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How and what to eat

How and what to eat

Part of a series of short talks about the meaning and purpose of the food offering prayers that are recited daily before lunch at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Eating with presence, being aware of what we’re eating
  • Defining “contentment”
  • How to eat in ways that are kind to ourselves and others

We talked about preparing the mind, offering the food, let’s talk a little bit about eating the food.

The idea is to eat with presence and to be aware of our food. One visualization that is quite nice—because we’ve transformed the food into blissful wisdom nectar—is to imagine the Buddha as a small buddha at our heart, and as we eat the food we’re offering the spoonfuls of nectar to the Buddha at our heart, and then of course the Buddha radiates light and that fills our whole body with light and with satisfaction. That’s the key in eating is to feel satisfaction and contentment when we’re eating, instead of restless desire and craving, and complaining, and everything else that goes along with that. Try that visualization when you’re eating.

The topic also has come up of what to eat. Here at the Abbey we’re vegetarian. I think more people in the country and also in Europe and Australia and so on are becoming vegetarian. People become vegetarian for different reasons. A Buddhist reason is to avoid killing the animals. Other people for health reasons. Other people because they see the suffering the animals go through when they’re raised in indoor things and they can’t move, and so on, butchered so savagely. People have many different reasons, but I think whatever reason one has… Another reason (I should think) is because it’s so bad for the environment, because the manure from the cattle produces a lot of methane that’s very bad for the environment. And also to get enough food (at least for eating cows, and so on) you have to have so much grain, so much grain for a comparatively little bit of meat.

His Holiness recommends for the people who do eat meat to eat those larger animals rather than smaller animals because at least if it’s a larger animal it’s only one life lost and many meals can be served. Whereas with sea fish for example it’s many living beings who die for one meal. Same with chickens. His Holiness himself isn’t a vegetarian. He says he’s a part-time vegetarian. He tried being a full-time vegetarian and then his doctor told him he had to eat meat. So he does so part time. But of course, when His Holiness is eating meat there’s a mantra to say to bless the animal for giving up its life so that you can live, and to make dedication prayers for the animal so that it has a good rebirth, and that by the power of your eating may you practice the Dharma well, and then be kind and share the Dharma with other living beings, and in a future life especially be able to lead that particular being who died for your lunch to enlightenment.

Whatever people’s reason, I think becoming vegetarian is very good. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be too keen on offering my body for somebody else’s lunch. So I don’t know why cows and fish and chickens and turkeys and so on would want to offer their bodies for someone’s lunch.

People often say, “Well, it’s not good for your health.” It’s fine. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 22 or 23. That’s over 40 years, and I don’t think it’s harmed my health at all, I think my health has been pretty good. You take vitamins, you learn how to get your protein. They say that also when you don’t eat meat…. Put it this way, when you do eat meat that some of the energy of the animal that’s in the flesh that energy is transferred to you, so the fear, or the anger, or whatever else is going on.

It is quite possible to learn to eat wisely and to be healthy on a vegetarian diet.

One person came to the Abbey once and said, “Why aren’t you vegan? Why don’t you eat organic produce?” He was quite upset about that. And I explained in terms of the being vegan that we were doing the best we could. He said, “Why don’t you ask for range free eggs…” You know, where the chickens can wander around. “And have milk from cows that also can graze naturally…. Why don’t you do that? Because animals are suffering for the milk and the eggs that you use.”

First of all, we use eggs that are not fertilized, because if you use fertilized eggs that involves killing. But the thing is that those kinds of items are more expensive, as are organic food. If you’re a private party and you can afford that, it’s definitely better. For us, we’re renunciants, and we don’t go and buy food, we only eat the food that is offered to us. Some people call us and say, “What do you need?” But we don’t like saying that we want all this expensive food because for us as renunciants to eat better than the people who are offering the food to us does not make any sense. When people say, “What do you need?” we just tell them whatever they buy is fine. I wouldn’t consider that ethically proper to ask for things that are expensive that people wouldn’t buy for themselves. But that’s our situation here at the Abbey.

Anyway, this one man he got so upset because of that, he never came back, which I thought was really a pity, I felt sad about that. But he had very strong beliefs about what we should eat, and our way of living was… We’re vegetarian, but like I said about the money thing, we just can’t ask for that.

Also, in eating, according to the kriya tantra…. The kriya tantra are practices like White Tara, Green Tara, Manjushri, Medicine Buddha, these practices that many kinds of people do, and it says for kriya tantra not only to be vegetarian but to abandon onions and garlic and things from the onion family, like scallions, stuff like that, and also radishes. It’s very interesting because in Indian culture these foods (especially the onion and garlic) are said to increase desire energy. In the West garlic is said to be medicinal and very good for you. So there are different ways of looking at the same thing. What can I say? We’re following the one that corresponds with our tradition.

At first people said, “You don’t use onions?! Your food must taste awful.” Actually, our food tastes very good, doesn’t it? And you can eat perfectly fine without onions. I remember especially… When I lead retreats I tell people about this, and in Mexico the person from the Center nearly freaked out, he said, “We have over a hundred people coming and no onions?! They’re going to scream!” I said, “Well, try it.” And nobody screamed. It’s fine, you can do that.

I’m not advocating that for everybody. I think according to how you practice and your spiritual tradition and what you do, so that’s what we do. I think the more important thing is being vegetarian because that saves so many lives when we don’t create the cause for other beings to die.

We should try to eat something that is nourishing, because according to our motivations for eating, that we’re looking at this food as wondrous medicine, and I’ve developed the special ability to see cookies as wondrous medicine…. Most people don’t agree with me. Actually, I don’t agree with me either, to tell you the truth. [laughter] But we should try and eat food that’s healthy, some kind of balanced diet, not too many carbs, not so much salt, not so much sugar, so much oil. Not all the things that the food companies have done many tests on in order to see what people like the most so that they’ll buy the most. Oil, salt, and sugar win the prize there. But of course all these things are not very good for our health.

If we’re eating to sustain our body to practice the Dharma we should also take care of our health so that we can have a strong body to practice the Dharma. Especially if other people are offering the food to us. I think that entails keeping a normal weight as best as we can. Not being too thin, not being overweight, because those conditions bring health problems. And if we’re saying we’re eating to nourish our body so we can practice, we should keep our body healthy. I feel that’s something very important. Also, people feel better when they keep a normal weight. You just have more energy and you feel better. It’s definitely an aid to practice. And I think since we’re accepting the food given by others that we also make good use of it that way.

Sometimes people give us a lot of sweets, we tend to give them away. I’m looking over there. Mmmm, cookies. Cookies, remember, they’re good for you. Okay? But you know, as much as we can to try and eat in a balanced way and keep our health good.

[In response to audience] Actually, the food is the last sense thing of grasping and craving. We have many deeper graspings and cravings than that. Because our craving for reputation and approval is much deeper. Overcoming attachment to food is nothing, they say, compared to overcoming attachment to reputation, love, approval, appreciation, and these things.

We have to define “contentment” for eating a little bit differently. For example, I know for myself, when I keep a normal weight I feel much better. That brings a sense of contentment right then and there. It doesn’t bring the contentment of stuffing myself full of cookies. But stuffing myself full of cookies doesn’t bring me contentment either. It makes me feel ill afterwards.

We have to really look at what “contentment” means. I don’t know about you, but I don’t listen to my stomach, I listen to my craving, and the craving does not bring contentment in the long run. When I feel healthy I feel much more content. Use that as the definition of contentment for ourselves instead of just eating a lot of the kind of food that’s not very good for us that makes us feel bad about ourselves.

[In response to audience] You’re saying eating in a healthy way, and eating nourishing food, is a practice of gratitude and appreciation for all the people, all the living beings for the rest of the universe that has provided the food to us.

[In response to audience] And if we can eat with a mind that says “I’m appreciative for all the sources of this food–the people who planted it, and harvested it, and transported it, and cooked it, and whatever…” So he goes in the grocery store and thanks all the people who load the food on the shelf, which is hard work.

If you have that in mind, this is… We already covered that: “I contemplate all the causes and conditions and the kindness of others by which I have received this food.” That is what we contemplate. Not just say it by your mouth but continue to think that, then eating is definitely a process of feeling very grateful to others who provided the food for us.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.