Monday, 22 December 2014

Eating Vegetarian at Burmese Monasteries

Ma Khaing's home-cooked vegetarian restaurant in Mandalay

1) Is it rude to inform a monastery that I am vegetarian?

It is true that there are some countries that one can simply not travel to and reasonably expect to maintain a vegetarian diet. Fortunately, Myanmar is not one of them! Most Burmese monasteries are places where a vegetarian diet can be maintained. It is not considered rude to inform a monastery that one fully abstains from meat and fish. This should be done at the outset when one is asking for permission to stay, so that the monastery can determine if they can meet that need. While it is not appropriate to make numerous “special requests” of the kind that may be common at Western meditation centers, it is fine to make a simple request for vegetarian food. If there are even two vegetarians in an entire monastery, a special table is often arranged for them where only vegetarian dishes are served.

2) To what extent can I expect to have a balanced vegetarian diet?

The short answer is that usually one can count on at least a few purely vegetarian dishes at any meal. There are usually fresh vegetables and herbs, and good protein options such as beans, tofu, eggs, and various other soy products.

If a vegetarian guest is not expected, however, there may not be a balanced vegetarian meal on its own, so advance warning arrangements can help to ensure that the meal is more nutritious. The example of U Agga, a Dutch monk, is illustrative. While usually dwelling in the forest, he once came to Yangon for a short period, during which time he went on the morning alms round. Well-wishers gave whatever they had on hand, and at the end of the round, he found there was not enough vegetarian fare to give him proper sustenance. However, donors soon requested U Agga to tell them a day in advance when he would take an alms walk, so they could prepare something especially nutritious. (U Agga was staying with an American meditator in Yangon, so there was sufficient food here to fulfill his needs. In fact, U Agga’s main intention on taking the alms round was more to allow the local residents to make merit than to ensure his own meals.)

3) I want to sponsor a Saṅgha-Dāna for all the monks at a monastery. Can I request that only vegetarian food be served?

This depends largely on the culture of the meditation center or monastery. Some sites may already be pure vegetarian, or vegetarian-friendly, and such a request will be understood. In other places, however, the monks and yogis have come to expect meat and fish as part of their diet, and it may not be appropriate to demand which food can be served them, and which cannot. In these cases, practicing renunciation when giving the dāna may be the best policy. Another option is to offer a Saṅgha-Dāna at a neutral site and invite monks and nuns to attend. If it is announced that one is serving vegetarian fare, monastics can decide in advance whether they wish to attend.

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