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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Skilled eating : knowledge of food in Yichu's Shishi liutie, a Buddhist encyclopedia from tenth-century China Toleno, Robban Anthony John

Abstract

A common approach in studies of food and religion is to understand food taboos as emerging out of a symbolic system based on notions of the sacred. Religion is understood in this view to construct meaning on the basis of symbolism, which is grounded in sacred authority. In Chinese Buddhist discourse on eating contained in a tenth-century Buddhist encyclopedia, however, in place of food taboos one finds a doctrine of equanimity and moderation in eating. Using the Chinese Buddhist encyclopedia Shishi liutie as source, I argue that Chinese Buddhists framed the morality of eating not by sacral authority but by a notion of skill. This theoretical frame describes Buddhist ethics generally: kuśala (Ch. shan 善) is that which is skillful because it is wholesome, good, virtuous, or meritorious; and akuśala (Ch. bushan 不善) is that which is unskillful, because it is unwholesome or lacking in virtue. Viewing morality as a problem of skill helps explain the variation of interpretations on how to best eat as a Buddhist, which are found in different Buddhist writings. Buddhist teachings on food are provisional forms of knowledge rather than authoritative pronouncements. Most central to Buddhist attitudes on food in the Shishi liutie are proper knowledge and proper attitude––both of which allow individuals to skillfully obtain the benefits of eating while avoiding pitfalls such as gluttony and illness. By highlighting skill over sacral authority, I question the commonly held notion that religious knowledge is by definition fundamentally symbolic. In medieval China, Buddhist knowledge of eating was practical and provisional, evolving with society to meet contemporary needs.

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