Buddhist Celebrations: Dharma Gem Festival

Speaker: Ven. Zhi Tong

Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Greetings and Wishes

Auspicious greetings everyone! Welcome to a special episode of Fo Guang Shan English Dharma Services. In this episode, we are going to talk about Buddhist Festivals. My name is Zhi Tong.

Buddhism, like all countries and cultures, has its fair share of celebrations and festivals. For Chinese Buddhism, festivals are marked according to the Lunar calendar. There are celebrations of the Triple Gem and of buddhas and bodhisattvas’ birthdays.

II. What are the Triple Gem Festivals?

The most important of all Buddhist festivals are the Triple Gem Festivals, which are: the Buddha Gem Festival, the Dharma Gem Festival, and the Sangha Gem Festival. 

The Buddha Gem Festival commemorates the day of birth of Prince Siddhartha, who would later attain awakening and become the Buddha. It is also known as the Buddha’s Birthday and is celebrated on Lunar April 8th. 

The Dharma Gem Festival is to celebrate the occasion of the Buddha’s awakening. After sitting beneath the bodhi tree for 49 days, Prince Siddhartha finally realized the truth of the universe and thus attained enlightenment. This auspicious day is celebrated on Lunar December 8th.

The Sangha Gem Festival is celebrated on Lunar July 15th. During the Buddha’s time, the Sangha community would engage in a three-month retreat starting from Lunar April 15th to July 15th. In this period, the monastics would practice diligently, and on the last day of the retreat, many monastics would attain various states of awakening. On Lunar July 15th, the lay devotees would come to the temple and make offerings to the Sangha, as this is a meritorious and auspicious event.

Today, I am going to share a little about an upcoming festival, the Dharma Gem Festival. It is coming up next Monday, on January 10th (which correspond to Lunar December 8th)

III.  How is Dharma Gem Festival celebrated?

As the Dharma Gem Festival is a commemoration of the Buddha’s awakening, one can use this day to read and write about the Dharma. Venerable Master Hsing Yun also tells us that the Dharma Day festival can be celebrated through sharing the teachings of the Buddha or the practices of Buddhism. We can also use this time to reflect by following the Dharma. One can even use this day to hold concerts that praise the Buddha.

IV. Does the Dharma Gem Day have special food?

Yes, indeed! The special food for Dharma Gem Day is laba congee. Congee is a way of cooking porridge with rice. On this day, many temples would cook laba congee and share it with anyone who would visit the temples. In Fo Guang Shan, all branch temples would take this opportunity to deliver hot laba congee to the local community.

V. What is the connection between the Buddha’s enlightenment and a bowl of porridge?

This is a good question, and we need to go back to the Buddha to answer this question. 

Before Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment, he spent 6 years doing austerities practices. During that time in India, many spiritual practitioners would deprive themselves physically with the single-minded goal of discovering the truth. Prince Siddhartha, too adopted this form of practice. He would sit meditating everyday, depriving himself from all kinds of material comfort. According to the stories, he would eat a grain of wheat and a grain of sesame per day as his only nourishment.

But after six years, Prince Siddhartha was still far from attaining awakening. He finally realized that indulgence in material pleasures and comforts are not beneficial for spiritual cultivation, and torturing one’s body and mind are also detrimental to spiritual cultivation as well. Enlightenment cannot be attained by either indulgence nor asceticism. He realized that he need to practice the middle path, when one is neither indulging nore torturing one’s body.

After understanding this, Prince Siddhartha stood up and started to walk away from his old cultivation spot. He came to a river and began to clean himself from the dirt that was accumulated on his body. But as he hadn’t had any food for a long time, and was just skin and bones, he fainted after crossing the river.
A shepherdess named Sujata saw the prince and quickly offered him a mixture of milk and rice. The prince received the offering gratefully, and as he ate, strength regained in his body and his head began to clear. After thanking the shepherdess, Prince Siddhartha traveled to a new place of practice, which is where we now call Bodh Gaya in India. He prepared a meditation seat beneath the bodhi tree and vowed, “I vow never to rise from this seat until I am liberated from birth and death, and realize enlightenment.” After 49 days of intense meditation and contemplation, finally Prince Siddhartha perceived the truth of the universe. He realized that everything in this world is dependent in origination. This is how he attained awakening.

Hence, the laba congee is a way to commemorate that bowl of milk and rice that Sujata the Shepherdess offered to Prince Siddhartha.

V. Why is congee offered instead of milk & rice?

This has to do with cultural assimilation. During Lunar December, China already has the of praying and worshiping the heavens and ancestors. This is done to ask for blessings for the coming new year, and hope that there will be a good harvest. When Buddhism spread into China, the eighth day of Lunar December was gradually fixed as the Enlightenment Day of the Buddha. Buddhist temples continued the tradition of preparing laba congee, and the local community view a bowl of laba congee as an auspicious and healthy symbol. Hence, the laba congee is also known as the Buddha’s Congee in Chinese. We hope that everyone who receives this laba congee will not only be warmed, but will also attain wisdom and merit just like the Buddha.

V. Is there a laba congee recipe?

Venerable Master Hsing Yun, the founder of Fo Guang Shan, has written a very detailed recipe for laba congee. Here, let me show you a video of the process of preparing a bowl of Venerable Master Hsing Yun’s laba congee. This video is wonderfully done by Fo Guang Shan I.B.P.S. New York, and the cook is none other than Venerable You Wang, the superintendent of I.B.P.S. New York. Let’s take a look.

Venerable Master Hsing Yun’s Laba Congee Recipe

A. Ingredients: 

  1. Japonica white rice: 1.5 measuring cup
  2. Glutinous rice: 0.5 cup
  3. Raw taro: 1 cup
  4. Raw carrot: 1 cup
  5. Lotus seeds : 1 cup
  6. Raw peanuts (or black-eye peas): 1 cups
  7. Fried tofu: 1 cup
  8. Shanghai bok choy: 1 cup
  9. Fried youtiao (cruller): 2 cups
  10. Old ginger: ½ table spoon

B. Condiments:

  1. Oil: 3 tablespoons
  2. Thick soy sauce: 1 tablespoon
  3. Soy sauce: 4 tablespoon
  4. White pepper: 1 teaspoon
  5. Salt: ½ tablespoon 

C. Preparation:

(i) Japonica white rice & glutinous white rice

  1. Wash and rinse dry

(ii) Raw peanuts: 

  1. Prepare two pots (Pot A and B) and fill them up with cold water. Boil both pots at the same time.
  2. Rinse peanuts and boil them in Pot A. When Pot A is nearly boiling, fish out the peanuts and boil them into Pot B.
  3. Empty the water in Pot A and add some water. Boil the pot again. When the peanuts are boiling in Pot B, fish them out and put them into Pot A (no matter what the water temperature in Pot A is). Refill Pot B with water and boil it.
  4. Repeat Step 2 & 3 for two times.
  5. The third time when fishing the peanuts from Pot B to Pot A, the water in Pot A should only be an inch over the peanuts. 
  6. Boil peanuts in medium fire for 25 minutes. Turn off the fire and let the peanuts rest for 40 minutes in the pot without removing the lid.
  7. After 40 minutes, take off the lid and boil the peanuts again for 10 minutes, then switch off the fire. Repeat this process twice.
  8. Repeat Steps 6 & 7.
  9. On the third time, boil the peanuts for 5 minutes. After turning off the heat, let the peanuts cool within the pot. Do not remove the lid until the peanuts completely cool down. 
  10. Set peanuts aside for cooking.

Note: When cooking the peanuts, if you need to add any water in the boiling process, add hot water instead of cold water.

(iii) Raw black-eye peas (If allergic to peanuts, use black-eye peas)

  1. After washing and rinsing black-eye peas, soak them for 6 hours (change water every two hours for three times). After 6 hours, rinse the peas.

(iv) Lotus seeds

  1. Steam lotus seeds until soft.

(v) Tofu, carrots, & taro

  1. Dice tofu, carrots, and taro into 1cm cubes and fried them.

(vi) Fried youtiao (cruller)

  1. Cut into 0.7 cm bits.

(vii) Shanghai bok choy

  1. Blanch Shanghai bok choy then immerse in ice water
  2. Drain and chop into 0.7cm bits.

D. Cooking

  1. Prepare a frying pan. Add oil. Once oil is heated, add soy sauce and thick soy sauce. Add peanuts (or black-eye peas), lotus seeds, fried tofu cubes and stir fry. 
  2. Add 400 c.c. of water. Add white pepper powder. Turn the fire down to small until all the moistures is soaked up.
  3. Prepare another pan, add oil, stir fry minced ginger. Add washed rice grains and stir fry.
  4. Prepare a soup pot, add 3000 c.c. of cold water. Add carrots. Wait until water comes to boil.
  5. Once the water is boiled, add the stir-fried rice grains. After 5 minutes, add fried taro. After 10 minutes, add the boiled peanuts (or black-eye peas), lotus seeds, and fried tofu into the pot. 
  6. After cooking for 25 minutes, add salt to taste, add fried youtiao (cruller) and the boiled Shanghai bok choy. Stir ingredients. Put the lid on the pot and Turn off the heat. let the congee rest for five minutes before serving.

V. Conclusion

This brings us to the end of our introduction. Thank you for joining us for this special episode! We hope you will have a wonderful Dharma Gem Festival, no matter if it is spending some quiet time reading about the Dharma, or a happy time sharing the Buddha’s teachings with your loved ones. Let us know if you try out Venerable Master’s Laba congee recipe, or if you enjoy any congee from one of the Fo Guang Shan branch temples. Stay safe, take care! May you find joy and inspiration from the Dharma. Omitofo.