At first glance, the average eater might not think that they have a lot in common with the Tibetan Buddhist monastics who live at Sravasti Abbey in rural Washington State. All the food served at the monastery is donated, onions and garlic are off-limits (as is raiding the refrigerator), and mealtime is spent contemplating the role that food plays in nourishing the monks and nuns’ bodies, which in turn helps them to continue teaching the dharma.
According to Sravasti abbess and founder Thubten Chodron, however, many of the monastery’s practices can actually be adapted to suit families, couples, and individuals who want to use mealtime as an opportunity to be present, connect with one another, and reflect on generosity and kindness. She puts this belief to the test in her new book, The Compassionate Kitchen (available from Shambhala Publications on December 12), which offers advice based on the monastery’s eating practices.
“Although some of this may seem extreme (You don’t buy food?! Won’t you starve?!) or downright impossible (How can I eat in silence when I’m feeding a toddler and my infant starts to wail?), keep an open, playful mind and see what fits you and your situation, and what you could adapt so that it works for you,” Thubten Chodron writes in the opening pages.
You won’t find many Buddha diet tips in The Compassionate Kitchen, though a trimmer waistline may be a healthy and welcome byproduct of eating with more care. Instead, the book uses nourishment as a cue to check in with our spiritual values. Here are five ways Thubten Chodron has found that eating can help your Buddhist practice:
1. Actually taste the food you’re eating.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but while we spend a good amount of time thinking and talking about what we eat, many of us don’t slow down enough to actually appreciate the food when it arrives. Ven. Chodron illustrates this in a story from her own family: While growing up, she writes, everyone in her family (except her) relished in carefully choosing where to order takeout , discussing at length who was in the mood for what. But unless something was wrong with the food, her family rarely commented on how it actually tasted, and instead turned their attention to what one might order for dessert.
At Sravasti Abbey, breakfast and lunch are eaten in silence so that the monks and nuns can do a visualization practice. For example, they might honor the Buddha by imagining that their food is not ordinary food but precious nectar, representing wisdom. They visualize offering this nectar to him as beams of light flow from his body into theirs, bringing calm and bliss. Or they might call to mind the five contemplations—on food, practice, mind, aim of buddhahood, and the causes and conditions that led to receiving the food. These practices can help lead us away from attachment, craving, and dissatisfaction, and toward gratitude for the food and the many beings that made our meal possible. Feeling this gratitude starts with feeling the food on our tongues.
2. Set an intention at the grocery store.
Since all the abbey’s food is donated, local volunteers are the ones shopping for the monastery. Upon delivery, the monastics and lay volunteers chant to dedicate the food to their dharma practice and reflect on the spirit of generosity.
“This is very different from someone bringing food and tossing it on the counter, saying, ‘Here you go,’” writes Chodron.
But for those of us who purchase our food, Chodron has also written a verse meant for volunteers when shopping for the monastic community. It reads, in part, “I will have a calm heart and mind while mindfully selecting appropriate items to offer and will have a deep sense of satisfaction knowing that the sangha appreciates this offering.” Supporters have reported back that the reflection has helped them be present while shopping and remain aware of how their selections and purchases serve the community.
Next time you’re in a packed pre-holiday checkout line (or if the supermarket is out of your preferred stuffing brand—again), calling this verse to mind might not be a bad idea.
3. Check your greedy mind at the door.
At mealtime, Sravasti residents take their alms bowl through the line of food, and monastics are served in order by ordination. The Vinaya, or monastic code, prohibits one from taking a peek to see how much food your neighbor helped him or herself to. (What others eat is none of our business, according to Chodron, although what we eat is.) The purpose of eating, Chodron writes, is to nourish your body, not to indulge your cravings by overeating or consuming excessive oil, sugar, or fat.
That being said, the greedy mind is powerful, and often has a lot of complaints. The next time you think a meal has too much salt—or not enough—or otherwise disagrees with your taste buds, Chodron advises that you try “accepting what is offered and be content with that.” So if you can’t eat chocolate cake because of an allergy, you will not only survive without dessert but also gain an opportunity to practice contentment and gratitude.
4. Consider going veg (but don’t let it get to your head).
Many on the Buddhist path decide to become vegetarians to protect the lives of animals and the planet—two motivations that Chodron condones. A good place to start, Chodron says, is becoming a part-time vegetarian (you’ll be in good company, as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama eats some meat for health reasons). If one must (or chooses to) eat meat, the Dalai Lama recommends eating larger animals to minimize the loss of numerous lives for one meal, and to appreciate the animal’s sacrifice.
Though everyone who lives at and visits Sravasti Abbey eats vegetarian meals, Chodron doesn’t think “harping about it to others” is a harmonious solution, and that people must decide to become vegetarians or vegan on their own. Boasting about eating only organic food can also add an element of pride (and economic superiority), even if your intentions are good.
5. It’s OK to be attached to a mango (or chocolate bar).
Even though you might feel powerless in the presence of your favorite treats, Chodron explains throughout her book that food is not the strongest craving (money, reputation, and romantic relationships are far stronger).
“It’s much more productive to focus on applying antidotes to afflictions that motivate highly destructive actions than to fret when attachment arises to a piece of cheese or chocolate,” she writes. This doesn’t give us a free pass to indulge in everything that makes our mouths water, but we might choose to prioritize “the afflictions that cause the most harm in our lives, and slowly, gently work on attachment to food.”
Still, Chodron says that those who are new to the dharma often recognize and become upset over their attachment to food. A good reminder is the Buddha himself. He prohibited ascetic practices because he saw that the mind was affected when the body is not nourished. It was only after he was kinder to his body that the Buddha attained enlightenment.
Watch Venerable Thubten Chodron’s dharma talk, Recognizing and Transforming Jealousy and Envy, here.
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