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Home > Health Archive > Chinese Food and Health Building > Buddhist Philosophy on Health Building

Chinese Food and Health Building
                                     - Buddhist Philosophy on Health Building

Buddha Statue



Buddhist Philosophy on Health Building Health Building To Buddhists, the supreme purpose of life is to become a Buddha; their ideal is to “deliver all beings.” They advocate dispelling all private desires and distracting thoughts, doing good deeds, and being altruistic. There is no specific theory on health building in the Buddhist classics. Working, sitting in meditation, eating vegetarian food, and rejecting sexual desire are Buddhism’s philosophy on health building.

Ideologically, Buddhism holds that if people sit still with a peaceful mind, concentrate, and persevere, they can achieve a delightful, bright, clear, refreshed state of body and mind. Achieving this state is the purpose of sitting in meditation. From a medical point of view, constant anxiety and worry negatively affect the physiological functioning of the human boy and cause pathological changes. The goal of meditation is to free the mind to achieve a natural state of peace.

Buddhists combine chanting with sitting in meditation. Many Buddhists, including lay Buddhists who practice Buddhism at home, live a long life. One reason is because they concentrate on chanting Buddhist scriptures and so have few distracting thoughts running through their minds. They are totally indifferent to personal honor, disgrace, gain, or loss in the physical world.

A Buddhist saying goes: “If I do not work for a day, I will not eat for a day.” Monks living in Buddhist temples hidden deep in the mountains farm, fetch water, cook meals, do laundry, and sew. Physical work is an important part of their daily lives, but its purpose is to practice thrift and maintain self-sufficiency, not to improve their health. Their state of mind and physical activity create the foundation for their long lives.

Vegetarianism is not a rule for all Buddhists; it is a unique product of Chinese Buddhism. The rule under which Chinese Buddhists eat vegetarian food dates back to the reign of Emperor Wudi in the Liang Dynasty. Subsequently, Buddhists were prohibited from killing animals and began eating vegetarian food. Vegetables, beans, fruits, and cereals are very nutritious. They contain abundant vitamins, inorganic salts, protein, glucose, sugar, and a little fat. 

Rejecting sexual desire is another important part of Buddhist philosophy on health building because rejecting sexual desire can preserve sperm. Chinese emperors in ancient times indulged in sensual pleasures and lost their kidney semen, therefore, they were short-lived; however, Emperor Wudi of the Liang Dynasty, who believed in Buddhism, lived more than 80 years because he had less sex. This was very rare among Chinese emperors.

Buddhists sat in meditation, worked, ate vegetarian food, and rejected sex, not to build their health, but to practice Buddhist doctrine. Therefore, only people outside the Buddhist school thought about whether Buddhist philosophy dealt with health building.

Nei jing, a book by Huang Di that dealt with the theory of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), appeared during the Warring States Period. It established the belief that medicine and food were identical. It is the earliest existing Chinese medical classic to systematically summarize the achievements of traditional Chinese medicine prior to the Qin and Han Dynasties. Scholars are unsure exactly when the book was completed, but it is believed to have been written in the Warring States Period, then enlarged and revised by medical scientists in the Qin and Han Dynasties. Its author was Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor.

According to legend, Huang Di was born in Youxiong. His family name was Gongsun and his given name was Xuanyuan. He grew up on the Ji River, so his family name was Ji. As an adult, he fought with other tribes, united the Central Plains people along the Yellow River, and became the forefather of the Huaxia Tribe. Huang Di and his ministers, Lei Gong (the founder of acupuncture) and Qi Bai (his grand doctor and pharmacist), jointly developed TCM. The science of TCM is also called the art of Qi and Huang.

Nei jing, a collection of notes taken during the men’s discussions, was written in the name of Huang Di. Because the book was written in different styles, Most scholars today believe it was not written by one person, nor was it Huang Di’s medical theory. It was merely authored in Huang Di’s name.

The Nei jing says: “All illnesses are caused by wind, rain, cold, heat, negative and positive elements, joy, anger, eating, housing, shock, or fright.” To strengthen the human body to resist these external changes, the Nei jing says: “The five cereals are staple food, the five fruits are auxiliary food, the five meats are beneficial, and the five vegetables should be taken in abundance. Eat them if they smell good so as to nourish te semen and replenish vital energy.” The five cereals are round – grained, non – glutinous rice, wheat, red beans, soy beans, and glutinous millet. The five fruits are peach, plum, apricot, chestnut, and date. The five animals are ox, sheep, pig, chicken, and dog, and the five vegetables are herbaceous plants, leaves of pulse plants (peas, beans, lentils), Allium bakeri (plants of the lily family), onion, and chives.

The Nei jing says: “When the five internal organs are strong,… one can live long… Anyone whose five internal organs are strong is never sick… When the five internal organs are peaceful and the blood and energy are good, the body has vigor.”

There are many kinds of foods, but not all of them nourish the internal organs of the human body. TCM purports that animal organs as well as five flavors nourish the organs. The five flavors are: Sour nourishes the liver, bitter nourishes the heart, sweet nourishes the spleen, pungent nourishes the lungs, and salty nourishes the spleen, pungent nourishes the heart, sweet nourishes the spleen, pungent nourishes the lungs, and salty nourishes the kidneys. Frequent eating of the five flavors improves the functioning of the internal organs.

If the five organs have excessive energy, it will cause disease. The Nei jing says : “Take the five cereals for the five organs as an example: Among the five cereals, broomcorn nourishes the heart, barley the liver, sorghum the spleen, glutinous rive the lungs, and beans (black beans) the kidneys.” A story goes that in ancient times a person called Li Shouyu took two to seven black beans with water every morning, describing it as “cereals keeping the five organs strong until old age.”

Another way to nourish the internal organs is to eat animal organs, the best being pig and sheep organs because they are most similar to human organs. Medical specialists call this effect “like attracting like.” TCM books describe pig and sheep liver as nourishing the liver, building blood, improving eyesight, and curing dizziness, night blindness, and glaucoma. The TCM prescription is: “ Take a lobe of pig liver and 10 grams of bat excrement. Powder the bat excrement, put it on the liver, and cook them for 20 minutes. Remove the bat excrement and eat the liver with its soup for seven consecutive days.” According to TCM theory, night blindness and glaucoma are caused by weakness of the liver.

In eating food to nourish the internal organs, flavor the food and change the variety, This is as effective as eating organs because many vegetables and fruits also nourish the organs. The big dates produced in Hebei, Shandong, and Shanxi nourish the spleen and increase energy. Chestnuts and walnuts nourish the kidneys. Longan helps the heart and blood; Lily moistens the lungs and improves breathing, and mulberry nourishes the liver. All these foods are neutral and sweet.

Generally, fruits and vegetables should be eaten frequently to improve the health; they either can be eaten alone or together with other foods. For example, dates cooked with lily and then drunk will nourish the lungs and spleen. Chestnuts and mulberry cooked and eaten together nourish the liver and kidneys, and raw chestnuts strengthen the back and knees. Su Che (1039 - 1112), a Song Dynasty man of letters, wrote a poem in praise of chestnuts. It says that an old man living in the mountains had back and knee trouble. Every day he ate three raw chestnuts morning and evening to ease the pain, but raw chestnuts should not be eaten in excess as they cause digestion problems.

TCM advocates nourishing the energy and blood vessels in the human body. TCM philosophy states, “What man has are vigor and blood.” Blood flows in the vessels, promoting yin and yang to make muscles and bones strong, and joints flexible. TCM theory holds that “qi,” or energy, is spiritual matter full of vitality, a formless force and spirit. Qi, which exists in heaven, earth, and humans, is an embodiment of the life – force; therefore, a lack of qi means the whole body is weak. TCM recommends using ginseng to nourish vital energy.

According to TCM theory, the foods that nourish qi and blood are liver, spinach, carrots, and animal blood. This is because the liver is the blood – building organ of animals, especially mammals. The chemicals contained in animal liver are similar to human blood and, therefore, nourish the qi and blood of the human body. Modern medical scientists are researching the use of serum from pig blood as the raw material for making substitute human plasma, which shows that animal blood nourishes human blood.

Foods that build semen and bone marrow strengthen the muscles and bones. The “semen” TCM refers to is the natural semen contained in the kidneys. This basic matter makes up and maintains human life. It is also the sperm to procreate. If a man does not have semen, he will be infertile; if a woman does not have semen, she will not become pregnant. The Nei jing says: “Semen is the foundation of reproduction.”

Marrow is the soft tissue that fills the bone cavities. It is formed from the overflowing kidney semen that is stored in the bone cavities. According to TCM theory, kidneys produce marrow and the bones are the dwelling places for the marrow. Therefore, both semen and marrow are the most treasured part of the human body, and the Chinese compare the most valuable things in the world to them.

Foods that nourish semen and marrow are called “products of flesh and blood.” All animals have flesh and blood and some animals, such as the dog, horse, and ox, even have feelings. If trained, they can understand what human beings mean, so they are said to “have feelings of flesh and blood.” Many creatures have such feelings of flesh and blood. In the book Compendium of Materia Medica, Li Shizhen recorded 299 animals with hair, feathers, shells and scales. The marrow of pig and ox, and the cartilage of ox, sheep, and pig all contain rich protein, a little fat, and gelatin, which has the same effect as donkey – hide gelatin, a famous and valuable TCM drug that strengthens bones and muscles and nourishes marrow.

Crab also nourishes marrow and semen. TCM prescribes a specific way to eat crabs, the best time being the 9th and 10th lunar months. In his Compendium of Materia Medica, Li Shizhen said: “When cooking crabs, add Dahurian angelica root to prevent damage to the crab’s ovary and digestive glands, and add onion and Chinese magnolia wine fruits to prevent color change.” Both Dahurian angelica root and Chinese magnolia vine fruits are available in TCM pharmacies, 4 –5 grams is enough.

The crabs must be alive, and then they must be well cooked. Liquor – saturated crabs should not be eaten because they are served raw. (Liquor is sometimes used to sterilize crabs.) Because crabs eat rotten food and poison – carrying substances, they often cause poisoning if they are not well cooked. Dead crabs should not be eaten.

Yellow croaker, eek, turtle, sea cucumber, and scallops all nourish the semen and marrow. Mix the air bladder of the yellow croaker and the Chinese herb astragali complanati together into balls to improve semen. Sea cucumber and mussels are excellent semen nourishing foods that are highly effective in improving male sexual functioning.

According to scientific analysis, all these foods are nutritious, high in protein, and low in fat. Sea cucumbers contain 55.5% protein and 1.9% crude fat; mussels contain 59.1% protein and 7.6% fat. Both are mild and good for the health.

When eating foods to build health, pay attention to the spleen and stomach. Once food is eaten, the functions of the spleen and stomach digest the food and absorb its nutrients. The spleen and stomach play a vital role in maintaining human life, so it is very important to protect and maintain their normal functioning. This is achieved by paying attention to both internal and external factors. The external factor is the food; in other words, food and drink must nourish the stomach.

Ye Tianshi (1667 - 1746), a famous Qing Dynasty doctor, wrote the book On Warmth, which greatly influenced later generations. He believed that foods must suit the taste, and the stomach must feel good after eating them. He also said, “Food is good if the stomach likes it.” Foods the stomach likes contain nutrients needed by the human body and are easily digested. To protect the spleen and stomach, foods should be soft, warm, and stomach, foods should be soft, warm, and chewed carefully.

Even highly nutritious foods will produce the opposite effect if the functions of the spleen and stomach are neglected. In spite of their rich nutrients, chicken, duck, fish, and meat that have been deep – fried or stir – fried in oil are not easily digested. If you eat more of them than you need, they will increase the burden on the spleen and stomach, and cause indigestion.

To ensure the normal functioning of the spleen and stomach, it is necessary to keep a peaceful mind. Because the spleen controls the mind, excessive deliberation and thinking hurt the spleen, and if the spleen is hurt, there is no appetite for food.

The nutrients the human body needs are protein, fat, sugar, vitamins, inorganic salts, and water. There are many foods in the world. Because the nutrients contained in each food vary, people should eat many different foods instead of eating only a few foods. A limited selection of food makes it difficult to obtain all the different nutrients needed by the human body. Many people who maintained good health in ancient times ate vegetarian foods. The Nei Jing says: “Excessive eating of fatty meats and fine grains is sure to cause malignant tumors.”

Speaking on the advantage of vegetarian foods, Dr. Sun Yat – sen, the great Chinese democratic revolutionary (1866 -1925), said:

“China has invented a great variety of foods and has cooked them in so many ways that no other country can match. However, the eating and drinking habits of the Chinese people, which conform to scientific and hygienic requirements, are beyond the reach of common people in any other country. What the Chinese people drink is very often clear tea, and what they eat is simple food with some vegetables and bean curd…”

“Bean curd is, in fact, the ‘meat’ of plants. It has the same benefits as meat, but does not have the bad effects of meat,… Europeans and Americans have a habit of drinking alcoholic liquors and eating meat and fish… On the question of food and drink, Chinese habits are superior to those in any other country.” (The Chinese Should Stick to Their Own Dietetic Methods)

In the second year of the Jianyuan Reign of the Western Han Dynasty (139 B.C.), emperor Wudi (156 – 87 B.C.) sent Zhang Qian (? – 114 B.C.) to the Western Region (Xinjiang in China, and Central Asia) as his envoy. Zhang Qian stayed there for 12 years strengthening cultural exchanges between China and the West, and introducing many new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and soybeans into China. Legend has it that Liu An (or Liu Chang), Prince of Huainan in the Western Han Dynasty, invented bean curd. Emperor Wudi of the Liang Dynasty later invented gluten. These inventions greatly enriched vegetarian foods.

Buddhism does not strictly require vegetarianism. Buddhists of the Mongolian, Tibetan, and Dai nationalities in China, who believe in Dacheng Buddhism, all eat meat because meat is more plentiful than vegetables where they live. Some Chinese Buddhist followers are vegetarian because Emperor Wudi of the Liang dynasty advocated it.

Emperor Xiao Yan (502 - 549), was a wise and versatile monarch during the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties. When still a child, he learned both Confucian and Taoist classics, and followed Taoism. After many discussions with famous Buddhist monks and literati, Xiao Yan held the Buddhist ideas of “not bringing evil,” “doing good deeds,” “abstaining from killing animals,” “releasing captured animals,” “eating vegetarian food,” and “maintaining peace and quiet,” agreed with the Confucian ideas of “a reputation for benevolence” and “filial piety,” so he converted from Taoism to Buddhism. His promotion of vegetarian food had a strong political and religious impact. From that time on, Buddhist followers (mainly in areas inhabited by Han Chinese) equated the idea of not killing animals with vegetarianism.

Buddhist followers contributed greatly to the development of vegetarian food and its own system. Originally, Buddhist followers in India were not required to be vegetarians because, when the monks begged alms door – to – door, they could not choose between meat and vegetarian foods. Neither were Chinese Buddhist monks confined by strict food rules.

Later the pious Buddhist Emperor, Wudi, promoted vegetarianism and prohibited monks from eating meat. He held that eating meat violated Buddhist tenets and he punished monks who drank liquor or ate meat. So, Buddhist temples banned wine and meat. Because the monks then ate vegetarian foods all year, the number of vegetarians increased greatly thereby stimulating the development of vegetarian food. Legend has it that during Emperor Wudi’s reign, a monk who cooked in the “Jianye Temple” in Nanjing was skilled at preparing vegetarian food and earned praises from pilgrims and monks in the temple.

To meet the needs of Buddhist followers, the restaurant trade opened more vegetarian businesses and, to accommodate the pilgrims, literati, officials, VIPs, and tourists, Buddhist temples all over China invented many delicious vegetarian dishes. For example, “Fried Spring Rolls” (sliced bean curd, gluten, and wild vegetables wrapped in dried bean milk cream or cabbage leaves) were invented by Great Master Hongren of the Zen Sect of Buddhism after the Tang Dynasty. Spring rolls are a famous vegetarian dish (now also filled with meat) at home and abroad.

After the Han and Jin Dynasties, Buddhist temples were established in all the big mountains and along large rivers. Many had kitchens to cook mushrooms, fungi, vegetables, gourds, fruits, and all kinds of dishes made of bean curd, After the Song Dynasty, up to the Ming and Qing Dynasties, “all vegetarian dinners” including dishes like vegetarian chicken, vegetarian goose, vegetarian duck, vegetarian fish, and vegetarian ham, were served. Even now, the Yufo (Jade Buddha) Temple in Shanghai, the Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, the Daming Temple in Yangzhou, the Wuzu Temple in Huangmei County, Hubei Province, the Baoguang Temple in Xindu, Sichuan Province, and the Southern Putuo Temple in Xiamen, Fujian Province, are all famous for their vegetarian food.

Buddhist and Taoist cuisines both stress vegetarian food. Ge Hong (281 - 341), a famous Jin Dynasty Taoist medical scientist, chemist, and health-building expert, advocated “the food of five fungi,” and stressed food of fungi and flowers. Both Buddhists and Taoists ate fungi and flowers, and the people of China are believed to have been the first to eat flowers as food. Day lily, lily lotus, plum, osmanthus, cotton-rose, yulan magnolia, and chrysanthemum flowers are all used for food. It has since been confirmed that these edible flower contain amino acids, fructose, vitamins, and trace elements such as iron, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.

Many interesting foods have been made from flowers. The Imperial Kitchen stir – fried lotus and lean meat into a fragrant dish that was refreshing in the summer heat. People in ancient times used plum blossoms in porridge to add a refreshing taste. Cotton-rose and bean curd were cooked into a bright moon soup, and scholar-tree flowers were scrambled with eggs to make a delicious dish. Chrysanthemum and osmanthus make excellent flavorings for cakes.

During the 17th century the Nuzhen, a northern nomadic tribe, came to the Central Plains where they established the Qing Dynasty Empire and a preference for vegetarian food. The temples, markets, and palace all had special kitchens that prepared vegetarian food. Vegetarian cooks in the temples were called fragrance – accumulating chefs (cooking monks), and their vegetarian food was caked Buddhist food. In the palace, vegetarian food was known as Buddhist food. The emperors and royal family ate vegetarian food when they abstained from eating meat in offering sacrifices to their Gods or ancestors.

The Imperial Kitchen had a special section that prepared vegetarian food using such raw materials as gluten, bean curd, skin of soy bean milk, dried bean curd cream, fresh bamboo, mushrooms, water chestnuts, Chinese yam, day lily, fungi, and fruits. The vegetarian cooks used these materials to prepare hundreds of differently flavored delicacies.

When discussing vegetarian food, it is necessary to mention the rice porridge with nuts and dried fruits that was eaten in the Buddhist temples on the 8th day of the 12th moon. Legend says Sakyamuni ate very simple food in the six years that he practiced Buddhism before he became the Buddha and founded Buddhism. He became enlightened on the 8th day of the 12th moon; to honor this day, later generations began eating rice porridge with nuts and dried fruits. When Buddhist temples fed pilgrims or tourists the porridge, they usually cooked rice with peanuts, dates, chestnuts, longan, lotus seeds, walnuts, red beans, ginkgo, and soy beans. Because it contains so many ingredients, the porridge is very nutritious. In ancient times it was called “Good Fortune and Virtue Porridge” or “Good Fortune and longevity Porridge” because the porridge can help prolong life and improve health.

From a modern, scientific viewpoint, diet should emphasize vegetarian food but contain a combination of vegetarian and meat dishes. This is because vegetarian food promotes the normal movement of the stomach and intestines. Zhu Danxi (1281 - 1358), a noted medical scientist in the Yuan Dynasty, said: “If grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits naturally taste mild, they will nourish the human body and improve the male organs.”

The Nei Jing says, “Vegetables are prescribed for a fear of hunger or if there is too much worry, which hurts the stomach. Vegetables are used to help dredge the stomach and intestines, and improve digestion. This is the benevolence of the Heaven, Earth, and living matters.” This passage says vegetarian foods cleanse the stomach and intestines, and their cellulose aids digestion, promotes intestinal peristalsis, and relieves constipation.

The cellulose in vegetable expands in water to form a close network that absorbs inorganic salts, organic acids, and water. This simple process adjusts the digestive and absorptive functions of the intestines, affects the metabolism of the human body, and helps prevent disease. Scientists believe that eating more cellulose – rich foods, such as coarse grains, beans, corn, celery, cabbage, chives, and Chinese cabbage, can help prevent enteritis and intestinal cancers. Some people spit out the “residue” when they eat vegetables, but this is a mistake because that residue is the cellulose that is indispensable to the human body.

Foreign research shows that Europeans and Americans have more than ten times the incidence of intestinal cancer than do Africans. The reason is believed to be diet. Europeans and Americans eat only a fraction of the cellulose that Africans do. Science shows that meat and vegetable dishes should be well blended, preferably with the total quantity of vegetables being two or more times that of meat.

Vegetables have five advantages: They contain vitamins that aid digestion, they prevent nutritional deficiencies, they help prevent obesity, they improve blood circulation, and they prevent and help cure cancers.

Cow’s milk, black sesame seeds, and bee honey are also highly nutritious foods. Sun Simiao (581 -682), a noted medical scientist in the Sui and Tang Dynasties, noted: “They are far better than meats.” The menus form the Ming and Qing palaces show the emperors’ daily diets included fruits, vegetables, milk, and foods made of coarse corn flour. All of these have been described in earlier chapters of this book.

It can thus be seen that the imperial foods were very effective in building health through diet. Both the Ming and Qing Palace banned the drinking of strong liquor and greediness, which can negatively affect health.


More on Chinese food and health building:

Taoist Philosophy of Health Building

Buddhist Philosophy on Health Building

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