Shōjin-ryōri

Shōjin-ryōri: A Buddhists Cuisine

Buddhism spread from the Indian Subcontinent to China and most of Central Asia via the Silk Road and eventually reached Japan. Buddhism in Japan has been thought to have been practiced since sometime near 550 CE or even as early as the Kofun period, 250-538 CE.

Empress Suiko

Buddhism established a foothold in the country when Empress Suiko ascended the throne in 592 after taking the vows of a Buddhist nun. Following her footsteps, Prince Shotoku during his reign, commissioned a number of Buddhist temples to be built all across Japan which propagated the further spread of the religion. Buddhism has had a major influence in the development of Japanese society and culture even now.

Empress Suiko.

During the reign of Emperor Tenmu in 675, the consumption of livestock and some wild animals such as monkeys, birds, horses, cattle and dogs were prohibited in Japan due to the influence of Buddhism. In 737 during the Nara period, under the reign of Emperor Seimu, fish and shellfish were allowed to be eaten. Some 1,200 years between the Nara period up until the latter part of the 19th century during the Meiji Restoration, saw the Japanese people predominantly having a vegetarian diet. A typical Japanese meal at the time would consist of rice, beans and vegetables. It was only during special occasions or celebrations that fish was served.

Shōjin-ryōri as a Dharmic concept

For the many centuries for which the Japanese observed vegetarian-style meals, Buddhist monks developed a vegetarian cuisine called Shōjin-ryōri or ‘devotion cuisine’. Ryōri means “cooking or cuisine” while shojin translates to ‘virya’ in Sanskrit meaning “to have the goodness and keep away evils”. The Buddhist cuisine was influenced by Chinese Buddhism and is based on the Dharmic concept of ahimsa, an ancient Indian principle of non-violence. Buddhist food as a cuisine is distinctly tied to monastery practices where a member of a community would have the responsibility of being the head cook and supply meals that paid respect to Buddhist principles. Shōjin-ryōri is served at many temples in Japan, especially in Kyoto.

Zen origins of Shōjin-ryōri

Shōjin-ryōri was brought to country by the Buddhist monk Dōgen Zenji, the founder of Sōtō Zen or the Sōtō school (曹洞宗, Sōtō-shū), the largest of the three traditional sects of Zen in Japanese Buddhism (the other two being Rinzai and Ōbaku).  Zen practice emphasizes seated meditation. Eating meat is believed to cloud the spirit and interfere with meditation. As a result, Buddhist meals had no meat or fish and also refrained from using any strong flavors such as garlic and onion. These principles became the foundation of Shōjin-ryōri.

Dogen

Though lacking strong flavors and meat or fish, Shōjin-ryōri is far from being tasteless. The Buddhist monks use the “rule of five” when preparing dishes. Every meal must include five colors such as green, red, yellow, black and white and five flavors, salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. All these flavors are drawn out naturally from each ingredient rather than adding artificial flavorings. The balance in colors and flavor is derived from using seasonal ingredients.

Dōgen Zenji.

Shōjin-ryōri is a wonderful way to experience the Japanese culture and traditions when in Japan or even from your very own kitchen by preparing some vegetarian inspired dishes!