A SPIRITUAL LUNCHEON
It was then that I encountered a problem in the form of a large hunk of ginger. I wondered what to do – it was obviously used for purposes of seasoning, and not really designed to be eaten – plus I had no drink to wash it down with.
During a conversation with a Buddhist buddy of mine, I was unexpectedly invited to eat lunch with him and the other monks at Lingyin Temple (in Chinese ‘chi zhaifan’ 吃斋饭 ). As my usual diet consists of Big Mac burgers and Mexican Chicken Twisters (although you couldn’t tell, just by looking at me), I decided I was indeed in sore need of a vegetable infusion, the likes of which only the strictest of Buddhist ascetics can provide. Before lunch (which begins at 11:15am), I was taken on a tour of the Buddhist College located inside the grounds of the temple itself. The College looked like the most plush of private schools – on a par with Eton or Winchester – with marble toilets and leather-cushioned pews for tired, solemn buttocks to rest upon. As well as learning the Buddhist scriptures, the students must also study English, and if reading books becomes a bit overwhelming they can always take a break on the basketball court. As the eleventh hour neared, I was ushered into a big dining hall, and told to sit at the back, all by myself - apparently I wasn’t fit to eat with the spiritually pure. In front of me, three bowls and a pair of chopsticks were placed. I was told that the food would be brought to me, and I should use my chopsticks to indicate on the bowl how high I wanted the food to be piled up. Simple. I was also told that I could not leave a single scrap of food in any of the bowls. I guessed this was important, as my friend repeated this specific instruction three times. As the food came, served (I presume) by acolytes in grey robes, I became nervous, and before I could even raise my chopsticks, an entire bowlful of eggplant had been dumped into my bowl.The serving continued in this fashion, and I found myself with two full bowls of vegetables and a bowlful of rice. I began to regret eating those two chocolate Snickers bars for breakfast. Head down, I got stuck into the food, which was delicious, but I was struggling with the steamed bread, which was excruciatingly dry. No chance of a Coke in the temple refectory, I surmised. After twenty minutes, many of the monks started to leave. I still had a bowlful of food to get through, when one of the older monks approached and told me ‘You know you can’t leave any of that food, right?’ His words were imbued with a menace that only someone in ochre robes can voice. It was then that I encountered a problem in the form of a large hunk of ginger. I wondered what to do – it was obviously used for purposes of seasoning, and not really designed to be eaten – plus I had no drink to wash it down with. But I could not leave a single scrap of food in any of the bowls. All I could do was swallow my pride, and with it the hunk of ginger. After a full half an hour of pure eating, when only myself and some wizened old holy men whose faces were irretrievably lost behind a morass of wrinkles were left, I had finally finished.Although I definitely prefer having a personal veto on what I eat and what I don’t eat, it was a unique and unforgettable experience.