The Spirit of Food

Posted on in Healthy Living by Robert Sachs


When the Buddha was considering how to establish a community, or sangha, he was leery of suggesting that a prerequisite for the community was to be vegetarian. He thought that such a demand would be more divisive than inclusive. His cousin, Devadatta, was the one who wanted this commitment and, strangely in these days, many people assume that Buddhists are implicitly vegetarian. Indeed, many devotees and spiritual aspirants are shocked when they learn that the Dalai Lama eats meat.

Years ago, I attended a teaching by the Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche, a Canadian reincarnate lama who explained the origins of what we know today as macrobiotics. When an aspirant would approach the gates of a monastery, the gatekeeper would ask, “How do you live?” The correct answer was “food.” This was to make sure that the person was sane and grounded.

The first 10 days after gaining admission were spent fasting. First, the aspirant would take no food or beverage, then some weak tea, and finally some rice. Then they were given their begging bowl and told to collect food offerings for themselves from the neighborhood. They were not allowed to reject anything offered, whether it was meat, vegetable, or fruit. In a heightened state of awareness from fasting, they could feel the vibration of the food, plus the vibration of the people who cooked and offered it. Thus, it comes as no surprise that one of the most important jobs with probably the highest stress in a monastery is that of cook.

These days, we in more privileged societies are spoiled for choice and, too often, spoiled in how we choose. Meat eaters are looked at with disdain. Vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs are not considered as virtuous as vegans. And then there are paleo people and the pinnacle in purity: raw gluten-free vegans. Some of these notions have historical antecedents. Some are just well marketed. How can we discern what is best for us? When these diets were explained to Ayurvedic master Dr. Lad, the question he always asked was, “But for whom?”

As much has been said about the Ayurvedic understanding of diet, let me speak from the root teaching in my own studies: macrobiotics.

Macrobiotics used to be called the “brown rice diet.” It was considered a hippie fad in the early seventies. In truth, it is extremely ancient, and its modern philosopher-proponent, Georges Ohsawa, saw it as a synthesis of Chinese and Ayurvedic wisdom on food. In the US and Europe, macrobiotic’s most recognized modern patriarch, Michio Kushi, lists seven levels of eating in which all diets can fit.

The first and lowest level is that of a gourmand. This is eating what is put in front of you as if it were a trough. But this can also be considered survival eating. Mother Theresa once said, “To a starving person, God comes to them in the form of bread.” Is it whole wheat, gluten-free, organic? At this level, such considerations are beside the point.

Then there is gourmet eating, where your mouth likes the taste, and you can be picky. It’s all about seeking out yum and avoiding yuk.

Then there is social eating, where you eat to create social cohesion—breaking bread with friends, sharing a piece of wedding cake between bride and groom, keeping traditions and honoring holiday fare for the sake of creating bonds of affection. We forget this when we bring Tofurky to our mother’s Thanksgiving dinner and wonder why, in an atmosphere of negative emotions, nobody digests anything.

Then there is health eating. Here you have a physical condition that can be helped by a better diet. Such a diet is often considered or restricted to facilitate healing. It may be that this has to be done in a more marshaled fashion in the beginning of the healing process. An example might be that you have severe sinus congestion with blocked ears and reported allergies, and just by eliminating all dairy and refined carbohydrates, all your symptoms miraculously disappear. This does not mean that you can never eat any of these food sources again—just not all the time and maybe only those of better quality.

Next is eating according to a particular philosophy. All the forms of diet mentioned above could fit into this category. The idea is that a certain concept of eating fits in with what you see as important in contributing to the world you want to live in.

This eating becomes more refined in what is called moral eating, where you choose not to eat certain things on the basis that you feel it is morally unjust in one way or another. For example, you may choose not to eat meat because you are against the cruelty inflicted upon animals in industrial farming and fishing.

Finally, there is spiritual eating, where you are conscious enough to eat in accordance with your circumstance and needs in the situation. Thus, when you are hungry and in the food desert of Interstate 40, you may eat a GMO apple, a Twix, maybe even a hamburger if that is what is available. When you visit your family, you may eat honey-glazed ham, knowing that it’s not what you do every day, but that it creates a resonant harmony with the people you care the most about. There are times when you feel the need to cleanse and heal, and your food selection is based in accordance with this need. And then there are foods that relax your mind and allow you to encounter more subtle levels of your consciousness. In Ayurveda and in the tradition of Hinduism, these are known as sattvic foods, which mainly consist of grains, vegetables, and fruits, and the absence of garlic and onions.

In all of this, gratitude for food is essential, no matter the form. You can’t eat meat with reverence and be dismissive of the life of a carrot. Each is a life form. Each is serving your needs. With such an attitude and with an understanding of the millions who have no choice, as well as the hundreds of thousands who die each day for lack of sustenance, food snobbery in any form is obscene.

Look at your life. Understand that beyond air and water, food is a need you have. As such, whether it is in abundance or not, when you have that need and when it is offered to you, open your mouth, chew each morsel, and be endlessly grateful for this moment.

Robert Sachs is an internationally recognized teacher of oriental spiritual and healing traditions. He is the author of Tibetan Ayurveda: Health Secrets from the Roof of the World; Becoming Buddha: Awakening the Wisdom and Compassion to Change Your World; and his most recent release, The Ecology of Oneness: Awakening in a Free World.

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