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Eating mindfully

Inspired by a student's question, a commentary on the five contemplations before meals from the Chinese Buddhist tradition that are recited daily before lunch at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Generosity while eating
  • Remaining grateful while eating
  • Practicing contentment with eating

I contemplate my mind, cautiously guarding it from wrongdoing, greed, and other defilements.

This is the attitude with which we want to eat, even filling our bowls to start with, without wrongdoing.

Wrongdoing would be (for example) there are ten people and so ten things are set out, and you take two of them. In any kind of situation where the sangha is given offerings we should not take twice. Even if somebody passes it out to us we should say, “I already have,” to make sure that everybody else has. If there are leftovers after everybody’s received, then whoever is in charge of distributing it offers, and we get something more that time, that’s okay. But we shouldn’t ourselves take more than our portion or accept it if it’s given to us before everybody has.

This goes very often in teachings, at least in India, they’ll give a monetary offering to all the sangha. Sometimes two people come by and give it to you twice. So you have to say, “No, I’ve received already.” Again, not taking (if you’re early in the line) huge portions so people late in the line don’t get any.

Greed. Clearly that’s greed in taking food. No matter how much the quantity we take, the mind of greed, of, “I really like this, I really want this.” To really watch, because sometimes we may take a moderate portion but we’re eating our portion and we’re kind of checking other people’s bowls to make sure that we finish first so we can go back and get seconds before they can. This is one of the reasons that we have a precept about not looking in other people’s bowls to see how much they took or where they’re at in eating. We need to mind our own business. But we should also make sure that we’re not piling so much in our bowl that other people don’t have a chance to get their share.

Cautiously guarding our minds against other defilements. Like the mind that says, “I wish they would put more salt in this food.” Or, “I wish they would put less salt in this food.” Or, “I wish they would make something I really like, I don’t like this food. I need more protein. I need more carbs. I need more sugar. I need more caffeine. I need… I need…. I need….” You know, the complaining mind. Making it our practice that whatever is served we accept. I know for myself some days there’s not much that accords with my taste buds or the way my digestive system works. But part of my practice is to take what is offered and be content with that.

Although yesterday I have to confess I did put in a request for the nyung ne meal to be our usual standard of lasagna instead of changing it to something else that’s not the usual standard. Because I don’t like the other thing. Although some other people really, really like it, but I don’t care if they’re happy, because I care if I’m happy first. Ahem, Chodron?

Okay, to have a mind that takes as our practice to accept what’s offered instead of continually bugging the person who is cooking, or who’s going to cook, “I don’t like this, I don’t like that,” and so on and so forth.

Of course, if you’re getting sick by eating something then hopefully other people will notice and maybe on your behalf they will comment to the cook that so and so is getting very thin and maybe consider doing whatever. But trying to develop an attitude of contentment.

Basically, no matter what they serve it’s not going to be exactly what we want to eat that day. Let’s face it. It’s never exactly what we want to eat. I could have some more protein, or some more sugar, or less sugar, or less protein, or more carbs, or less carbs. Because lots of people here like carbs, and some of us don’t. And some people like a lot of protein and other people don’t. And some people are sugar fiends and other people are trying to go off sugar… And there’s no…. And some people love salt and some of us don’t want high blood pressure so we stay away from it. It’s impossible for the cook to cook something that everybody’s going to be happy with. So I think it’s much nicer to just have a sense of…. Glad that somebody cooked today. Because if it were me we would be having PB&J even though I don’t like peanut butter very much. Simply because I’m lazy.

Then the fourth one, let’s just keep going even though I did them yesterday,

I contemplate this food, treating it as wondrous medicine to nourish my body.

Again, this is the reason why we eat. We’re nourishing our bodies, that’s our short-term aim. And the next one,

I contemplate the aim of buddhahood, accepting and consuming this food in order to accomplish it.

That’s our long-term purpose in eating.

Remember these two purposes, that it’s not for pleasure, it’s not for socializing, it’s not so that we can be attractive. It’s to nourish our bodies so we can have the physical strength it requires to use our minds and our bodies to create merit that we’re dedicating for the aim of full awakening for self and others. That’s the five contemplations from the Chinese Buddhist tradition.

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.