Buddhism began with a meal. Having abdicated the lap of royal luxury to seek the meaning of life, the Shakya prince Gautama Siddhartha wandered the wilderness with a band of ascetic extremists, wasting away until his limbs “were like the knotted joints of withered creepers” and his ribs pierced his skin. “Now I can claim to have lived on a single bean a day,” he later told a disciple, “on a single sesamum seed a day—or a single grain of rice a day. . . .” Yet, rather than glorify the success of this austerity, Gautama went on to report: “Never did this practice . . . or these dire austerities bring me to the ennobling fits of superhuman knowledge and insight.” The disappointing self-mortification brought him instead to accept a small offering of boiled milk with honey. As every biography emphasizes, reinvigorated by physical energy and a sense of well-being, he then sat down under the Bodhi tree and began the meditation that turned him into Buddha, “the awakened one,” a man who forever changed the world.
Because Buddhism has no savior gods but rather a path to enlightenment paved by personal behavior, Buddhism more than any other religion (except, arguably, esoteric Manichaeism) is concerned with what and how human beings eat. “Anyone who has tried to meditate,” the late Buddhist scholar Edward Conze noted, “must have observed that the weaknesses and disturbances of the body are apt to interfere with continuous meditation.” But the idea of purifying oneself of greed, anger, and ignorance through the willful control of behavioral impulses has always held powerful sway over seekers in all traditions.
Indeed, almost fifteen hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha, the great Tibetan Buddhist yogi Milarepa lived in a cave and tried eating only scavenged nettles until he deemed such dire fasting a futile avenue to awakening. The only result was that his skin turned green. Horrifying bronzes of a severely emaciated Buddha still sit in Asian monasteries as warnings against despising or ignoring the fleshly body.
When Gautama began his spiritual quest by engaging in extreme forms of fasting, he was doing no more or less than following the customs of the wandering holy men of his day. But he rejected this in favor of “the middle way.” His subsequent teachings incorporated detailed instructions on diet, and appropriate etiquette for the taking of meals. This attention to the body, to the strength and physical well-being of the seeker, was a radically new approach at a time when the prevailing spiritual path demanded the subjugation of bodily needs to discipline and willpower. Introducing what we may now call a “holistic” view of body and mind, the Buddha’s view had far-reaching ramifications. It has been suggested that many aspects of Chinese herbal healing remedies, for instance, developed in part because Buddhist missionaries, like many missionaries since, found that they made more converts by helping the sick than by arguing fine points of theology.
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