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How the Buddha Thinks of Food

Learn how to incorporate Buddha’s Middle Way into your thinking around food

How Would the Buddha Eat?

Have you ever noticed that sometimes the Buddha is depicted as chubby and other times is presented as more trim? As the founder of Buddhism, the Buddha rediscovered and taught the way to freedom from suffering — including ignorance and craving — and how to gain the state of Nirvana, perfect happiness and peace. Many Westerners think of the Buddha as having a rounded belly and a cheerful smile. This is often a depiction of the “Laughing Buddha,” a Zen monk named Budai who lived in China about 15 centuries after the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama; he became a frequent character in folktales and was adopted as a patron protector of bars and restaurants.

‘The statue of the Laughing Buddha acts as a good friend. Whenever we are off the track, his smiling face can bring us back to the present moment, to a positive mood.” Sakshi Chetana, Laughing Buddha

While the “skinny Buddha” is considered a more historically accurate representation of Siddhartha Gautama, there are many other versions because everyone has an essential Buddha nature — meaning that we all have the potential to be a Buddha, no matter what we look like. Basically, any body can be a Buddha body.

I’ve been wondering what the Buddha would be like today — specifically, how would the Buddha approach food and nourishment in a diet-culture world that has lost its bearings?

The Story of the Buddha

Siddhartha Gautama was born a prince in a small kingdom in the Himalayas, around 567 BCE. Because he had been prophesied to be either a great monarch or a great wise man, his father shielded him from the outside world and lavished upon his son every luxury, all to prevent young Siddharta from turning to an ascetic life. But as a young man, Siddhartha was drawn outside the palace and encountered evidence of illness, age, and death for the first time in his life. From that moment, he resolved to find the answer to human suffering. He left the palace and began his journey toward liberation. This wasn’t an easy or straightforward path or process. There was experimentation and exploration in his learning, and it took years to come to what we know as the Middle Way. The Buddha left behind extreme fasting and asceticism and chose to nourish his body with food in order to support his meditation and enlightenment, and he intended his earned wisdom to be shared far and wide. Rather than eschewing worldly pleasures, the Middle Way is a gentle philosophy of avoiding extremes. This path shows that liberation and balance exists within us all.

The Middle Path

Did you know that the Middle Way might have been inspired by food? According to legend, the Buddha fasted for 40 days in his attempt to become enlightened. It’s no surprise that his body wasted away and he nearly died! But a woman saw him, rail thin as he meditated, and feared for his life. She offered him her bowl of rice pudding, and saved him from death. As the Buddha broke his fast, a man passed by playing a three-stringed instrument. One string was too tight and made an unpleasant sound. Another string was too loose and sounded flat. But the middle string was perfectly tuned. The Buddha understood the trouble with extremes, and realized the Middle Way to enlightenment.

"In between the extremes of too much and too little, we can find a happy medium of “just right.”

Sounds a lot like Goldilocks, right? In between the extremes of too much and too little, we can find a happy medium of “just right.” Craving, including “thirsting for pleasure,” is considered the origin of suffering. The Buddha’s relief from hunger, combined with the man’s poorly tuned instrument, brought about this realization of the Middle Way. There are multiple branches of Buddhism — including the three main schools of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana — but there are no set dietary laws. Most of the food-related customs we associate with Buddhism — like vegetarian and vegan diets being common — vary with geographical regions.

There’s a foundation of open-mindedness and flexibility in the Middle Way. Applied to food, this same philosophy is key to the Better Eating App (Bea) — where we value adaptable guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, to give you room to breathe, to explore, and to discover your best fit. The Buddha himself taught about the five-fold gift of food: “it is the gift of life, beauty, happiness, strength, and discernment.” For Zen monks, meal preparation is a spiritual exercise, followed by conscious eating.

Buddhism invites us to focus on the Five Contemplations while eating, to help the body and mind remain in balance without going to extremes. Buddhist master Thích Nhất Hanh suggests considering these points before each meal in order to transform our relationship with food:

1. This food is the gift of the whole universe, the earth, the sun, the sky, the stars and the hard and loving work of numerous beings.

2. May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to enjoy every bite.

3. May we transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially those that cause us harm, as they indirectly harm all we touch.

4. May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our precious planet, and reverse the process of global warming.

5. We accept this food so that we may realize the path of understanding and love.

Food is required for living. We need food to nourish our bodies, and the Middle Way shows us that we can eat in a way that is neither indulgent — clinging to physical pleasure or overeating — nor restrictive like so many calorie-counting diets. Rather than pursuing the “things that nourish our desires,” happiness is found in understanding and eliminating the causes of suffering. In seeking to balance the body and mind — by taming greed, mental and physical desires, and self-centeredness — the Middle Way points us toward happiness and spiritual liberation.

How to Incorporate The Middle Way Into Your Eating Practice

I’m not talking about another diet. The Middle Way charts a course that is balanced and more neutral, in the healthier and more sustainable zone between deprivation and indulgence. There is no more yo-yo dieting or swinging between these extremes. There’s also no room for perfectionism, the restrictive diet mindset, or getting stuck on what you think you should look like. Nor is this a practice of hedonistic indulgence — of eating when you’re not hungry, or eating to uncomfortable excess. Neither extreme brings health and inner peace. In this “in between,” free from the stress and imbalance of extremes, we can find focus and clarity.

"The Middle Way charts a course that is balanced and more neutral, in the healthier and more sustainable zone between deprivation and indulgence."

Sounds pretty good, right? But how can you put this into practice?

One solid approach to the Middle Way is mindful eating. By learning to be more present and aware at mealtimes, you will be better able to give your body what it needs in the moment, and to have a more satisfying experience of eating, too. Your hunger is not something that’s meant to be controlled or forced into submission with restrictive diets, nor should mindless eating rule your life. Long-term weight management — and, more important, your health and peace of mind — depends on a balanced and sustainable approach to food.

The Middle Way is about moderation. This means there are no restricted or “off-limits” foods, which immediately reduces or even eliminates cravings when you realize you can have whatever you want. This balanced approach also means paying close attention to your body’s cues of hunger and satiety — in other words, eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full, and taking the time to slow down when you’re eating so you can learn to recognize these signals more easily. You can practice this same mindfulness when making a grocery list and shopping at the store, so you’re filling your cupboard with supportive options. Are you reaching for that brightly colored box because it looks “fun,” or because the contents will nourish your body? Eating can absolutely be fun! It should be an enjoyable and purpose-filled experience, and it should also leave you feeling healthy and strong.

"The Middle Way is about moderation."

Another way to put the Middle Way into practice is to keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings around food and eating. What does it feel like when you overindulge, or when you’ve denied yourself? Notice the times you feel the urge to eat when you’re not actually hungry. What are the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual feelings that arise? Let go of any judgment or rigid, black-and-white thinking, and look for patterns and for clues about what your body and your intuition might be trying to tell you. Your own moments of enlightenment may feel smaller and less profound than what the Buddha experienced beneath the Bodhi tree, but your own discoveries can free you all the same. The Middle Way lets you get in touch with yourself and learn to trust your body. And it can help you let go of self-criticism and patterns of disordered eating, while allowing you to build new wisdom about food and your body. 

You are worthy of this change. You deserve to transform your relationship with food. It’s all about the balance and gentleness of the Middle Way.

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sera Lavelle, is the cofounder of Bea Better Eating and owner of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy in NYC. To learn more about Bea Better Eating and our mission, please click here.

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