“Theravada monks eat only one meal a day . . .”
That was how it started. A friend I’d known for several years (albeit only by phone) was coming to stay for five days. Of course I knew he was a Theravada Buddhist monk. It wasn’t the basis for our friendship, but I knew it. And so I couldn’t quite grasp the insistence of the woman speaking to me on the phone. “You know it,” she said. “But you don’t understand it. That means that he will eat three meals at one sitting—no kidding! So really pile it on.”
“For real?” I inquired. “What’s the use in that?”
“He can explain that for himself,” she answered, a bit peremptorily, I thought.
It was true. Although slim for his build, the bhikkhu could eat like nobody I’d ever seen. I come from the South, from the land of all-you-can-eat barbecue restaurants, and so I know what it looks like to watch someone tuck away half a cow at a single sitting. The bhikkhu left them in the dust.
Only it wasn’t unpleasant to watch. In fact, it was almost beautiful. He would arrive at our house at around ten (he had to stay with a single male friend because bhikkhus are not allowed to sleep under the same roof as a woman—a subject for another column), at which time my wife and I, who had been cooking already for two and a half hours, would begin laying out the feast before the mat we had positioned for him on the living room floor.
The meal proper commenced with a meal gatha, which began (in Pali), “As the waters of the river fill the ocean . . .” Having been trained in the Zen tradition, where the chanting has a vaguely paramilitary tempo, I was a bit surprised to hear how understated his gatha was. It was soft, musical, and I had the distinct impression that, were he eating alone, it would have sounded the same. But, of course, he rarely eats alone, for if there is no one there to provide his food, he doesn’t eat. A Theravada monk eats one meal a day and sometimes, due to circumstance, not even that. The rule governing this is ancient and inflexible: Eat before noon, by the generosity of a devoted lay follower, or don’t eat at all. It took an hour to complete the meal: borscht, smoked salmon, roast chicken, prosciutto with melon, salad, banana muffins, asparagus, cheese (two types), fresh bread, oranges, bananas, mangoes, apple crisp, and ice cream.
My wife and I ate too. We’d decided it would be easier during his stay to go with the flow and follow “the bhikkhu diet,” eating only one meal a day. It was difficult that first morning to consume a sufficient quantity of food to last us for a full twenty-four hours. By evening we were ravenous; by morning, positively shaky. But then, by the end of the second bhikkhu meal, the quantity of food we were eating had begun to seem quite reasonable. A bowl of borscht? Sure! Make that three! And add a half a loaf of pain levain while you’re at it. By the way, pass the chicken. And all of this before ice cream.
Given the quantity of bread alone, it was amazing to me that the bhikkhu wasn’t pudgy. But when I mentioned this, he explained that it was just the contrary: You had to be careful not to lose too much weight. By eating this much this early in the day, he explained, your body has a chance to digest your food thoroughly, so there isn’t much left over to put on pounds. It was like fasting—every single day.
He was right. By the end of his visit I’d lost seven pounds and was a convert—if not to Theravada Buddhism, then at least to the bhikkhu diet. Over the next two months I lost another twenty pounds. I bought new clothes, became more productive, and exercised more. I felt terrific.
I’ve read somewhere that eight weeks is about the limit for most Americans where dieting is concerned. It seems that most people are able to go that long following the do’s and don’t’s of any particular regime. And then something happens. What? I can’t speak for everyone, but it seems likely that, having met with some success in losing weight or lowering one’s cholesterol, the natural tendency is to celebrate—say, with a hamburger and fries or a créme brulée. Of course, on the bhikkhu diet I could have eaten any one of those (or all three) and still managed to keep my weight down, but eating after noon was strictly verboten, and so my way of “celebrating” began with a nighttime bowl of cereal with whole milk and ended three months later with my having gained back every ounce I’d lost.
I eventually did get my bhikkhu-ish figure back, but not by pretending to any form of monkish discipline. I just stopped eating the whole wheat fig bars I buy in bulk at the local health food store and started running three times a week, and over the course of several months, that did the trick. When I confessed all this to my bhikkhu friend, he wasn’t surprised. “It’s supposed to be part of a whole lifestyle,” he said. “You take the bhikkhu out of the bhikkhu diet and all you’ve got is this guy who won’t eat anything after twelve noon because it keeps his weight down. Hard to have much commitment to that!” It made me feel foolish, if not a little presumptuous, to hear it put that way. But, of course, he was right.
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