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  • Writer's pictureThane Lawrie

Buddhism: Mindful Eating

The issue of food has occupied my mind this Christmas. Partly because I noticed I had put on weight. Too much over indulgence over the festive period. I found myself visiting friends and family and everywhere we went we received a friendly welcome and great hospitality. This was lovely to enjoy and being open and embracing each experience that comes our way is very much the Buddhist approach. But I still feel like I have over indulged and this has left me feeling slightly unsettled and even annoyed with myself. As I do with many things in life I ask myself what does Buddhism have to say about how to approach our diet?

The joy of sharing food with a friend

There are different Buddhist schools and they all have slightly different approaches to food. There can especially be differences between what is expected in the diet of a monk when compared with a lay person. For example in some Buddhist schools monks eat only one meal a day where in other schools they eat three. Vegetarianism is encouraged in all Buddhist traditions.

I follow the Soto Zen school, so I will stick with what I know. Although it is fair to say that across all Buddhist schools moderation when eating is encouraged. Buddhism encourages us to walk the middle road in life. This is finding the path between overindulgence and on the other hand denying ourselves what we need to live well and be healthy.

The pleasure of offering food to a friend

Within the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition there are many short verses that we can learn to help us focus on an aspect of life. These are meant to be helpful to our Buddhist practice by encouraging us to remain grounded and focused on the now. There is a meal time scripture that is often recited before meals in Soto Zen monasteries. Within this scripture is a short verse that is referred to as the Five Thoughts. Monks and lay people tend to memorize the Five Thoughts and I, like many other practitioners, recite this before we eat.

The Five Thoughts

We must think deeply of the ways and means

By which this food has come.

We must consider our merits when accepting it.

We must protect ourselves from error

By excluding greed from our minds.

We eat lest we become lean and die.

We accept this food so we may become enlightened.

A Buddhist Stupa in the Himalayas

This verse is profound and my relationship with it changes over time. I try to recite it before I eat. If I am at work or in public I will recite it in my mind before I eat or if I am at home I recite it out loud. A Buddhist friend said to me recently are we really eating lest we become lean and die? When I looked at my waist line over the festive period the answer was a simple no. My friend's comment has caused me to think deeply about this verse. How committed am I to practicing the Buddha way and where does food fit into this. I'm going to explore this verse and how it relates to me.

The first of the five thoughts reads "We must think deeply of the ways and means

by which this food has come". If I think deeply about this what do I discover? Lets presume there are vegetables on my plate. The food in front of me has relied upon the soil to grow. The soil has provided nutrients for the vegetables to grow. A whole world of bacteria and insects have played an important role in helping the soil to form and become nutrient rich. Someone has planted the vegetable, cared for it through ensuring it has water and possibly adding nutrients to the soil so it can grow well. Someone had to harvest the seed from a previous vegetable so this one could be planted this year. As the vegetable grows it relies upon rain water to drink. This rain has been recycled for millennia. Evaporating from rivers and the sea until it forms as clouds and then falls as rain. As the vegetable grows it is completely dependent on the energy from the sun to power all of its internal chemical processes that allow it to grow. So when I think deeply on the ways and means by which this food has come, I realize that the humble lettuce on my plate is showing me the oneness of all things and I hopefully see its value, preciousness, beauty and worth.

Growing tomato plants

Next I consider the second line of the verse "We must consider our merits when accepting it". What are my merits when accepting it? For me this highlights my self worth. I am also part of the oneness of things, dependent on the soil, bacteria, insects, rain and sun for my survival. My merit is just as much and just as little as everything else. I am welcomed to take part in the eating and therefore the life of the universe. This line also throws down a useful challenge to me. How have I approached my food today or in recent times. Over the festive period I approached food joyfully but often over indulgently, causing my weight gain and internal frustration with myself. This is where saying the verse everyday is helpful. It encourages me to reflect on how I am approaching food. In Buddhism compassion is key. The five thoughts are not asking me to feel guilty but they hold up a mirror and ask me to self reflect on how I am currently approaching food and act as a gentle reminder to eat more mindfully.

Me meditating on a sunny day

The third verse says "We must protect ourselves from error by excluding greed from our minds". The Buddha taught that a life lived without meditation, mindfulness and peace is characterized by suffering. Greed, hatred and delusion are described as the three poisons in Buddhism. We are taught to skillfully avoid these states of mind if we want to be free of suffering. I find it easy to approach food with greed as I have done this Christmas. This has led to me suffering through feeling frustrated and slightly disappointed with gaining weight. The gentle reminder of saying this verse helped me to get back on track. I am approaching my food mindfully again. Cooking healthy ingredients, having smaller portions but having enough so that I do not feel hungry. Trying to walk the middle path between denial and overindulgence. The sweet spot for a happy and content life.

My garden Buddha in the snow

The fourth verse of the five thoughts encourages us by saying "We eat lest we become lean and die". The line reminds me that I have chosen to seriously walk the Buddhist path. Buddhist practice is not something I only do at a certain time of day, like when I meditate. Buddhist practice involves everything if we let it. Work, eating, preparing food, family, shopping, cleaning the house and holidays are all part of our daily practice. Can we fully be in the moment, experiencing all these daily tasks in the now, as best we can. This beautiful practice includes food and the act of eating. Reminding me that eating, from the point of view of Buddhist practice, is to sustain us in our life of practice. If we are hungry Buddhist practice is harder as we become distracted from meditation due to the unpleasant nature of feeling hungry. Similarly if we over indulge we can feel disappointed, less fit and healthy, like me after Christmas and again this can distract us from meditation and the Buddhist life.

Young monks at a Buddhist shrine

The final part of the five thoughts states "We accept this food so we may become enlightened". Again this reminds me that the eating of food is a spiritual act helping to give us the energy and health to sustain our Buddhist practice.

When I really consider the five thoughts I quickly realize that the depth contained within them is deep and profound. I would encourage anyone interested in the spiritual life and their subsequent relationship with food to learn the verse and consider reciting it before you eat. Test for yourself if it is helpful in setting your intentions for eating but also in life.

Never forget though that compassion is the key. The five thoughts help us to take right action in our worldly life. It is important to remember that the verse does not intend for us to become guilty about our eating. I use it as a guide to help me stay focused on the spiritual path but I never become guilty when I over indulge. Like meditation, when my mind strays into thinking I bring it gently back to meditation, trying never to get annoyed with myself. The same is true of eating. When I notice my habits have strayed from a mindful approach, I gently bring my eating habits back to be more in balance and try never to feel bad about this. Once on retreat at a Buddhist monastery we were served cake as part of the ceremony that took place that day. I could see that the monks were enjoying the cake as much as me! The Abbot said at the time said "you don't need cake to become enlightened but it certainly helps". Keeping a sense of fun and balance in our Buddhist practice is important to.

Thanks for reading and I hope you found this blog of interest. If you have enjoyed my writing please consider getting yourself a copy of my novel The Buddhist CEO by clicking on the shop tab at the top of the page.

Below I leave you with a link to a talk by a monk from Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey. A place that I have written about before and the scene for two chapters n my book. The monk is called Reverend Sanshin and in this video he talks about the meditation of eating and makes reference to the five thoughts. The talk is about 20 minutes long but it is well worth a listen. I found this talk to be profound and I hope that you enjoy it too. If you enjoy the talk you can find many of the monks talks on the Throssel Hole website and they are all free.

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