Buddhism and Food

This morning, I listened to Venerable Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu’s latest teaching on food. This is one subject that I want to develop a command of, under Buddhist guidelines, despite a lifetime of mixed and nocuous messages about food and its place in my life.

For many of us, and most of us here in America, food is more than sustenance. It’s married to notions of gratification, indulgence, and even class identity. It aligns with our social activities. We romance each other with food, reward ourselves with food, deprive ourselves of food, and try to dull our pain with food. Food’s true purpose – to fuel our bodies - has been lost among all the meanings we’ve ascribed to it.

But the Buddha’s teaching on food was clear. Buddhists are to give as much attention to food as to air – in other words, it’s there, we must have it to live, but we mustn’t covet it and we should avoid spending our mental energies developing ways to make the experience of it pleasurable. Eat to live: don’t live to eat.

That’s a tough teaching. Pretty much everyone I know looks forward to a good meal. We all look forward to treats. Many of us use food as a coping tool, to dull depression or pain. Some use food as control – people with eating disorders like anorexia deprive themselves of food in an effort to impose authority over chaotic or painful lives.

Deeply trained Buddhist monks like Yuttadhammo eat once daily, a simple meal of rice and vegetables, maybe some soup, or bread. They consume just enough to survive, no more. Their actions and energies go toward studying the Dharma and meditating. In the effort to break the cycle of Samsara, they have divorced themselves from sensual pleasures like food and sex. Their food is prepared by attendants, or the monks beg for their food daily, and they eat whatever simple fare they’re given.

Ideally, we would all have this sort of relationship with food. For most of us, the transition to monk-like habits of eating would be a major change. But major or minor, it could be done. All Buddhists, whether monks or laypersons, are taught to free themselves from the love of food.

A good start to approaching this, I’ve found, is to adopt a vegan diet. There are myriad reasons to eliminate animal products from the diet, but one reason that serves the purpose of Buddhism is that the vegan diet is simpler and cleaner. Vegans learn to prepare the simplest meals – rice and vegetables with tofu or seitan, mono meals of fresh fruit, beans, easy, fresh soups, and unleavened breads.

Fast food is awful on so many levels. Aside from its dearth of nutrition and abundance of animal fats and calories, fast food is recognized as an addictive substance. The blast of processed sugar, salt, and fats that come with a Big Mac, fries, and coke leaves us buzzing happily for a few hours before we crash. And like any drug, we’ll need our next fix sooner or later. There are a million reasons to reject fast food. The Buddhist principle of keeping food simple and nutritious is just one of them.

Another way to change our relationship with food is to grow our own. Simple, fresh, organic garden foods give us optimum nutrition with the least trouble and thought. Growing our own foods also requires that we work for our meals. From seed to harvest, we humbly cultivate Mother Earth and assist with the miracle of plant development.

We eat the fruits of our labor, then compost the remains in order to cultivate more food. It’s the natural cycle of nutrition - as opposed to wolfing down a dead meat sandwich we grabbed at the drive-thru at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Burger King, and then tossing the bags, cups, straws, and wrapping into the waste stream.

We are, all of us, bound to food. Food is considered by Buddhists as one of the elements that binds us to Samsara – a burden to bear, a reminder that we occupy this flesh, and the flesh must be fed. Buddhists are uncomfortably aware that when it comes to food, we’re in a realm where the cycle of suffering created by our appetites is perpetuated day after day after day.

I never said Buddhism was fun, loves. In fact, I’m as guilty as others in trying to sugarcoat it to make it sound less restrictive. But the fact is, the Buddha taught us to revile food, eat only when necessary, and never, ever make a god of it.

But I’m guilty of all of that. Hardly a weekend passes that I don’t Instagram a meal I’ve made or bought (and I don’t seriously think anyone cares what I’m eating). I spend what I consider an awful lot of time – especially in winter – planning and preparing vegan meals. I snack too much. And treats? Yes, I love-love-love treats.

Yuttadhammo’s teaching is prompting me to change my relationship with food and bring it into alignment with the Buddha’s instructions. It would be so freeing to consign food completely to its place once and for all, like many of the Enlightened Ones who live well on limited amounts of food.

There are even reports of Enlightened Ones who live on no food. Imagine what space we would free up in our minds if food was no longer of any concern, if we were to free ourselves of that attachment forever. We would blossom in so many wonderful ways.

Live in peace.

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