Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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Buddhism has been practiced across most of the Asian continent for over 2,500 years, with clergy and laity in different regions embracing a range of sacred teachings, scriptural languages, liturgical calendars, and moral precepts. Given this variety, it is unsurprising that the food cultures of Buddhist institutional and lay practice should also vary widely, as these cultures naturally include the preparation, offering, and consumption of sweets.

Specific foods appear as offerings of nourishment at key junctures of influential versions of the life of the Buddha: shortly before his awakening, when he ended his ascetic trials by accepting milk gruel from a cowherd girl; and shortly before his death, when he accepted a final meal (either of pork or of mushrooms) from a metalworker. Sweet foods also appear in some biographical traditions. The first meal offered to the Buddha after his awakening, given by two merchants who became his first lay disciples, was reportedly of wheat and honey. In later Indian Buddhism, the pilgrimage center of Vai′sāli was famed as the site of a monkey’s gift of honey to the Buddha, one of the “Eight Great Events” in late accounts of his life. Another sweet appears in an episode from the monastic code of the Mīlasarvāstivāda school of Buddhism. After renouncing the world and awakening, the Buddha returned to his home kingdom. There, his former consort Ya′sodharā offered him an aphrodisiac sweetmeat (va′sīkaraņamodaka) in an effort to entice him to return to his life as a ruler and husband. Ya′sodharā sent their son Rāhula to deliver it to the Buddha, but the Buddha merely returned it to Rāhula, who ate it and became so intoxicated with his father that he decided to abandon his mother to follow the Buddha. The euphemistic translation of the name of the sweet into Chinese as “balls of joy” (huanxituan) may reflect discomfort with the erotic implications of the Sanskrit name, which specifically refers to the manipulation of bewitching another person.