Japanese Zen Buddhist temple starts selling instant vegan soba and udon noodles

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RocketNews 24:

Upon coming to Japan, a lot of people are surprised to discover just how difficult finding vegetarian food can be. Many people imagine Japan as a country that eats very little meat, and while that’s definitely true in comparison to North America and western Europe, the flipside is that you’ll find at least a little bit of meat in just about all dishes, including salads and vegetable stews with surprising frequency.

Things get trickier still if you’re trying to stick to a vegan diet. Even something as simple as noodles are generally out, since almost all broths are made with meat or fish stock. But if you’ve got an aversion to meat coupled with a craving for soba or udon, you’re in luck, with two new types of vegan instant noodles produced by a Zen Buddhist temple.

As a temple of the Soto sect of Zen, Yokohama’s Soji Temple is primarily concerned with nourishing the souls of worshippers. The institution’s newest venture, though, is more concerned with your physical nourishment, as evidenced by its name, Zen-Foods.

Many devout Buddhist monks in Japan adhere to a strict vegan diet called shojin ryori. In recent years, the cuisine has obtained a somewhat chic status, bolstered by its healthy image and connection to temple lodges that have become increasingly popular places for travelers to stay.

Under the supervision of Soji Temple, Zen-Foods has produced two types of instant noodles, both completely animal product-free, in accordance with the rules of shojin ryori.

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The Gahomen Soba buckwheat noodles, despite their elegant background, are made like any other instant variety. Open the lid, sprinkle on the soup powder, add hot water, and wait three minutes for everything to cook. Once it does, you’ll have a bowl of soba, swimming in a kelp/soy sauce broth, topped with soybeans, fried tofu, kikurage mushrooms, and an assortment of chingensai, warabi, and zenmai greens.

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Meanwhile, the Gahomen Udon wheat noodles’ has a vegetable broth seasoned with salt. While soba and udon toppings are largely interchangeable in Japanese cuisine, Zen-Foods gives its two types of noodles completely different accompaniments. With the udon, you can look forward to lotus root, green beans, and taro, among other veggies.

The udon does require a little more patience, though, as its cooking time is listed as five minutes. Looked at another way, though, that’s two more minutes for quiet meditation, self-reflection, or simply looking forward to your hot, healthy meal.

Gahomen Soba and Udon can be ordered here, directly from Zen-Foods, in packs of 12 for 3,600 yen (US$30).

Shaolin Monks in London’s Chinatown

7 things that surprise a visitor to Laos


RocketNews 24:

If you are visiting Laos, this is probably not your first rodeo in Asia, so I’ll skip the squat toilets and fleets of bicycles and get to seven things that this little Southeast Asian gem has to surprise even seasoned travelers.

1. How dirty the air is


This is the one item on the list that really doesn’t have any redeeming charm, so let’s get it out of the way first. Laos is still a largely agrarian society, with little manufacturing and a whole lot of untouched jungle, so I was anticipating filling my lungs with crystal clear, if muggy, air, but instead spent most of the trip cleaning black gunk out of my mucus membranes. Even in the nature reserves of the far north, where the nearest town of any size is several hours’ drive away, the sun was almost completely obscured well into the afternoon most days.

This might be partly due to the time of year I visited, as March turns out to be when farmers burn brush off their land in preparation for planting. Throughout my travels, I often saw plots of land smoking from a controlled burn. It creates so much haze in the air that sometimes flights are grounded! Even if it is only temporary, for someone to whom air pollution is associated with heavy vehicle traffic and manufacturing, the degree of congestion in Laos was shocking.

2. The dearth of domestic products


To be clear, I mean manufactured domestic products here. There is plenty of domestic produce, handicrafts and the like available, but the vast majority of value-added manufactured goods are imported from neighbors Thailand, China and Vietnam.

This isn’t something I normally pay attention to, but after a local trekking guide mentioned how many daily necessities have to be imported, I began looking for domestically produced goods in the shops. The only one I found during my travels was the ubiquitous (and tasty) Beerlao pictured above, itself started as a joint venture with foreign investors. The rest of shelves were a sea of Thai, Chinese characters and the odd romanized logo.

3. The stubby-legged guard mutts


I detected something a bit different about the dogs here compared to their rangier, wilder cousins I tried to pet in neighboring SE Asian countries. For one thing, the dogs I saw in Laos were not strays. They weren’t the pampered handbag pets of Tokyo either, but each seemed to belong to a particular home or shop, and although I can’t remember ever seeing a veterinary office, I rarely saw dogs with any obvious health problems. Most seemed well-fed and properly socialized.

Surprisingly, during the day, they would sit out front and be friendly and approachable, but if you passed by the same dog after business hours, you would get an earful and possibly a solid bite if you didn’t move along fast enough. They seemed to know when they were “on duty”.

The other thing that cracked me up about dogs here is that an unlikely number of them had little stubby legs like corgis!

Look at those little things!


4. Monks with mixed messages


Clearly monks are deeply revered in Lao culture. Buddhism has a long and rich history in Laos and you can’t go far without running into a wat (temple), all of them completely supported by the generosity of the neighborhood. And what’s not to admire? The monks take on a ascetic lifestyle, focusing all their energies on study, prayer and community service.

For a foreigner, this image of the self-sacrificing ascetic seems quite noble, but the reality sometimes jars with the romantic image. Once, while prowling the wats of Luang Prabang, my friend and I rounded a corner to see a young monk, smoking a cigarette and shimmying to music on his very own iPod. Hardly the image of purity and self-negation!

It’s important to remember that, despite the revered place of monks in society, not everyone joins due to some higher calling. For some, it is a temporary arrangement to garner good karma for themselves or their family or to do penance for misdeeds. Most Lao men will enter the monkhood at some point in their lives, prior to a marriage or after the death of a parent, for example. For young men from poorer villages without access to schools, it can be a way to get a free education, which is why Laos has relatively high literacy rate for its level of development.

5. Children, children, everywhere!


Everywhere I went in Laos, from remote jungle villages to the bustling streets of Luang Prabang and everywhere in between, it seemed like there were always hordes of children running hither and thither. Every lady in the market seemed to have a baby strapped to her back, every river seemed to have groups of shrieking, giggling toddlers playing in the shallows, and every road seemed to have packs of school-aged kids on their way to or from class.

Turns out this was not just my imagination. About 35% of the population of Laos is 14 years old or younger, and it has the youngest median age in all of Asia at 19.5 years (2010), far below the worldwide median of 28.4.

6. Multilingual Laos


Laos is incredibly diverse. Ethnic Lao make up slightly more than half of the population, there are Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese minorities, and numerous “hill people” tribes, such as the Hmong, Dao, Shan, Yao and Tibetan-Burmese people. It’s almost shocking how many languages this brings into the mix. Although most of the adult population can speak Lao, it’s not the mother language for many, who grow up speaking minority languages. Add to that regional dialects and some people end up speaking one language at work, one language with a spouse, and yet another when they visit their home village! Somehow they manage without getting things too mixed up, though.

And that’s just the homegrown languages. Laos was once a French colony, so French is still widely used and also taught in schools, but since the country joined ASEAN and the WTO, English has become more common too. Talk about your linguistic melting pots!

7. You can keep your kip


The official currency in Laos is the kip, with an exchange rate of about 8,000 kip to the US dollar at the moment. The combination of those big numbers, some similarly colored denominations and the use of Lao numbers make kip a bit unwieldy for new arrivals. But you might not even see many kip during your travels because most places accept and even prefer other currencies, in particular Thai baht, US dollars and euros! This is technically illegal, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone. Even roadside fruit merchants were happy to take my baht.

This can make paying for things a confusing mishmash of currencies and exchange rates. With so many different rates to factor, it’s enough to make your head spin, but the Lao are unwaveringly honest, so there is no need to fear that you are being cheated when they make complex currency transactions faster than you can even find the right bills. In fact, many people give up on trying to follow at all and just open their wallets to let merchants take out the correct amounts. Try that anywhere else in SE Asia!

Have I missed anything you found surprising on your Laotian adventure? If so, tell us in the comments. And if you haven’t been to Laos yet, get moving! It’s a charming place I can’t recommend highly enough. Here are a few more photos to whet your appetite:

A Buddhist wat in Luang Prabang


Gardening Luang Prabang-styleIMG_1688

A friendly local “lends a hand” in mounting an elephant


The lovely karst mountains in Nong KhiawIMG_5598

Ziplining in the jungleIMG_5491

Sunrise in the Bokeo Nature ReserveIMG_5461


Image of Buddha wearing headphones triggers controversy in Myanmar

Image: Image depicting Buddha wearing headphones
The Facebook post depicting Buddha wearing headphones that led to Philip Blackwood’s arrest in Myanmar.

NBC News:

This is insulting Myanmar, Buddhism and 500 millions Buddhists around the globe,” Facebook user Htet Naing Win responded to the bar’s post, using more moderate language than some.

The case comes amid a surge in Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar — which emerged in 2011 from half a century of military rule and global isolation. A powerful group of monks who fear Buddhist culture in Myanmar is under threat has emerged and is promoting restrictive and controversial laws aimed at “the protection of race and religion”.

Blackwood is being held in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison where he is potentially facing a four-year jail term. Lawyers predict the trial will stretch for months.

The case has been condemned by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It adds to concerns that Myanmar’s nominally civilian government is backsliding on rights reforms. It also illustrates the increasingly powerful influence on law and politics of the hardline nationalist monks.

Violence relating to a rise in religious tensions has claimed the lives of more than 240 people, mainly Muslims, in Myanmar since 2012 and actions deemed to offend Buddhist sensitivity are flashpoints.

As telecommunications in the developing country expand, social media is providing an increasingly powerful platform for those intent on promoting intolerance.

In July, Myanmar government’s revealed it had been in contact with Facebook representatives seeking advice on curbing online hate-speech amid fears it had fueled religious violence in the country’s second-largest city Mandalay earlier that month.

So sensitive are religious issues in Myanmar just now that Blackwood was initially unable to find a lawyer willing to represent him. Riot police have been drafted in for the trio’s court appearances as supporters of the Buddhist nationalist 969 movement gathered outside.

Image: Buddhist monks take pictures at a courthouse in Yangon, Myanmar
Buddhist monks take pictures at a courthouse as they wait to see New Zealand citizen Philip Blackwood after a hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, on Dec. 18.

The lawyer who eventually agreed to take on the New Zealander’s case, Mya Thway has said he had since received anonymous messages on Facebook threatening to “cut him to pieces and burn him” for doing so.

While the psychedelic Buddha image, or ones like it, are a familiar enough sight adorning T-shirts in the tourist areas of neighbouring Thailand, the insensitivity of using a sacred symbol to promote a bar in Myanmar has been widely recognized within the country. But outside Myanmar, many have reacted with surprise to the degree of anger the case has provoked.

It can be difficult to make sense of Burmese Buddhist reactions to this case, which many people perceive as over-reactions,” said Matthew Walton, Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in modern Burmese studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

Walton described the use of the image as “both a bad business move and a culturally insensitive advertising effort that was at a minimum disrespectful to local Buddhists’ tradition but in the context of an emboldened Buddhist nationalist movement, an incredibly stupid and damaging act.”

Blackwood’s case is believed to be a first in terms of a Westerner facing legal action relating to current religious sensitivities, but according to Walton it remains unclear whether the case heralds a wider rise in intolerance towards perceived Western threats to Buddhism.

He added: “I do want to emphasize that I personally think an extended prison term would be excessive, but I also imagine that there’s an interest in making an example of the defendants, so as to establish how seriously the Myanmar government will take insults to Buddhism.”

David Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Myanmar, described the case as “very disturbing.” He cited it as part of an “escalation in a pattern of rising Burmese and Buddhist ultra-nationalism, anti-Muslim fervor, and creeping xenophobia.”

The main target of the Buddhist nationalist movement has been the country’s Muslims, who make up about 5 percent of its 53 million people.

Blackwood has pleaded not guilty to two charges relating to insulting religion, and a third charge of disobeying an order issued by a public servant. The father of a 4-month-old child insists he did not mean to offend or insult anyone but remains behind bars.

I believe the law says the act must be deliberate, require malice with intent to offend,” Blackwood told the court on Dec. 26. “I have said a number of times, there was no intent.”

Concern over incitement to violence via social media, have led to the launch of a movement aimed at addressing the issue. The Flower Speech campaign — or “Panzagar” in Burmese — was started by Nay Phone Latt, a blogger and activist who was imprisoned between 2008 and 2012 for his online writings about the country’s then-military rulers.

The organization aims to promote responsible use of social media, while upholding the principles of free-speech, long oppressed in Myanmar.

While Nay Phone Latt, who featured on TIME’s list of the world’s most influential people in 2010, said he didn’t believe Blackwood and his co-defendants should be jailed but added that he didn’t agree with their Facebook post.

It is difficult to stand on their side,” Nay Phone Latt said. “Every religion has to respect others if we want to stay together peacefully. I am a Buddhist and liberal thinking, but I don’t like that kind of thing — it’s wrong to use an image of the Buddha in that way.”


Breakdancing Buddhist monks honor fallen Beastie Boy

On Saturday, artists gathered to honor Beastie Boys rapper Adam Yauch for the third annual MCA Day, and a bunch of monks decided to get in on the action.

MCA Day is meant to celebrate Yauch, who died after a long battle with cancer in 2012, with festivities and performances taking place at the Littlefield Performance and Art Space in Brooklyn.

In what may seem as a more unconventional nod by some, four Buddhist monks took to Union Square, the site of the first MCA Day, to put on a tribute to the Beastie Boys by breakdancing to some of their biggest hits.

Some might question whether the dancers are even monks, but one thing’s certain: They sure as hell can dance and put on a show for the crowd. Yauch was a Buddhist and supporter for Tibetan independence, so it seems it’s a fully appropriate celebration of MCA Day.


Tibetan Monks painstakingly create incredible Mandalas using millions of grains of colored sand


My Modern Met:

Imagine the amount of patience that’s required to create such highly detailed art such as this! To promote healing and world peace, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks, from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in India, travel the world creating incredible mandalas using millions of grains of sand. For days or even weeks, the monks spend up to eight hours a day working on one mandala sand painting, pouring multicolored grains of sand onto a shared platform until it becomes a spectacular piece of art.

Each work begins as a drawing, the outline of the mandala. Then, colored sand is poured from traditional metal funnels called chak-purs. Each monk holds a chak-pur in one hand, while running a metal rod on its grated surface; the vibration causes the sands to flow like liquid. It is almost as if they are truly painting.

A sand-painted mandala serves as a spiritual symbol. Shortly after it is made, it’s deconstructed. The destruction serves as a metaphor of the impermanence of life. As it states on the Drepung Loseling Monastery’s website, “The sands are swept up and placed in an urn; to fulfill the function of healing, half is distributed to the audience at the closing ceremony, while the remainder is carried to a nearby body of water, where it is deposited. The waters then carry the healing blessing to the ocean, and from there it spreads throughout the world for planetary healing.”

The Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery are currently in Dallas, Texas at the Crow Collection of Asian Art. During their week-long residency, they will complete one of these sacred sand mandalas.

Check out this link:

Tibetan Monks painstakingly create incredible Mandalas using millions of grains of colored sand


The Mystical Arts website


Ancient Buddhist caves in China could ‘turn to sand’

The Art Newspaper:


The network of 236 sandstone caves extend over an area of two to three kilometres in the vast, sparsely-populated autonomous Xinjiang region of China, along the ancient Silk Road

Urgent conservation work is needed to save a series of caves in northwest China containing ancient murals by Buddhist monks, which are threatened with destruction from the forces of nature.

The network of 236 sandstone caves extend over an area of two to three kilometres in the vast, sparsely-populated autonomous Xinjiang region of China, along the ancient Silk Road. The caves were inhabited by Buddhist monks and used as temples between the third and the eighth centuries, and are lined with murals providing a rich picture of early Buddhist culture.

The caves, known locally as Kezer, are prone to deterioration, particularly from moisture, because of their geological composition, which includes many soluble salts. Although the region is very dry, any rainwater could have “distastrous consequences”, according to Giorgio Bonsanti, an expert in wall painting preservation. He told our sister paper, Il Giornale dell’Arte, “the signs of progressive decay, which in the long term would turn everything to sand, are dramatically evident.”

Bonsanti said that there have been efforts to buttress the mountains with cement and horizontal metal poles, which anchor the external layers of stone to more solid rock, but these fortifications are proving insufficient in the bid to save the caves.

The murals are particularly significant because of their stylistic similarity to Indian, rather than classical Chinese, art, which bears witness to the transmission of Buddhism to China from the south. In the early 20th century, many of the paintings were removed by Western archaeologists, notably the German expedition of Albert von Le Coq in 1906, and are now housed in museums including the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Berlin and the Musée Guimet in Paris.

Around 10,000 people visit the caves each year—a fraction of the 800,000 who visit the Mogao caves further east along the Silk Road, which became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987.

Although the situation is serious and urgent, the caves are not beyond saving. Bonsanti says that “In this battle against fatal natural processes, man is destined to surrender eventually, but hopefully the end of Kezer will not yet be seen for many generations to come.”

The caves were inhabited by Buddhist monks and used as temples between the third and the eighth centuries, and are lined with murals providing a rich picture of early Buddhist culture
Check out this link:

Architectural Design: Yukata Kawahara Studio’s modern design of the Ekouin Nenbutsudo Temple (Japan)


Yukata Kawahara Studio‘s design the Ekouin Nenbutsudo Temple in the heart of Tokyo. The temple serves as a refuge and congregation space for prayer as well as housing and training facilities for the city’s Buddhist monks. The main characteristic of the temple is its line of bamboo trees that surround the street-facing facades. Atypical to the wooden temples we are used to, Ekouin Nenbutsudo is made of black steel which gives it an especially modern look.

Like Japan’s affinity to appreciate nature, the structure blurs the line between in and outdoors. Hallways are mostly exposed to the outside and room dividers beautifully depict natural landscapes. Crystal-shaped drain spouts that hang from the roof shine iridescent lights onto the walls, making the temple seem that much more ethereal.

Check out this link:

Architectural Design: Yukata Kawahara Studio’s modern design of the Ekouin Nenbutsudo Temple (Japan)