Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple Soup Beef

A good friend from San Francisco introduced us to the Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple in Berkeley this weekend. He’d talked a lot about it in the past, and this weekend, he brought his family across the bridge and we met at our house with another wonderful set of friends, with six kids and six parents in all, and headed off to lunch at the temple.

I loved the ornate temple decor on the front of the building, and felt welcomed and happy as we drifted in through the driveway entrance alongside the temple, and found ourselves amongst a huge community gathering — full of people, food and energy! There were at least a hundred and fifty people there enjoying the warm day with plates of curry, rice, Pad Thai, and noodle soup.

The food I had was delicious. Getting so many people from the area into a Buddhist temple was a delight to behold — and quite a surprise. I’m not so sure you’d see this in San Francisco, somehow. It seems to fit quite nicely in Berkeley. It’s a little less hip and a little more .. I dunno .. Berkeley.

The temple has an interesting way to handle the financial transaction of buying the food. I’m not sure if they do it this way so that the servers don’t have to handle money (due to the prohibition of money handling by monks and nuns, perhaps) or if it’s just an efficient way for them to keep the lines moving, but they were using a system of chips as currency. $1=1 chip; and the meals were distributed using a system where one choice was 7 chips, two choices was 8 chips, three choices was 9 chips. Other foods had other ‘chip’ prices. It was very clever and easy. You could trade in unused chips for dollars, or donate them to the temple at the end! Great idea.

I have to say there is one puzzling thing about the food. They had one vegetarian line and two meat lines. The only soup they served was a beef broth soup with … well, beef, I guess, floating prominently in the bowl. I really don’t want to disparage the temple, but I cannot square my understanding of Buddhism with the choice to serve so much meat. The vegetarian choices were excellent and there were seven or eight distinct things to choose from. It’s not like their menu would be lacking without the meat. Do they think nobody would come unless they serve it? This is an introduction to Buddhism, undoubtedly for many of these people. What kind of example does it set to include animal flesh in the food? When it comes to right conduct (Sila) abstaining from killing is literally the #1 rule:

The five precepts

1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

I would love to speak to the abbot about it. I’m sure they’ve heard the question from others. They must have!! I’m sure they have a pat answer. I just can’t seem to guess what that answer could possibly be. I’ll just have to make it part of my practice at this moment to ‘let it go’… not dwell or get stuck on it… detachment… confusion is like this… disappointment is like this… sometimes it doesn’t make sense, and that can be ok. Breathing in, breathing out.

It’s hard for me when meat eating comes up in buddhist contexts. This isn’t the first time. The only place I’ve seen it skillfully addressed is in “The Crooked Cucumber” (Suzuki Roshi’s biography), when Suzuki skillfully uses a cheeseburger switcheroo with his head student while on a road trip as a means to get him to not take his vegetarianism too seriously (ie. not to get attached to his vegetarian ‘self’). This is why I’ll eat the errant piece of chicken that fell into a burrito – or not worry too much when a food order gets mixed up and I end up with a mouthful of something suspicious. Let it go. Not striving for purity. Just following Sila; just maintaining the intention to do no harm. No need to take myself or my efforts too seriously. That said, I’d be pretty hard pressed to serve beef soup at a buddhist potluck, let alone at the temple!

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