Explain the buddhist practice of offering food to a shrine

In Thailand, my friend’s apartment building had a tiny Buddhist religious shrine on the roof, right beside the pool. I saw a lot of these in Thailand and China. And I saw one of the building residents bring a plate of fruit, leave it at the shrine, pray for a few minutes, then walk away, leaving the fruit behind where it rotted in the sun. There was no priest or anything at this shrine to collect the food. It simply rotted.

  1. In the western religions, we might give food/money to homeless people, or else to the church/priests. But either way, the food gets eaten and the money gets spent. At that Thailand shrine, though, that plate of fruit was simply wasted. Is this viewed as an ethical/responsible use of food in Asia (instead of donating the food to a homeless shelter or something)?
  2. Who were the building residents praying too, anyway? My understanding of Buddhism is they’re not praying to a God like in the western sense. I understand some buddhists believe in ancestor worship (or if not worshipping, at least honoring ) but my understanding is very few believe the dead are watching us and are hungry for a plate of bananas. So who was the fruit and the prayers for?

I feel like I’m missing the cultural context. Can you help explain?

Offerings are a ritual of devotion, both a symbolic rendering of gratitude and preparation for meditation. All acts of devotion are opportunities to progress on one’s spiritual path, by reflecting on virtue and by reinforcing virtue. Thus, one may obtain release from suffering and a better rebirth. However, offerings to monks are also a part of devotion, and they probably make better use of the food (though rotting food is a reminder of impermanence, an important concept).

Prayers, like offerings, are devotions, not prayers as in asking for something. Chanting mantras is sometimes homage, sometimes refuge, and sometimes meditation. All of this is done to seek enlightenment, though there’s also an element of demonstration.

In other words, the fruit and prayer are for oneself.

Why do we leave flowers to rot at graves? It’s not like the dead people enjoy smelling them or anything. Why do people spend for lavish floral displays at funerals instead of spending that money on something worthwhile (yes, I know it’s becoming more common to say “donate to X in lieu of flowers” but work with me here). Why do people leave stuffed toys at memorial sites to get ruined by rain and weather instead of giving them to living children in need?

It’s a cultural and religious custom.

Indeed. One ancient buddhist tradition is meditation on the rotting corpse.

The above is probably true but a lot of people are literally leaving food or drink for dead people. My friend’s mum asked her to leave her favourite type of grapes at the spirit house so she could enjoy them after she died.

It can also be important to keep the local ghosts happy so they don’t get cranky and fuck shit up.

I would edit but it is undignified so I am double posting.

To be clear I was talking about Thailand and saying that yes, a large number of people really believe there are dead people everywhere milling about who need to be placated.

It is practical matter and it is animist/ancestor worship. I guess it is also a nice thing to do because the ghosts get peckish in the afterlife.

I’m definitely no expert on religion, but will comment anyway. :cool:

The animism of Thailand can be considered independent of Buddhism, and accepted due to Buddhism’s broad tolerance.

It does seem odd that some modern people believe in ghosts … or believe that the Son of a Virgin walked on water.

Many religions sacrifice food in rituals. In most cases, if there’s a significant amount of food it will be consumed by humans, not ghosts, in the end. If a large offering, e.g. whole chicken, is made at a Thai spirit-house, the ghosts partake while the incense burns, and return any leftovers when the incense has burned out.

Buddhist temples I’ve been to usually take the food in at the end of the day and either have the monks eat it, give it to the Congregation or distribute it to the poor.

Obviously Buddhist practice is going to vary a lot from place to place, but my impression is that leaving the food out to go bad isn’t particularly common.

Just to be clear, temples and “animist” shrines (as well as the respective offerings thereat) are distinct from each other. The significance of a shrine may vary – e.g. many wealthier Thais follow Chinese beliefs.

Whenever a house is built, it is almost mandatory to also build a shrine: it provides dwelling for the land’s ghostly owner.

This has been my understanding too, that it is a way to provide food to monks and the poor indirectly.

It doesn’t seem to me like it is so different from the practice of leaving milk for the elves/gnomes/callitX, or milk and cookies for Santa’s reindeer. A man’s religion can be another one’s superstition can be another one’s tradition.

Specifically to Thailand I’ve got to wonder if monkeys would help with the clean-up.
I don’t live in a monkey occupied country, but if I tried that in my back yard I know of some squirrels, crows and other birds that would take it.

This almost seems to be a universal instinct among people.
Setting a place at the table for the deceased, toasting them with a drink, old school rappers pouring one out on the curb, most ancient religions did this kind of thing.
Reading about obsession with burnt offerings in the old testament makes the temple seem like a gross place.

Different country, but when I was in Bali, it was explained to me that the spirits took the spirit of the food, and then stray cats or monkeys or chickens might (or might not) take the physical food, and that was okay. I can see why you’d want to encourage cats and chickens (pest control and dinner) to stick around. I’m less clear on the monkeys, who no one seems to actually like, but I think it was just unavoidable.

In a related practice, on festival days the Balinese bring a simply astounding amount of food to the temple. I mean, seriously mountains of rice cakes, some of them in ornate sculptures, and meat satay (ground meat and spices pressed onto a stick and grilled) and bogas (delightfully yummy grated red coconut mixed with brown sugar and wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed) and carved fruits and other really rather labor intensive foods.

They place the food on a large raised platform in the temple and leave it there for a few hours while they wander around, socialize, pray and listen to prayers. Then before they leave, they gather their food (how they find what they brought in that mountain of food, I have no idea) and take it back to their homes to eat. Again, the spirit of the food has been “eaten” by the spirits, and the food is blessed by having been in the temple, and the physical food nourishes the people. I was lucky enough to accompany a Balinese couple to one of their temple festivals (my husband and I were the only non-Balinese there; we felt very…tall.) and the food afterwards was certainly worth the trip!

I am not an anthropologist, but I’ve long suspected that food sacrifices serve to keep agricultural productivity higher than necessary to sustain a community, which serves as a buffer against famine in lean years.

Buddhism, as Taoism in China, embraces a host of ancient rites and superstitions, and is perfectly content to embrace them. It’s a little like Christianity absorbing pagan rituals, eg shrines once sacred to Diana or Demeter became shrines to the Virgin Mary and often took on board folk practices and beliefs from the earlier cult. In fact several pagan gods and goddesses found themselves transformed to saints, and survived until one of the modern Popes cleaned house in the mid-20th century.

I can tell you that in my wife’s ethnic-Chinese family, they often lay out food for the ancestors, usually on a death anniversary. The ancestors eat the “essence” of the food, then after a sufficient amount of time has passed for them to have finished, we eat the actual food ourselves. This is not unlike the Chinese practice of burning paper money, paper cars, paper houses etc so that the deceased will have these items in the afterlife.

It’s interesting how ancient some of these beliefs are. I went back to refresh my recollection of ancient Egyptian religion and I thought people might find this interesting, from wikipedia.

emphasis added.

a tradition in my family is at celebrations we put a photo of dead family members at the table and a plate with a small bite of their favorite foods in front of i when the meal is over the plate is taken outside and left overnight (i’m sure animals probably eat the food. )most of my family are either dutch scots irish welsh or native american, I have no idea where this tradition came from. We keep a lot of odd old traditions.

I wanted to come in and be like, ‘yaw, yaw, as an actual Buddhist, I can tell you X, Y, Z…’ but I think it’s already been answered.