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The art of eating _ the Buddhist way

The art of eating _ the Buddhist way

After returning from a visit to a temple in the Northeast of Thailand, a western woman told her friends never go to that place, saying that the monks there did not like one another.

``When they eat, they never speak even one word to one another,'' she said. ``How can they then expect respect or faith from us?''

Obviously, this lady did not understand Buddhist monks' practice concerning eating; monks eat in silence because for them, eating is part of mindfulness training.

In the West, eating may be viewed as a time for socialising, but according to Buddhist mores, which do not only govern monks, eating is part of dhamma practice.Most of us think eating is only a physical activity. In fact, eating has a spiritual impact on us. It does not only matter what we eat, but also how we do the eating.

Many people like to talk while eating. Others get lost in worries instead of being mindful of what they are doing. Apart from getting indigestion, these people tend to get stressed easily, which can lead to ulcers. This pattern of eating also fosters an unsteady mind which cannot concentrate.

But if we eat in the right way, not only our physical body is nourished, but also our mind. Don't forget that our mind also needs food. What is the food of mind? First, it is serenity. While eating, our mind should get some rest from having been put to use all day. So try to eat in peace, without thinking about anything, while concentrating on the business in hand. We will discover that our sense of taste has become much sharper. If our mind wanders, bring it back to eating again. This is what we call mindful eating. The result is the cultivation of peace and concentration. We will find this concentration useful in our other activities.

Apart from serenity, the mind needs wisdom and awareness.Buddhism also sees the time of eating as the time to be aware of the difference between real and false values. The real value of food is to sustain and nourish our body and our lives. The false value of food, meanwhile, is taste and any status attached to certain foods. If we are attached to the tastes or presentation of foods, if we are constantly looking for popular or famous eating places, then greed will gradually grow in our mind, along with the cholesterol in our bloodstream. This is why in true Buddhist tradition, we are prompted to remind ourself of this with a prayer called Patisangkayo before beginning a meal. The aim is to make us aware that we should eat the food for its true value and not to submit to our desires.

Today's generation might feel that this prayer is too old-fashioned, suitable only for monks. But if we apply its essence to make us aware of the purpose of eating before we begin meals, we will be able to nourish our mind with wisdom.

There is another awareness that is extremely important _ that our life is dependent on so many things. Eating time is a good time to reflect on this truth. This is because the foods that we eat actually come from the labour of so many people involved. Foods are the product of so many lives. They are inseparable from their own sources of sustenance _ soil, waterways, forests, clouds, rain, sky. When we eat, then, we owe to so many people and so many lives. We should therefore at least express our thankfulness to them and dedicate merit or emanate compassion for them. This is why monks, in the spirit of thankfulness, say the anumodhana prayer after meals. In this spirit, monks also perform the ritual of kruad nam (the pouring of water to dedicate merit or express thankfulness to all beings) every morning and evening. More importantly, the awareness that we owe our life to others helps us try to live in a meaningful way so that it is worthy of the sacrifices of so many people and many things _ the things that make our being possible.

This consciousness is certainly not a matter for clerics only. It is extremely important for every one of us. Meal-time is the time to reflect on how our life is interconnected with others so that we can see things in proper perspective; according to reality. This outlook helps us to foster a conscientious life. Buddhism considers this outlook a kind of wisdom.

Life is not divided into separate fragments. When we eat, we should not only nourish our body, but also our mind by eating mindfully while cultivating wisdom in our heart. This can be done by constantly reminding ourselves to see the true value of foods, by not letting ourselves be engulfed by their false values, and by simultaneously being aware that we owe our lives to others _ so that we should live our lives meaningfully.

Ultimately, eating _ according to Buddhist perspective _ is not only concerned with the physical and spiritual realms. It is also inseparable from the social dimension. We must be always aware of whether what we eat and how we consume affects others on the planet. The manufacturing of many foods and products come from processes which destroy the environment, exploit the poor and torture animals. If we are going to eat and consume according to true Buddhist tradition, we must avoid all such foods and products. If not, our action is tantamount to supporting the ongoing exploitation.

Body, mind and society are interconnected. They become one in almost every activity in our life, including eating. Our eating is therefore not a matter of putting food in our stomachs. It is an act to develop our mind and our society.

This article has been translated from an article in Thai.
hra Paisal Visalo, a prominent advocate of clerical reform, has written many books on Buddhism and Thai society. His other articles in Thai are also available on the Internet at www.budpage.com.

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