One of the many little things I have discovered while studying the Pali texts over the last several years is that the people of the Buddha’s time were obsessed with food. You may laugh, if you like, but this is actually important.

I hear all the time that, in interpreting these texts, we need to be careful not to bring our modern assumptions into our translations and understanding of them, and while that sounds very good — it sounds as good as the phrase “Know yourself” did to me when I was a teen (it seemed like the Prime Directive then) — it is ridiculously difficult to do if we don’t know how. As a teen, I didn’t know how to “know myself” (I wish I’d known about Buddhism back then), and as a student of the Pali suttas, I can’t do a very good job of understanding what’s being said without knowing where the differences are between their cultural assumptions and ours.

This is where the attitude towards food comes in: back then, the bare bones of the need to survive were still at the front of their thoughts. The Buddha lived in a time when a nomadic group had been settling the area for long enough to have old villages grow into “cities” (of about 100,000 people, tops), with younger villages carving places out of the jungles. Both fire and food — keys to survival — still figured prominently in how they viewed the world.

I’ll get to just how in a moment, but first a small aside: The obsession with food and fire should not make us think these people were primitives. The complexity of their thought processes is evident in the way it was the norm — at least in philosophical discussions — to layer meaning on meaning. This comes, in part, from having a worldview in which the ties between macrocosm and microcosm were seen as obscure and critical — the religious practices centered around knowing the secrets of what things down here related to the hidden workings of the cosmos, and being able to manipulate them — and since names (words) were at the center of these correspondences, language very often had dual meanings, and often enough, multiple levels of references, all in a way that is just about incomprehensible to us now.

It is a large part of what makes the Pali texts, as well as the ancient Vedic texts, so hard to decipher.

One of the things I have had the most trouble understanding in these texts, is when the Buddha or one of his disciples talks about “nutriment” (“āharā” in Pali) — what it means and how to approach it, I’ll leave the word and examples for another post, but here I just want to focus on what a stunning difference there is between our attitude towards life and food, and theirs, and suggest a way of looking at the texts that might improve understanding.

The difference actually has as much to do with defining life, as defining what sustains it, but the two are so bound up as to be inextricable — which is the whole point. We generally see food as a fixed commodity that provides energy to support life. Food is. Life is. The readers of this blog probably worry very little about where their next meal will come from, and while we recognize that *if* we get no food we will die, we don’t connect food to existence in a visceral way. We exist, we are confident we will continue to exist. Food exists, and we can go get some if we are hungry.

But in the Buddha’s day, it was not that easy, or at least the memory of days when it was not that easy still shaped their understanding of life.

It may be that the reason for this attitude towards life and food is because of a foundational belief in how the cosmos came to be, a story about the First Man (once known as Purusa but later as Prajapti) — or maybe it’s the other way around, maybe the belief in the importance of life and food is what gave structure to Prajapati’s story. At any rate, the story is that first there was neither existence, nor non-existence, and then desire happened, and brought forth the Cosmic Man, Prajapati. This was good, but since the whole of existence was Prajapati, he was hungry for something to do / see / taste / smell / hear = know. So he split himself into a zillion pieces and that gave him the senses through which he could come to know himself — and simultaneously gave him something to know. The only problem was that he’d sort of misplaced himself in all those bits, so he went around seeking himself, and he really only was satisfied when he could find himself.

This is where the nutriment and the attitude towards life comes in. Prajapati is never fully Prajapati unless he is actively being fed by those little bits of self. He is constantly hungry for the knowledge of himself, and he only feels complete when he’s being nourished by active contact with those bits. In a sense, he only really, fully exists while being fed.

Life, for the people of the Buddha’s day, was not something that started at birth and then you were alive until you died. Life was perilous, tenuous, filled with hunger and seeking, and existence could continue only while it was being nourished. The attitude, back then, was that life was like a fire that required constant fuel to go on, and nothing existed, really, unless it was being fed. There was a continuous process, a cycle: feed me and I exist. Only when I am being fed do I exist.

We can see this attitude in the Buddha’s remarkable insight into human consciousness — the way he describes the mind as something that arises and passes away rapidly, like a monkey grabbing branches, swinging, letting go, and grabbing another (his metaphor) — but in truth the idea of life-as-process runs all throughout the Pali canon. The underlying theme is always about transition; the major points are generally focused on the cusp of change between one state and another, not on things lasting.

This is why, when, over on The Secular Buddhist page on Facebook, I responded to the question of whether the third noble truth of cessation of suffering is possible or not, I answered that I didn’t see the Buddha ever saying to his fully awakened arahants that they would reach a point where they could just relax — done! — but rather he, and they, continued with mindfulness practice. When the Buddha talks about “the aggregates” (khandha) that make up our sense-of-self, he defines them as “the aggregates of clinging” and there are times he makes clear that arahants still experience the aggregates — they just don’t cling. Stuff still arises, stuff that has the potential to cause suffering, and the very fact that it does can be interpreted as a bit o’suffering right there — but see it, let go of it — done! (for the moment). Mindfulness is the nutriment for freedom. It’s an ongoing process.

Another poster to the thread had the same answer, but it came from a different point of view — “reduce craving by what is too much for you” — which seems to me the very epitome of mindfulness. If it’s not too much for you then it’s not really clinging/craving and so you don’t need to let go of it; let go of the stuff that’s going to hurt.


No Comments

  1. Dana Nourie on January 31, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Great article, Linda, and timely as I was just thinking about this topic yesterday while reading a sutta, and kept coming across the word nutriment.

    It is an excellent metaphor in many ways, but also quite literal: the way we feed our minds with information which creates the conditions for certain types of thoughts and emotions to arise, much like planting a vegatable seed or a weed, depending on what you feed your mind.

    I see our modern society obsessed with nutriment too, literally, as we have fallen into a lot of foods that are not good for us and we try and struggle to get back to foods that are good for us. This often mirrors the seeds we plant for our reactions and behaviors.

    The whole eightfold path is one of planting wholesome seeds to create the conditions for wholesome action, speech, thoughts, etc.

  2. Linda on January 31, 2012 at 11:18 am

    I was thinking about doing another post (or two) on the subject, one that used an actual sutta. Maybe the one you were reading, Dana?

  3. Mark Knickelbine on January 31, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    “Nutriment” has been a difficult concept for me to understand. Seeing it in terms of something that needs to be fed in order to live clarifies it greatly. Our fears, hatreds and disappointments need food to keep them alive — or we can choose to cultivate our sense of connection and loving kindness. Thanks, Linda! Write more.

  4. Ted Meissner on February 5, 2012 at 8:51 am

    Very well written, Linda, I’m eager to hear more. The point you’ve made about how very visceral the connection to food with life is something we do lose sight of in our society, far too much, and that does bring a perspective on the suttas that we typically don’t have.

    Thanks for writing this!

  5. Dana Nourie on February 5, 2012 at 10:45 am

    It was a sutta on dependent origination. I’ll look for it today.

  6. Dana Nourie on February 5, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Linda, it was a translation of mn 38 by John Holder. There is another translation by Thannisaro and wow is his take different than Holders. But nutrient is used the same way. What are body fabrications? I thought fabrications were delusion, stuff we make up in our heads but it’s use here is a bit confusing.

  7. Linda on February 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    What I’ve found is that understanding that there is a difference in the way we see “things” is so different then till now, and while it might seem like a very finely-made point, it is actually critical to understanding a lot of what is being said. The category of things I see the issue with is processes; we are labeling processes as if they are fixed, whereas there was far more of a sense, then than now, that these were processes.

    Many of the points we find confusing (like the out-of-sequence bits in dependent origination) are explained by understanding this process. While I hope to, eventually, do a series on dependent origination, before I do that I want to do a good job explaining how this difference in perception around “nutriment” affects definitions in the suttas.

    I find myself wondering if this wasn’t part of the issue that loomed so large in the day to find what was “eternal” — the vivid sense of everything being in flux (and in that way, dangerous and unstable) — could that have driven people to look so hard for something eternal in us?

    And Dana, thanks for the pointer to MN 38. I’ll have a look at the sutta and see if I can pick up the points you question and weave them into the next post.

  8. Linda on February 18, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Dana, since I didn’t find a way to work in an answer to your question about “body fabrications” I’ll just put a quick note in here.

    It’s basically “nutriment” again. Yes, fabrications are stuff we make up in our heads, but they have as “ground” — as “the field they grow in” — the actions we do with our bodies, our speech, and in our thoughts. One way to look at it (to add to the other two ways I put in the article that follows this one, linked just above this comment) is that when someone discusses sankhara (“fabrications”) as body, speech, or mind, they are saying: LOOK THERE TO SEE IT HAPPENING. It grows in *that field* so LOOK THERE.

  9. 0nothing1 on February 21, 2012 at 7:19 am

    Linda wrote:

    “We generally see food as a fixed commodity that provides energy to support life. Food is. Life is. The readers of this blog probably worry very little about where their next meal will come from, and while we recognize that *if* we get no food we will die, we don’t connect food to existence in a visceral way. We exist, we are confident we will continue to exist. Food exists, and we can go get some if we are hungry.”

    Linda, I want to ask you, do you earn for living by herself or live on someone else’s dependent? In an extreme case, you probably live in the state pension, or have a permanent government job, as the Europeans like to do. πŸ˜‰

    But if you have your own business, this is akin to you every day go out for hunting to get you dinner.

    What would Buddha say? πŸ˜‰ By the way, is this so important, what would it say?

  10. 0nothing1 on February 21, 2012 at 7:32 am

    Sorry for my slip of the pen, but the question remains valid: is this so important, what would Buddha say? πŸ™‚

  11. Linda on February 21, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Hello 0nothing1.

    In my life I have done both — run a business, and lived totally in dependence on others. I don’t find either to be any kind of close kin to going out hunting for my dinner — my life is not threatened by the process, and I will not soon die if I fail to procure food while I am at work or asking for support, because I have a full pantry and many resources. If owing a business or being supported by others are kin to hunting, they are very distant kin, so distant that we have lost the feeling for how elemental food is.

    Is this so important? Yes it is. What would the Buddha say? I can’t speak for him. But if he felt it was important for us to understand the lessons he taught, and if this point is critical to understanding those lessons — and I find it is — then I think he’d deem it important. It’s not that food is his lesson, it’s that understanding how and what we feed our sense of self helps us in Buddhist practice. The post that follows this one gives context to why we need to understand his society’s relationship to food.

    • 0nothing1 on February 22, 2012 at 8:28 am

      Hello Linda.

      You have a full pantry and many resources? Great! According to Marx, it is called capital. Then my next question: do not you think that it somehow interferes with your practice? After all, the Buddha taught not to create support for themselves, may be because it makes difficult to understand some of the obvious truth.

      My question WHAT WOULD BUDDHA SAY was not about the food. In fact, he taught that there is a certain state of mind, which is identical to the reality – therefore, it is True – and it alone has a value. This state can only be achieved through personal effort, it can not be imposed from the outside – as they say, all authority in Zen comes from within. Therefore, the criterion of truth in Buddhism can only be reality itself – the practice. And everything else is irrelevant – Including what Shakyamuni said – in the end, like every man he could also be wrong.

      Incidentally, that’s why Buddhism is different from religion. For religions, it is essential to follow the tradition, because it is assumed that only the original source can be a source of Truth, and the most we can do – to follow dogma. For religions this is the only way to survive, so they accept any reforms only because of the dire need.

      But making from covenants of the Sakyamuni dogma, you make from Buddhism a religion, and what could be worse for Buddhism? The merit of Buddha that he discovered for all a new space of possible, but probably just for that reason he was not the greatest master of Buddhism. Buddhism has to evolve, but it is in decline… Why, what do you think?

  12. Linda on February 24, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    0nothing1, are you asking “What do you think?” in reference to the decline of Buddhism, or about something else?

    • 0nothing1 on March 1, 2012 at 9:53 am

      Linda, I think that you position – to make from covenants of Buddha (from his teaching, actually) dogma – is typical in our time, and, in my opinion, this is one of the reasons for the decline of Buddhism.

      Yet the main reason for its decline, I think, is that almost none of modern followers of Buddhism worry about the truth of what they found. There are too many differences between the viewpoints of various Buddhist – but it does not bother them! – Whereas Truth must be one. Sensations during meditation is always subjective, but that does not mean that the criterion of truth can be the original sources – Pali, for example – the criterion can be only reality!

      Thus, it appears, the main task is we must ensure that the sense of truth found during sitting meditation actually corresponds to reality. And that means the ability to relate the experience of sitting meditation with when the body is in motion. I got the impression that this is exactly what almost no one can do.

      But Buddha had in mind that it is the adequate perception of reality – Truth – eliminate all suffering and therefore only a matter, what, incidentally, confirms the experience of modern psychoanalysis.

    • Linda on March 4, 2012 at 8:50 pm

      It seems to me, 0nothing1, that if you perceive what I am doing as “making dogma” then you are perhaps not understanding what I am saying and doing. Certainly “not worrying about the truth in what I find” is not an accurate assessment of my process.

      Yes, there are many varied viewpoints: it seems to me that rather than worry about reconciling everyone else’s views, my best approach is to go back to the source and do my very best to understand what he is saying, and then see if it tests out in my life. If he had something worthwhile to say then, yes, it will become apparent in practice. That is not “making dogma” that is “studying and testing through practice.”

      Sitting meditation is important, but far, far more important is whether what we learn there can change our daily lives and the way we affect others. If that’s what you mean by “when the body is in motion” I agree with you — if you find that you know almost no one who can take what’s learned on the cushion out into the world, perhaps you need new dhamma-buddies.

      • 0nothing1 on March 8, 2012 at 8:17 am

        Thank you, Linda, I see your approach. Although traditionally considered to be that if you had your own experience of the Buddha – that your mind has virtually no boundaries – then there would be no question of “what he is saying”. On the other hand, many rightly point out that experience of modern Buddhists is akin to that which occurs in patients with a damaged left hemisphere – due to a stroke, for example – the same feeling of oneness with the world. So your concern is justified. In my opinion, the main thing in the Buddha’s teachings is understanding, without understanding the result of practice is really akin to a brain damage.

        So the practice of sitting meditation, of course, is always in some way affects our daily lives, but, unfortunately, as I wrote before there are too many disagreements among the Buddhists, though Truth must be one. In my opinion, the problem here is that concentrating on your breathing, in principle, you really can achieve the same result as the Buddha, but this correct feeling is a very subtle, and therefore catch it and distinguished from all other feelings – you can concentrate on your breathing in many different ways – is very difficult.

        So I meant something quite specific, as we know, there are two main types of meditation, which practiced the Buddha himself: we can concentrate on our bodies or on some external object. In the process of sitting meditation, these two types of concentration are usually practiced separately. But when we’re in motion, there should be no division: we must simultaneously be aware of what’s going on and not lose our bodies.

        My question is: how can this be achieved? If you concentrating on chewing food, for example, how then you can clearly understand what is happening around you? I believe this question has a pretty simple answer, if you really know how to do it.

        At one time I found a method that describes Koichi Tohei – he was coach of Aikido, and he has his own method of Zen meditation – I think it would be useful to anyone. He has a book about it, there are even lessons on YouTube. However, it helped me a little, probably because for me as Russian was hard to believe that I am the center of the universe – such features of Russian culture. I was too stupid and untalented, so I had to invent my own method, specifically for fools like me.

        P.S. I read your last post, that you have always had difficulty with grammar, here we are very similar, I hope for your understanding.

  13. Candol on May 19, 2012 at 8:02 am

    Linda, Another dictionary definition is an agent that promotes growth or development. Not so far from the buddhist notion really.

    • Candol on May 19, 2012 at 8:41 am

      Linda, Another dictionary definition of nutriment is an agent that promotes growth or development. Not so far from the buddhist notion really. The link between nutriment and fuel is pretty close. Even in our culture we use the word food in metaphorical ways. food for thought. We probably use fuel more than food. But i don’t really see why nutriment has given you so much trouble; not upon reading the sutta on ahara. It seems pretty straightforward …. unless perhaps you are trying very hard to to see birth as not literal birth, ie rebirth. (I just read that sutta).

      Certainly when i read the steps of dependent origination i can’t help but see how lust is linked to birth by bringing it about. And if you kill the fires of passion you will not give birth to anyone either. It so often seems to me that the buddha is trying to stop the breeding process of the human species. I know this sounds literal but gosh when i read it that’s what i think he means. I can’t help it. He just doens’t seem to give any clues as to what else he could mean. At least not as far as i can make out. And certainly given he’s often on about lust, it seems to be part of the deal.

  14. […] not difficult to understand (it is general morality); nutriment we have covered in previous posts (here and here); and the four noble truths should be familiar to just about everyone (if not, they are […]

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