dhamma musings: Food And Its Dangers


As Buddhism
gained first acceptance and then popularity, it became a challenge for monks
and nuns to maintain a lifestyle of simplicity and moderation, particularly when
it came to food. People were only too happy to provide monks, not just with
adequate sustenance, but with the best they could afford, and in generous
amounts. “They chose not to take soft or hard food or drinks themselves, they
did not give it to their parents, spouse or children, not to their slaves,
servants or friends, and not to their colleagues or relatives, but they did give
it to the monks who as a result were handsome, plump, and with radiant
complexions and clear skin”(Vin.III,88). The Buddha became acutely aware that even
diligent monks could easily become preoccupied with food and even slip into
gluttony. His discourses are peppered with warnings against preoccupations with
food. Maintain “a sensible attitude towards food” he counselled, “have an empty
stomach, be moderate in food and with little desire” (e.g. Dhp.92; Sn.707). The
plump and content monk, the Friar Tuck type,  never became a stereotype in Buddhist lands as
it did (and remains) in the Western  imagination.

To head off the threat of
gluttony and illustrate the attitude to food he expected from his monks and
nuns Buddha gave this rather startling example. “Imagine two parents, a husband
and wife, and their only son who they love dearly, were travelling through the
wilderness with insufficient provisions. In the middle of the wilderness with
still a long way to go they use up all their provisions. So thinking ‘All our
provisions are exhausted. Let us kill and eat our son though we love him
dearly, and prepare dried and spiced meat. Let not all three of us perish.’
Having done this they emerged from the wilderness. But while eating their sons
flesh they would beat their breasts and cry ‘Where are you our son? Where are
you?’  What do you think monks? Would
those parents eat that food for amusement, for enjoyment or to enhance physical
beauty and attractiveness?” No Lord.” “Would they not eat that food only for
the purpose of crossing the wilderness?” “Yes Lord” (S.II,98-9). He then
proceeded to asked them to eat only what was needed to maintain the body. 

The prospect of  regular meals and sometimes even  sumptuous ones,  created another less expected problem for the
Buddhist  Sangha.  Some people came to see  the  Sangha as an attractive option to the
struggles and drudgery of ordinary life. The monastic regulations contains more
than a few stories of men ordaining for reasons entirely unrelated to the Sangha’s
true purpose, including to get free meals. One of these accounts tells of the
son of a noble family now fallen on hard times noticing that monks “having
eaten good meals, lie down to sleep on beds sheltered from the wind” and then
deciding that he wanted to join the Sangha so as to enjoy such benefits (Vin.I,86).
On another occasion a man stopped off at the local monastery on the way home
after a hard morning’s toil in the fields. One of the monks gave him “a helping
of juicy, delicious fare” from his own bowl. Never having eaten so well before
the man decided that the monk’s life had advantages that the farmer’s life do
did not and he joined the  Sangha.
(Ja.I,311) The Buddha berated such opportunists as having entered the  monkhood “for the sake of your belly” (Vin.I,58).

entirely dependent of others for their sustenance freed monks and nuns from the
need to work and the complications of acquiring and preparing meals, but it
also made them vulnerable in some ways. Food shortages and famines were a
recurrent reality in India well into the 20th century. If the
monsoon failed one year the result would be serious food shortages the next
year. If it failed two years in a row there would be famine. Naturally, people
would not feed monks when they had insufficient for themselves and thus
Buddhist monks and other mendicants would become early victims of famines.
There are several references to famines in the Tipiaka.
One of these mentions food tickets being issued, although exactly what this
means is uncertain. Perhaps the authorities, guilds or others with access to
resources were issuing tickets to the hungry entitling them to a dole (S.IV,323).
During another famine monks were given grain usually fed to horses. Although
this grain had been steamed it still had to be mashed in a mortar before it
could be eaten (Vin.III,7).


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