Should I eat food offered to images of gods in Buddhist religious rites?

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A young Christian girl, Meijung, accepted an invitation to celebrate a Buddhist holiday with three of her friends. One of her friends is a Roman Catholic, another is a Baptist, and the third, in whose home they are meeting, is a Buddhist. After the girls go together to the temple with their Buddhist friend's family, and after seeing and learning the significance of the rite, the Buddhist friend's mother invited Meijung and the others to share the food that had been used in the Buddhist ceremony.

One of the two other Christian girls accepted immediately. The second declined, saying that she could not eat food that had been used in a Buddhist rite. It is an awkward moment. Meijung did not know what she should do.

Meijung, Shuching, Reyhei, and Shuo had been close friends since they met in primary school in Taipei when each was nine years old. They have shared nearly everything: clothes, experiences, and opinions. At school, they were inseparable, frequently attending social events together. Though of different religious faiths, they have often talked of the common features of their respective religions. To be sure, on a few occasions they had disagreed about their points of view. Though these conversations were usually animated and sometimes intense, their friendship was not threatened by these moments.

Today, however, Meijung was shocked and confused. For the first time in almost eight years of friendship, a breach had suddenly opened between the girls, and it had happened quickly and unexpectedly. The three Christian girls had been invited by Shuo, who was Buddhist, to celebrate a religious holiday with her.

After arriving at Shuo's home and engaging in "girl-talk" for a half-hour or so, Shuo finally said, "Let me explain to you about this day and the ceremony we will attend.

"Buddhists have many different feast days throughout the year. Fortunately, the one today falls on a Saturday when we are not in school. My mother, like all faithful Buddhist women, has prepared special food for today: pork, fish, fruit, and wine. We will take this food and some flowers to the temple where my family and I will dedicate the offerings to God. After placing the food at the altar, we will worship and pray for about half an hour, giving the gods time to eat the food, drink the wine, and smell the flowers. Then we will return home. Any questions?"

"Do you believe the food and wine really are consumed by the gods?" Shuching asked.

"Oh yes," replied Shuo.

"Does any of it ever disappear?"

"Not that I can tell; but I believe they eat and drink," Shuo said.

When Shuching appeared incredulous Meijung responded: "I can understand. Isn't it somewhat like the Roman Catholic belief about the elements used in Holy Communion?"

"Yes," said Reyhei. "Though the communion bread and wine don't appear different after they are consecrated, we believe they become the true body and blood of Christ."

At that point, Shuo's mother, father, and two brothers entered the room. "Are you young ladies ready to go?" the father asked.

"I think so," said Shuo. The girls stood, and they all left for the temple.

The walk was pleasant, only about ten minutes from Shuo's home. Each of the Christian girls -- Meijung, Reyhei, and Shuching -- had seen the temple many times. None of the three, however, had ever been inside. It was a 200-year-old structure, beautiful on the outside, and even more impressive within, thought Meijung.

There were sixty or seventy people already inside. Each family appeared to be engaged in its own private ritual. Shuo indicated a place where her three friends could sit and observe. The ceremony of placing the food, wine, flowers, and lighting the incense at the massive wooden altar took only a few minutes, but there followed a time of quietness, the lighting of more incense, and prayers. To Meijung, each of Shuo's family appeared to be deep in thought. Eventually the father stood, and then so did the others. Shuo turned to her three friends and whispered, "God has had enough to eat." She and her mother then picked up the dishes with the food on them, poured the wine from the glasses back into the bottle, and placed all the containers in a basket. Quietly, they all left the temple.

No sooner were they outside than Shuo's brothers excused themselves. "We're going to watch the regatta which begins at 12:30." The father indicated he was going to get a newspaper and some pipe tobacco.

As Shuo, her mother, and her three friends began walking toward Shuo's home, the mother said, "It is lunch time. Would you girls like to come and share this food with us? I have more at home, because I prepared a lot."

Reyhei immediately said she would like that, but Shuching stopped and said "I apologize. I am very sorry. Please do not think me rude or ungrateful. But I cannot."

"Why not?" laughed Shuo. "Do you have a date this afternoon?"

Lowering her head, Shuching said, "No, I do not have a date."

"Then why don't you join us? We have plenty of food."

"I cannot eat food that has been used in worship."

Meijung had already guessed the reason for Shuching's reluctance, but it was a terribly awkward moment. Shuo's mother did not appear to be offended, but Shuo blanched.

In a tone of hurt and bewilderment, Shuo asked, "Meijung,what about you? Will you come and eat with us?"

How should Meijung respond?

Suggested Biblical texts for reflection

Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:14-23; Romans 14:13-23; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

This case study as originally written by Alan Neely appeared in Christian Mission: A Case Study Approach. © Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY. Edited and used by permission.

    -- Howard Culbertson

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