Have You Eaten Yet? A Spring Festival Meditation From 'The Lunar Tao'

A Buddhist monk walks past a child eating rice on May 20, 2008 at a monastery where people affected by cyclone Nargis found s
A Buddhist monk walks past a child eating rice on May 20, 2008 at a monastery where people affected by cyclone Nargis found shelter at Kaunt Chaung village in an isolated area where villages are only accessible by boat and received neither governement or foreign aid. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was headed on May 21, 2008 for Myanmar, looking to convince the generals who have snubbed his phone calls to accept a full-scale relief operation for Cyclone Nargis. AFP PHOTO/LISANDRU (Photo credit should read LISANDRU/AFP/Getty Images)

The first holiday presented in "The Lunar Tao" is the Spring Festival, which opens the Lunar New Year (this year, on Feb. 10). Communities from China to Malaysia, Korea to Vietnam, and overseas Asian communities throughout the world, herald the Year of the Snake by celebrating for two weeks. Families travel to reunions, friends call on one another, and everyone gathers at a succession of banquets. Homes are richly decorated with flowering quince branches, azaleas, chrysanthemums, orchids, narcissus bulbs, pomelos, tangerines, decorations with auspicious symbols, and couplets written in beautiful calligraphy. Children are especially delighted: They receive new clothes, plenty of sweets, and red envelopes containing "lucky money" from all adult relatives and friends. They are especially gleeful because all scolding is forbidden and deemed as unlucky!

People greet each other with "happy new year" ("xin nian kuai le") or "sun nian fai lok" in Cantonese) or "congratulations and prosperity" ("gongxi facai" or "gung hay faat choy" in Cantonese). They're congratulating each other for starting another new year, and they're wishing one another good fortune. People exchange oranges -- symbols for wealth (the orange color represents gold) and many children (the plentiful seeds of the fruit).

Spring Festival is also a religious time. People visit temples and make offerings at home altars. In many houses, there is an altar on the floor of the kitchen -- a red box with offerings, candles, tea and incense to the Kitchen God. He goes back to heaven a week before the end of the year to report all the family activities he's observed. Before he goes, the family smears his mouth with honey so he'll say only good things, and they burn his image to send him on his way. On the fourth day of the Spring Festival, the Kitchen God returns from heaven as the family puts up a new image of him. Here is his story, recounted in my book, "The Lunar Tao."

The Kitchen God was originally a man named Zhang Lang. He was married to a virtuous woman, whom he abandoned during an adulterous affair. Heaven blinded him as punishment. When his lover left him, Zhang's fortunes declined until he was reduced to being a beggar.

One day, he went begging at a house, not knowing that it belonged to his remarried ex-wife. She recognized him, but since he was blind, he did not know her. As she cooked him a meal, he described his folly. When she heard his remorse, she told him to open his eyes, and his vision was restored. However, he was so ashamed to see his wife that he threw himself into the hearth and burned to death.

In pity, the Jade Emperor reunited the couple in the afterlife, deified them, and gave them their kitchen duty. In some homes, you can see both husband and wife in the kitchen.

This is an example of the folktales so charmingly and frequently told in family settings, in hopes of carrying the teachings into contemporary times. To this day part of the Spring Festival is set aside for plain foods so we can consider those less fortunate. "The Lunar Tao" contains a meditation for each day of the year, reflecting on tradition, and bringing it into the present. Here is one of them, reflecting on both the ample feasting of the new year, and considering those who aren't lucky enough to have enough to eat.

This meditation, like all the others in the book, opens with a couplet, inspired by the new year's decorations.

* * *

"Have you eaten rice yet?"

"I have -- and you?"

That was the way people greeted one another a generation ago. In today's urbane style, they simply say hello.

The old greeting reflected the widespread awareness of hunger. A generation ago, many people still experienced famine, starvation and poverty. Asking whether someone had eaten reflected a natural concern. If people had not eaten, then it was important to feed them.

On this day to visit others, and especially to have a family reunion dinner, the centrality of eating is important. We share our table, we share our meals. We talk about the past and make plans for the future. Shared dining fortifies us. If you are what you eat, then you are shaped by what you share as you eat. Sharing the same meal reaffirms kinship.

The traditional family table is round. No corners. No sides. No head. No tail. Everything is smooth. The food is in the center, and each family member reaches over the same distance. Someone you love is next to you on each side, and no one is last or at the end. The person farthest away from you is also the person facing you.

This planet is also round. There is no "head" position on a sphere. All parts of the surface are equal. And yet, at the "round table" of our planet, there are still people who go hungry. There is more than enough to go around. If we share the food at our family table with abundance and joy, we should also take the time to see those who are not at our "small" family table, but who are silently sitting hungry at our "large" family table.

Have you sat in your place in the circle today? Have you eaten yet? 

* * *

During the Spring Festival, it's traditional to wish everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. But with all that wealth and good fortune, perhaps we can share more with those who have little, and give everyone a seat at the round table of a single global family. Such reminders of traditional wisdom are not conveyed in long lectures. They are embedded throughout the lunar year. Fables like the Kitchen God and the daily meditations of "The Lunar Tao" encourage readers to reflect, celebrate and act upon the message for all the holidays and days of observances throughout the year.