms and they work almost just as well, sometimes I would do 1 patty with 2 cups of diced mushrooms if I feel fancy.

Have a wok burning on medium high, when the wok warms up, add a little bit of oil, and add the preserved black beans, ground meat (if you’re using mushrooms you might want to lower the heat to medium so the mushrooms don’t burn too quickly), and mushroom powder, a pinch or two, for now, you can always adjust later. Stir fry until fragrant.

Add the chili bean paste, stir-fry until fragrant, about a minute.  You can add 1/4 teaspoon of sugar at this point if you already feel the final product may be saltier than expected and then add half of the water.

Slowly add the tofu, you don’t want to break the tofu.  Then add the remaining water until about 3/4 of the tofu are submerged.  Bring the whole thing to a boil then lower the heat and let the mixture reduce.

Don’t let the tofu just sit there though, use a spatula and slowly push the tofu around every so often.  This is the most time consuming and boring step, but it’s what the tofu needs to get its flavor, and your time will be well invested.  Keep going until about 1/2 the water remains or if you notice the water has slightly thickened up.  Take a taste, you can quickly adjust with sugar if it’s too salty or mushroom powder if it’s too bland.  If you want more sauce, then when the water is at the halfway mark you can add a cornstarch and water slurry and thicken the thing up and it’s done.

For those days when I just feel like having something over rice, this would be a great go to.  Enjoy!