Food & Health

Film: Songkran Festival at Wat Mongkoltepmunee, produced by C. Pierce Salguero & Lan A. Li

This film focuses on food! The camera lingers on scenes of preparing food, serving food, and eating food, and emphasizes the hustle and bustle of a major festival day at a large Thai temple. Interviewees speak of the importance of food to both the religious and social context, as well as the medicinal qualities of foods donated to the monks.



Food invariably plays an important role in major Buddhist rituals. Whether offered on an altar, donated to monastics, or shared among attendees, food is a vital part of the economy of gift-giving at the temple. These actions are central to the practice of earning karmic merit in most Buddhist traditions. Karmic merit, in turn, is widely perceived as playing a role in keeping one healthy and safe. 

Social interactions before and after public ceremonies thus often centers around the kitchen, and often involves the preparation, sharing, and eating of food. Many Asian medical and folk traditions hold that specific foods or herbs used in cooking provide particular health benefits, and these linkages are frequent topics of conversation among those who prepare food in temple kitchens. 

All East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhist respondents who mentioned vegetarianism advocated it primarily on ethical grounds; however, many additionally talked about how a vegetarian diet is more healthy (citing reduced cholesterol and saturated fats, for example). In some instances, Buddhist temples have been locations where more extensive community education about nutrition and health has taken place. The most obvious example of a community coming together around the health implications of diet was the “Healthy Monk Project,” a collaboration between the Lao community at Wat Phouthathammram and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM), which began with a focus on monks’ nutrition. The Tzu Chi Center also has periodically organizes community educational events about nutrition.


Study questions for this film:
  • What are some of the ways that Thai people celebrate Songkran (Thai New Year) at the temple? 
  • What kinds of foods and food practices help to bring Thai Buddhists together as a community? Why might this be especially important for immigrants and/or refugees?
  • How do volunteering and/or donations help people to connect with Buddhist values?
  • How does the atmosphere of the Buddhist temple during Songkran differ from what you were expecting a Buddhist temple to look and sound like?
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Further information:
  • Geoffrey Barstow. 2019. Food of Sinful Demons: Meat, Vegetarianism, and the Limits of Buddhism in Tibet. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • David Gelb (director). 2017. “Jeong Kwan,” Chef’s Table, Season 3, Ep. 1.
  • Peter Harvey. 2000. Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 157–65.
  • Richard B. Mather. 1981. “The Bonze’s Begging Bowl: Eating Practices in Buddhist Monasteries of Medieval India and China.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 101.4: 417-424.