August 14, 2010
What Do Buddhas Eat?
Someone asked me a funny question the other day, “What do Buddhas eat?”
Now this is a funny question because Buddhas are people just like you and me who have simply awakened, and as a result the question is basically, “What do enlightened people eat?”
The answer is: “Anything they want.”
Let’s go into this a little more deeply because I’m sure you were expecting the answer to involve veganism or vegetarianism. If you are a person devoted to spiritual cultivation, what you consume depends upon your needs and the circumstances and purposes. That’s the first thing to consider. Compassion is also a major factor in choosing what to eat, but if you’re adrift on the high seas and only fish are available to keep you alive, you must choose whether you willing to die in place of the fish. It all comes down to your wisdom and your circumstances.
In the first years of Buddhism, it’s surprising to know that the Buddhist monks weren’t perfectly vegetarian but ate whatever food was offered to them unless it was meat from an animal that was specifically killed for them. If that was the case, or if they were asked to select the animal to be slaughtered, they were forbidden to eat it. In Tibet today, many Tibetan monks are also not strictly vegetarian either but eat whatever is offered. In China, however, with a history of plentiful vegetarian food because of the monastic system, the rule of vegetarianism was enforced for all monks.
But consider this: the famous meditation adept Milarepa only attained his enlightenment after ending a near starvation diet by drinking some beer and eating some meat supplied by his friends. As he found out, if you don’t eat the right food to keep up your strength, it is hard to succeed at spiritual cultivation. Even Buddha was not able to succeed in attaining enlightenment until his health, damaged by severe asceticism, was restored to normal after eating some rice gruel or porridge. I also know of a great Zen master who ate only one small vegetarian meal a day at noon and also found that it did not supply him with enough energy for his cultivation efforts, and so he started eating meat again, although in limited portions, to restore his health and cultivation efforts. It comes down to what you need in conjunction with what you think is right and proper.
And this is one of the main factors to consider – that less meat is certainly better than more, but none may not be enough, especially if you are subsisting on the wrong type of carbohydrates in a vegetarian diet. Many monks in China eat too much tofu and soybeans and as a result, pancreatic cancer and diabetes is quite prevalent due to their diets. In America many vegetarians eat far too much sugar and wheat and destroy their health in the process, too. Meat protein may be warranted, but with today’s hormone laden food, even this decision is questionable.
Then again, it’s a rule in Buddhism that if you are sick and need to eat meat to recover, it is considered a breach of discipline to refuse that medicine though you may want to keep the purity of vegetarianism in play. Once again, it comes down to what’s necessary to help one stay healthy and thus able to succeed in their cultivation. In Orthodox Judaism, a similar rule holds that if you refuse non-kosher food that’s part of the medical prescription for getting well, it is also a breach of discipline to refuse it.
So what do you eat to stay healthy and succeed in spiritual cultivation? What is the best diet for you and for people in general? No one can say with authority, although many would like to– it’s dependent upon you and your genes, your efforts, your circumstances and how you feel with the diet you choose. Many people say they feel cleaner on a vegetarian diet, and that meat weighs them down and clouds their mind, and that they are healthier as vegetarians or vegans than as meat eaters. For such sensitive people, they’ve already determined what’s best for themselves.
Then again, one thing I can mention is that many naturopaths and nutritionists have told me that when strict vegetarians get sick, in many cases it’s almost impossible to cure them if they don’t start eating some animal protein again. The famous Edgar Cayce recommended fish, then poultry, then lamb and beef in this ascending order if one were to eat meat as a source of protein. Pork is universally recognized as one of the worst meats across all traditions. And as to what vegetables are good for people, you have to first rule out if you are allergic or have a sub-clinical sensitivity to it. Just because it’s a vegetable doesn’t mean it’s good for you!
Many people are sensitive to foods but don’t know it because their vitality is strong, but as they get older and their immune system declines those foods start producing symptoms that were previously masked by robustness. So what may seem like a vegetarian “safe food” may actually be doing harm to your body. If someone gets cancer, one of the first things to do is find those food offenders through a blood test and then strictly rule them out of the diet, vegetarian or not. With today’s GMO foods, this rule is more important than ever as many people are allergic to GMO crops.
The question as to whether you should eat meat or not is really up to you from considering your circumstances and the effect that it brings. It’s a matter of balance, necessity and compassion. So what do enlightened beings eat? Whatever they choose to eat because of their vows and circumstances.