Coming back to work after the Christmas holidays, I wasn’t surprised to find more gifts coming into my office. I know the gifts will still come in maybe up to the end of this month, as some people, including myself, use the Lunar New Year (usually referred to as Chinese New Year) as an excuse for late gifts. The first lunar year of the decade will be this Jan. 25.
But I was still surprised by a gift that I got last Saturday, which had nothing to do with Christmas or the New Year. These were several bowls of congee or rice porridge from the Mabuhay Temple of Fo Guang Shan, a Buddhist sect.
I had advance notice from the temple’s abbess, Ven. Miao Jing, that they were going to send the congee, which was prepared for Bodhi Day to mark the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha. This Buddhist feast falls on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month, which was Jan. 2, 2020.
The temple sends me vegetarian food from time to time because they know I have difficulty getting and preparing no-meat dishes. This time, though, they sent so much congee that I began to worry how long the congee would keep.
It was very timely that one of our Chinese language teachers in the University of the Philippines texted me new year’s greetings and also mentioned that her daughter had been ill. Perfect, I thought, this special congee would be just right for her, so I shared some of the dish, which was a very filling and healthy mixture of beans, nuts and lotus seeds. I mentioned my sharing of the congee to the abbess, who was elated to hear about it, explaining that that was the spirit of the Bodhi congee. She also told me they had prepared 2,000 servings of the congee, which was shared out to their members as well as to friends, including barangay tanod and workers constructing their new college.
No wonder major religious observances are called feasts—they’re always a time for eating, and, more importantly, of sharing food.
The Muslims have Eid al-Adha or Feast of the Sacrifice, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God. That day also marks the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, so in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, it is called the Hajj Feast.
That day is marked by distributing food. You may have seen this on Wilson Street in Greenhills, San Juan, where there are long queues of people—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—waiting to get free beef, usually a kilo per person, from the Pacific Dialogue Foundation, a Turkish group.
My friends in that foundation know I’m vegetarian, so they just give me Eid al-Adha coupons to share with others, but they always have a special treat for me of Noah’s porridge every Ashure, another feast day marking Noah’s ark finding safe ground at the end of the great flood. The legend is that Noah’s family gathered what was left of their food provisions to make the porridge.
There are many versions of the porridge, but they always exclude animal products, using instead seeds, grains, fruits with sugar and herbs. Some of my Muslim friends interpret the porridge’s ingredients as a symbol of nonviolence, since no animals are killed.
As with the Buddhist porridge, Noah’s porridge is prepared communally, in large quantities to be shared out.
I thought about the biblical parable where five loaves of bread and two fish ended up feeding a multitude of 5,000, the meager rations somehow multiplying so there was enough for everyone. I like mentioning that parable whenever I agree to take on some difficult challenge, as when UP Diliman had to accept more than 200 students from UP in Tacloban after the disastrous “Yolanda.”
Maybe we need a Christian version of the Buddhist and Muslim feasts, where a special symbolic dish is prepared and shared out. It could be named after that feeding of the multitude, and could come at the tail end of the Christmas holidays, when we tend to have much too much unconsumed food. In the spirit of today’s ecological movements, it could be like Noah’s porridge, with no meat and animal products.
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