Wisely reflecting, I use alms food: 1 not for fun, not for pleasure, not for fattening, not for beautification, only for the maintenance and nourishment of this body, for keeping it healthy, for helping with the Holy Life; thinking thus, ‘I will allay hunger without overeating, so that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.’ 2
Each morning and evening this verse is chanted by Buddhist monks in the English Forest Sangha tradition. It is one of four verses, the other verses being about wise use of their robe, lodging, and supports to maintain the health of the body. In these lines we see that a simple list of how not to use food, is balanced with a list of skillful uses of food.
What challenges, but also fascinates me, is how much the Buddhists like lists. It seems there is a list for every topic. While practicing with a Tibetan sangha, Karma Thegsum Choling, I remember studying the ways we are not truthful. The teaching contained a rather long list of the ways we lie. As we went through the list I was ticking off the types of lies with “Nope, not me!”, thinking this is one area of my life that I’m above the mean percentile. Suddenly, I was jolted out of my fantasy as “lying by omission” was read. Hearing the words out loud was jarring enough, but hearing my internal response, “My favorite kind!” completely deflated my balloon.
Here in this Puja verse with its succinct list, the monastics are being asked to reflect on how they could be misusing food, and what would be a skillful and compassionate use of this food? For what purpose is the food being consumed?
Often when learning to eat more mindfully, we focus on how the food is being eaten. We might focus on slowing down, chewing our food well before swallowing, or savoring smells and tastes. But here in this chant, the only reason to eat is said to be to keep the body nourished and healthy so that we can function at optimal level in pursuit of living an ethical and content life.
This chant doesn’t say you shouldn’t enjoy what you are eating, just don’t let the reason you are eating be just for the fun of it or to change the shape of your body. These words seem like practical considerations for eating mindfully.
And yet this verse asks us to expand our reflection. The verse suggests by eating in this skillful way there is yet another reason to do so; you might call it a spiritual aspect that leads to less anguish in the process of feeding the body. By taking care to neither overeat out of greed, aversion or ignorance, nor starve one’s self out of those same mind states, a person can live with a clear conscious. No longer indulging in excesses or deprivations, a person is freed from cravings and can live a more peaceful and contented life. Simply attending to and satisfying the body’s physical hunger — nothing more, nothing less – may have far-reaching benefits we don’t often think about.
Have you realized that by eating to nourish your body not your heart, is regret free? Are there small shifts you might experiment with to help you move towards living with more ease?
Char Wilkins, USA
1Alms food is food offered by the local people to the monks each day. The monks eat one meal a day and are not allowed to ask for food. They may only eat what is freely given them.
2Chanting Book: Morning and Evening Puja and Reflections. Morning and Evening Chanting (Puja) as used by Buddhist Monasteries and groups associated with the English Forest Sangha. Amaravati Publications 1994. Hertfordshire HP1 3BZ, U.K.