Single most important principle in Buddhist Practice is its alms (Dhana), the giving away one’s possessions, without expecting anything in return.
This is something of an antithesis to modern world, where, self, image and one’s possessions are dear and belonging.
How it should be practiced by a Buddhist monks is discussed here briefly to make a novice monk adapt to modern trends in a demanding world.
A Buddhist monk ought to be light in baggage and belongings. A monk could have only two cloths (Chivara), one for wearing and another for change. How it should be made is also under strict and elaborate instructions.
The eating habits are also under strict code of practice.
I would discuss that in detail here.
When it comes to eating, if one ignores the morning meal, which is very light indeed, a monk has to survive on a single meal and that has to be taken in the early evening, in the modern day practice.
You may wonder why I took some interest in this.
This examination is scientific in nature.
There are many reasons, and I would state only a few.
If monks in the West practice this according to the strict code, it is a severe test for them, adopting this regime in the winter months. Equally, I have seen some monks who try to adhere to the regime rigidly and religiously have ended up sick and malnourished. If one becomes a Buddhist monk in adult life who had enjoyed somewhat a liberal life, changing to a single meal is a severe restriction on his / her diurnal habits.
One’s hormonal status, glycogen storage and status of the acid secretion in the stomach are habituated by ones daily routine (lifestyle). Changing abruptly, having become a monk should be done on a staggered basis, giving time for the body to adjust. Additionally, many of them do not have an understating of what is a balance diet.
Over years, I have seen many Buddhist monks suffering from food related diseases, especially diabetes mellitus. This is something not welcome and unexpected for my own liking.
I have no intention of going into how one becomes a diabetic but for me somebody on a single meal getting diabetes mellitus was something of an enigma.
In this context, having thought about it, I put the blame squarely on the layman.
Hope, one is not amazed by this statement.
I should go into this briefly.
The upper and the higher middle class families are the ones who get quota for the alms (Dhana) for the residential monks in the city. Their, idea of a meal is a lavish one. Many of them are also diabetic because of their over indulgence.
The offer of alms (Dhana) is not done on a regular basis.
So on the day, all the sugary, starchy, heavy but nutritionally unbalanced is offered. These alms (Dhana) days also happen to fall on weekends and holidays.
The monk has no choice.
He consumes a diet heavy in carbohydrates which stimulate their pancreas to the limits on weekends and practically having an austerity meal, in the rest of the week. My theory is, this up and down (erratic) stimulation of the insulin status, make them prone to diabetes mellitus, in the middle age. This may be aggravated by lack of exercise and having sugary drinks (tea) to counteract, the late evening hypoglycemia.
It is the duty of the layman to look after their welfare on a regular basis instead of a lavish feast once a month.
Medical education is in its prime stage now, especially on nutrition, the doctor should advise the upper middle class families what is a balance single diet for a monk who are practically at the mercy of the rich laymen who impart their inherent diseases on the clergy, unwittingly and unwillingly.
I would give some advice later regarding what to be offered and what ought not to be but for now let me digress a little.
I wanted to test myself whether I can survive on a single meal. I am more than convinced that it is possible and healthy.
But it takes time and it cannot be practiced overnight.
Prehistoric Time -15,000 to 30, 000 ago
Having proved it to myself that I can sustain on a single meal, I delved into man’s prehistoric period and how man survived in adverse climatic conditions and food scarcities.
Hunter gather never had three meals a day.
At best he had only a single square meal, never three meals. He mainly survived on a big game, in a community life style.
He was omnivorous and supplemented his diet with fruits and nuts. He probably did not suffer from diabetes mellitus and his teeth were strong, the enamel was thin but the dentin was thick, hardly had any caries. In times of food shortages and diseases there were signs of enamel deficiency and bone diseases.
These changes are recorded in prehistoric fossils which date back to 15,000 to 30,000 years.
Until such time he became nomadic, milk was in short supply.
Only milk supply was maternal.
The average woman was thin, and she only had children once in four years or so.
It is now believed that when a woman was thin -prehistoric women, had to work hard, almost equaling man’s efforts, like modern day women athletes, in whom the ovulation does not occur, regularly. Additionally, prolong breast feeding without weaning suppresses ovulation.
The man probably was sturdier and taller but comparatively thinner since he had to work hard in hunting exercises. He probably lived a shorter life than a woman (45 years), probably 35 years or so / died not of modern day diseases but as a result of injuries sustained in hunting.
As for prehistoric man is concerned the existence on a single meal was not a fantasy but a fact.
Paleolithic Period- 5000 to 13 000 years
Why man became an agricultural man is a mystery but available evidence suggests dramatic changes in climate at the end of the ice age and the population expansion contributed. With the emergence of the nomadic life and man’s entry into agricultural endeavors, he entered into a sedentary life style.
However, he never gave up game and hunting until such time he domesticated adequate livestock.
I would like to figure out that he was never a pure vegetarian.
The Asian wolf became associated with man around 13,000 years ago probably scavenging around man’s domain. The dogs and wolf can live on a single meal perhaps even longer and with the loss of mammoths and huge game, wolf also found living difficult but drifted with the man for game. His eating pattern, scavenging to begin with which our present day dogs inherit and illustrate by scavenging city dumps, is a reminder that even this period the man existed (present day practice of feeding a single meal to a pedigree dog, which I do not agree) on a single main meal.
Even though, the agricultural practices were extensive, failure of crops was common phenomenon, the demise of Maya Dynasty was a true example of catastrophe in history. In spite of extensive agriculture, food was not in plenty and the food preparation from harvest to meal was labor intensive and man continued to supplement meal on animal and animal sacrifices.
In this period population expanded probably because women becoming comparatively fatter and fertile (it is interesting to note that when a woman is too fat, like in the present day, fertility drops) and their body composition was ideal for reproduction.
But with success there was impending catastrophe too.
Famines were common due to reduction of crops, failure of rain or floods.
The man became shorter and less sturdier due to sedentary life.
We may be able to surmise that even in this period man ate a variable diet, characteristically a single meal which was supplemented by animal, fish, shells, fruits and nuts.
How and when man discovered use of salt and spices is open to question, probably towards the latter stage of Paleolithic time.
Contemporary History from 5000 years to 2500
During this period man was eating mixed diet containing milk (animal), sugar, salt, spices and animal and fish products. In spite of agriculture man never ceased to consume animal food, in fact it became a major constitute, judging by the tribal and religious practices from 5000 to 2000 years.
This is probably the period where single supper or a single meal changed to multiple meals especially the upper classes but slaves and lower classes subsisted on an average single large meal.
The longevity and average health increased proportionately probably doubled compared to the prehistoric period.
Most of the sages and philosophers except hedonists lived an austere life while recommending the same to the masses.
2500 and the emergence of the Vegetarian Life
Even though, some Jainers advocated vegetarian life, it was with the emergence of the Buddhist way of life in India that preceded the current wave of vegetarian (purported to be healthy) food fads.
Neither, Ten Commandments, the Jesus Christ’s sayings nor Muslim Koran abhors sacrifices of animals.
The vegetarian life is comparatively new, probably only 2500 years old in the history of mankind and that is why, there are so many misconceptions. Unlike monkeys, baboons and gorillas who are mostly vegetarians, from which man originated in an evolutionary point of view, the man had always been a carnivorous mammal.
2500 years is a small time in evolutionary time scale, a healthy dialogue on vegetarian diet is mandatory in the present context.
Our intestine and teeth bear different relationships to tree dwelling mammals, some are morphological in nature (genetic) and some are based on the diet (environmental) we eat.
As far as the growth and development of children are concerned my view is that single diet is not adequate.
That is my entry point to discuss another point of view.
Can a young novice monk who has not gone through puberty be sustained on a single diet?
This is a question, I find it difficult to answer even though, I have stated my gut feelings above.
This is one reason, out of the many, I do not agree and defer on ordaining young underage monks. Apart from lack of psychological maturity, to go on an austere life as prescribed by Vinaya is asking too much from a child.
Parents should have a say on these issues.
They should not force a young one into priesthood in their tender years.
As a comparison, I thought of writing something relevant. Comparing an average American’s eating habits with our´s is a revelation by itself.
An American eats a cow / bull every ten years.
In every American there are at least 5 cows in him by the time he is fifty. If he has not got mad cow disease or Alzheimer’s disease what he eats in the rest of his life is any American doctor’s guess.
He eats a pig every three years.
He eats at least 50 chickens and one turkey a year.
Some Americans of course eat much more than this.
My worry is every cow/bull he eats, at least an equivalent of 8Kg of fodder is needed to support its life to obtain 1Kg of beef. If an American stops eating 1Kg of beef he is saving about 8Kg of grain for a poor soul in Africa or Bangladesh.
Out of the tons of grain produced half is spent on animal feeds and some American cows are better fed than African kids.
Only to be sacrificed as human food.
The current Pope should give due consideration to these facts and he should give a hearing to this fiasco and if the grain saved by saving the poor cows / or bulls is multiplied by the factor of eight by 1000 (well fed cow’s weight) there is an excess grain in this world to feed everybody.
Equally FAO should take this into cognizant.
Looking by some of Sri-Lankans who lavish on food I cannot say there is any difference to American mentality, here in Sri-Lanka (especially who visit here to take a break from the winter).
Coming back to a single meal, if an American or Western guy sacrifices a single meal a week, like our Buddhist monks who live on a single meal a day, we would be able to feed some hungry children in Africa and Asia without any problem or NGOs.
WHO also should take this fact to their cognizant.
I don’t believe in what our agriculture minister who says, that food prices have gone up because of biofuels. The production of biofuels had been going on for over 25 years.
One should realize that the ancient man and his closest friend the dog survived on a single meal in spite of their aggressive hunting skills.
What should an average Dhana (Single Meal) should contain?
The physiological effect of an average meal should last 18 hours (that is the time when the glycogen storage starts to become depleted) of its intake. The diet should not have high sugary (dessert) components that stimulate surge of insulin and late dumping syndrome due to insulin surge at the time of the meal.
The vegetarian diet has no problem since the fiber makes the release of dietary sugar gradual.
The best dessert for the monks is not ice cream but fruits.
Out of the fruits, the best is bananas which releases its sugars slowly without insulin surges and maintaining a stable blood sugar.
Milk and curd are preferred, since they give ample supply of fat for starving intervals.
Missing ingredient is nuts.
Not only that they contain short chain fatty acids which supply energy for starving intervals, they are rich in healthy vitamins.
I would encourage the young monks to go liberal on fruits and nuts.
A supply of nuts (no aggalas, jaggery or sweets), fruits, papaw, banana and proper breakfast cereal containing millet (Kurrakkan) should be the breakfast for the monks.
Somebody should invest and develop a proper breakfast cereal for our kids. The same breakfast cereal can be used by young monks in their growing years (assuming they are ordained young).
For the monks in the West a Buddhist dietitian with knowledge in Vinaya practice should investigate how their midday Dhana should be constituted.
My belief is many of them are having an inappropriate diet for winter conditions.
I hope a good breakfast cereal will emerge from there for the monks on a meager diet.
My prescription for priesthood is entirely different.
When I see young monks in the TV giving emotional speeches rather than mature sermons, I become sometimes terrified.
Even my twilight years, I sometimes reserve my judgment or giving advices on certain issues.
Never over the telephone.
Only, when I can have an eye to eye contact with the person concerned when I can have an immediate assessment of the person’s psychological makeup and the reactions, I give some advice with lot of reservation.
One can do more damage by volunteering advice not appropriate.
My advice goes as this.
Let the young one follows a simple observational life.
In other words train them to observe in a simple and logical fashion. Teach the scientific facts in simple doses as they tend to make mistakes, in distinguishing, facts from fiction.
Children prefer fiction in the early years and they should be allowed to change gradually into scientific way of thinking. Even at 16 years of age (formative thinking is established) many find it difficult to grasp scientific concepts clearly.
They have the philosophical views embedded in their brains. Encourage them as much as possible.
This is why they always asks mommy why?
Encourage the philosophical views at an early age, even though, we do not have ready made answers, to their questions.
Training them in “Thinking to Think” is the most appropriate method.
Then only, they should be allowed to think of a religion or religions in their life.
What I stated above is very important, if we are to stop, young ones being taken into terrorist or religious cadres and indoctrinated with fanatic ideas.
That is the only way out.
That is the very thing we are not doing at present and ignoring.
We are slowly encouraging and allowing young militants being made out of innocent minds because of our failure in commonsense education. Some religious and militant groups know very well, the best currency to propagate their rigid views is the young mind.
I was the subject of the experiment.
Not by design but by default.
There was no conviction, compulsion or any consideration for my health. The circumstances had lead me to the experiment fortuitously.
Take it or leave it principle of mine.
I did plunge, unprepared.
Skipping the major meal for good.
I was on probation and I was working alone even though, I was given freehand by my superior. I had to develop my division and had to do research as well as teaching. I did not take it as a big deal but the time table was not to my liking.
The only day, I could concentrate on research work was on Wednesdays and to this day I use Wednesdays exclusively for my work and nothing else. I had to come home for lunch and rush back to work at 1 P.M. My wife was working full time and my elderly mother in law had to prepare meals for us. I did not want to make it very punctual but that meant I used to get back late and being on probation that was not a good omen.
Nearly two and a half hours lost in transit and without enjoying the lunch.
So when the work was heavy I used to skip the lunch.
I used to subsist on bananas and milk.
Milk was essential since I used to get early peptic ulcer symptom by skipping the lunch.
Fortunately banana and milk were cheap and were in liberal supply then.
To this I added Dhal Waddai.
Nuts were eaten in liberal doses and jumbo nuts were cheap then.
Still later I added chocolates, not necessarily dark chocolates.
That was the regime and in about six months, I was very comfortable and no dumping syndrome associated with rice.
I did not lose weight but did not feel any ill effects.
The gastric symptoms which was a worry disappeared spontaneously.
My work output increased tremendously since there were two additional hours to my work schedule.
I did not give much thought to it, till lately.
Come to think about it, when I was working in UK, on many a days, skipped the lunch, only a snack to fill the tommy, lot of coffee, which was the usual thing to do, even in the thick of winter.
Then have a very heavy supper.
This was not a big deal in tropical Sri-Lanka.
Of course this habit has now gone into a much bigger thing.
I decided to stop eating rice altogether, the reason for which I would not state or discuss here.
I have celebrated three years without rice!
It was difficult to begin with and I had to eat junk food since most of the alternative food items like couscous, spaghetti, pasta had gone up in price and some of the replacement items were horrible in taste, to say the least.
But I survived on a variety of diet except manioc for over a year to begin with (and still continuing).
Within six months, I started losing weight but I continued on a single main meal.
Then I did some background study to realize that the best way to lose weight is to stop eating rice.
The reason is that we generally eat three times what is required as calories on a rice diet. Because it is lacking in few amino acids (not total lack but relative deficiency), we make up the lack by eating an excess of rice.
Unlike manioc one can live on a rice diet without malnutrition but one tends to get obese in the long run.
The extra starch is invariably converted to fat in adipose tissues and they remain there happily unless we go on a hunger strike.
A few leafy vegetables, eggs and other grains can make it a balance diet but with a major problem.
With a huge increase in calorie intake.
We put on weight unlike the ones who do manual labor.
The manual worker of course, can utilize this load and easily burn them for extra calories.
So, final conclusion of the experiment is that one can survive on a single main meal, provided that it is a balance diet without losing weight, but if one wants to lose weight one should cut down on rice by at least two third´s of one´s rice portions.
I of course cut rice down to zero (completely) but enjoy liberal amount of chocolates, nuts and junk food and wine too.