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Baru Gongyang (Formal Meal)
By Kim Gyeong-ho
Baru Gongyang is a Buddhist formal meal. At the appearance of the morning star, the Buddha gained enlightenment and the four heavenly kings wanted to make a meal offering to him. He didn’t have a bowl so each king offered him a stone bowl. He overlapped the bowls one on top of another and ate from it. This is the legendary beginning of the four-bowl formal meal called Baru Gongyang.
This formal meal is not complex or elaborate. It is quite simple. There are four bowls of different sizes, each with its use--rice, soup, side dishes, and water. After eating, the bowls are cleaned right on the spot. In Baru Gongyang, we eat everything in the bowls without leaving any remains so it’s very good for the environment. It is cleaned with hot water so it very sanitary. However, in the beginning, this formal meal is not easy. The first challenge is to take just the right amount. We often can’t judge very well the right amount. If we’ve lived 30 years with three meals a day—that’s more than 10,000 meals. It’s very sad that we can’t judge our portions. It’s easy to take too much or not enough. When we take too little, the next time we may take too much. It may take some practice to get the proper portions and adequate balance of rice, soup, and side dishes. This practice teaches us how to take only what we can comfortably eat instead of taking too much greedily.
Baru Gongyang is also a mindfulness practice. This practice can even be more beneficial than studying the sutras. This four-bowl meal is eaten in silence and if possible with a clear mind. Our minds cannot wander off too long during the meal, or we may fall behind the others in the procession of the meal. We cannot daydream too long, nor is there time to develop attachment to the food. Baru Gongyang develops our ability “to just eat when eating.” With no waste from our bowls, this practice also reflects the frugality stressed in the Seon tradition.
The water used to clean the bowls is called Jeoljeongsu, which means water that cuts attachment. The story goes that a village maiden developed strong attachment to a very good-looking monk. She would come to the temple and secretly watch him. One day he was eating the formal meal and she was enchanted. She couldn’t get over how handsome and noble he looked when eating. Then, at the end after cleaning the bowls with water, this handsome monk drank all of the water (as it is done in Baru Gongyang). This utterly dismayed and disgusted the maiden and all her attachment to the monk was gone. To this day, the water is drunk with the same attitude of ridding attachment to worldly things.