Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork.
The reception committee of the Springdale Buddhist Center and Ping
Pong Club held a lavish banquette for its Buddhist members, and
offered the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to Realization. To
their great dismay, no one seemed to eat much. The committee (Bob,
Carol and Skipper) realized some adaptation of the Buddhist Fare
might be necessary for the next year's banquette. However, they soon
discovered that most guests who were failing to eat well, were doing
so for what they felt were all the wrong reasons. "Is this what is to
shape the future of Western Buddhism?" they thought collectively.
Anecdotally they identified the following feeding patterns:
Some guests are simply uninformed about food. Some people, Bob
observed, would not eat things simply because they do not know what
they are. They might have thought that a bagel was a napkin ring, or
that a clear soup was for washing one's fingers. Or, having
identified something as actual food, they might not have known the
correct manner of eating it, so they didn't. They could have asked but
most of the people around them didn't seem to know either. Or they
would mistake the foods available for foods that they don't like, for
instance burritos for egg-rolls or meat pie for something sweeter.
Some guests are happy with bread and butter. Some people, Carol
noticed, will not eat things because they are afraid they will not
like some things, or they might upset their stomachs. Fish eggs or
lychees, or octopus make them cringe. These people simply don't
understand why people want to eat unusual things in the first place,
and so they themselves end up eating rolls, cold cuts, and cole slaw,
because these are safe, and they feel comfortable with this as long as
they cover all of the basic food groups.
Some guests have already eaten. One or two people, as Skipper
identified, will not intend to stay long, but will maybe take a slice
of tiramisu or something particularly exotic or appealing. They often
share the recollection of their experience with friends the following
Some guests seem more analytical than daring in their approach to
eating. These people, Carol explained, are always quite informed of
recent incidences of salmonella poisoning, tainted shellfish,
misidentified mushrooms, typhoid. They know all about trichinosis,
cancer, and how all of these relate to the food we eat. They also
carefully calculate calories; fat, protein and carbohydrate levels;
the amounts they are getting of each vitamin and mineral. They eye
unidentified foods with great suspicion. All of these are terribly
Some guests can only stay long enough to grab something to eat in the
Porsche. Bob observed that some people always partake of something
like a sandwich or couple of egg rolls because they have to rush to
put in some overtime at work, or they are on their way to the opera,
or to a lecture on the situation in Myanmar. They have also generally
just came from a workout at the gym, which they already had to shorten
at the other end to meet with their interior decorator or stock
broker. And even in the buffet line they talk on their cell phones.
These are busy people, people with life-styles.
And, of course, some guests try everything. Skipper pointed out, there
are still rare individuals who come with big appetites, know their
foods, have let go of all destructive preconceptions and are curious
and daring about the what they've been invited to enjoy, capable of
savoring the sublime and valuing the simple. Furthermore these people
generally give themselves ample time to spend enjoying food and
company. "They have a fork and they know how to use it," added Carol.
The following year the reception committee of the Springdale Buddhist
Center and Ping Pong Club met to consider again holding a Second
Annual Buddhist Banquette. The main question brought to the floor was,
What To Offer, and there were different opinions about this.
At one extreme was Bob's suggestion. Bob was rather upset at what he
interpreted as a lack of gratitude or respect shown by the guests the
previous year, in picking at the food the way they did. Bob's proposal
was to offer the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to Realization,
exactly as they had done last year. However, this time there would be
some changes: Before the banquette they would send out abundant
information on the various foods, along with detailed descriptions of
how to eat lobster and some of the more difficult dishes, with
photographs and diagrams. Guests would be asked to arrive by 5:00 pm,
after which the doors would be locked from the outside and not
reopened until all the food was eaten. Also pocket calculators,
cell-phones and other electronic gear would be collected at the door.
At the other extreme was Carol's suggestion. The other two members of
the committee could not determine if Carol was more forgiving than Bob
or not. Her proposal was to offer spaghetti, marshmallow salad and
dinner rolls. And beer. "The greatest common denominator," she called
Like the lavish banquette, Buddhism is an array of various dishes.
These include meditation practice, on and off the cushion; bringing
mindfulness and awareness into everyday situations; cultivating
skillful mental factors, such as loving-kindness, and minimizing
unskillful, like envy; studying the teachings and commentaries;
attending Dharma talks and classes; cultivating penetrating insight
into the nature of reality; practicing generosity and renunciation;
taking refuges; following Precepts; ordaining as a monk or nun;
seeking the company of the wise and avoiding the company of the
foolish; paying homage; chanting or reciting; attending ceremonies and
observing special days of practice; and so on.
Now, in Buddhism these many elements are integrated into a working
whole, like the parts underneath the hood of your car. Let's take an
example and follow some of the interworkings: Buddhism values
selflessness as a skillful attribute. Selflessness is difficult to
learn and train in, and must be conveyed, supported and encouraged at
many levels. Buddhism gives us the philosophical teachings of no-self,
that the self that we tend to prize so dearly is a delusion and does
not exist in the way we conventionally think it does. Until this
difficult thesis is understood, however, faith in this premise is
necessary to keep one on track, while practitioners are encouraged to
experience no-self by seeing things directly as they are with the
support of a meditation practice, in particular, to observe the
reality being described philosophically in the rise and fall of
everyday phenomena. Also, through meditation practice one learns to
let go of unskillful emotional states, greed and aversion, that
according to the teachings are based in the concept of a self, thereby
undermining much of the functionality of the belief in that self. In
Asia almost from infancy, the practitioner will have learned the
practice of embodying selflessness through ritual, including through
bows and expressions of respect, then later through the practice of
generosity and through observance of the Precepts. Throughout, one's
faith in developing selflessness is nurtured through the powerful
example of monastics, who follow a set of vows for outward behavior
that almost completely precludes doing anything, owning anything or
being anything on behalf of a Self, and who depend in turn for its
support on lay Buddhists, who then have this opportunity for
practicing generosity, already mentioned above. Their respect for the
monastic sangha is encouraged through reciting the Refuges as the
articles of Buddhist faith. And so on.
In summary, the Buddhist path is supported by a complete package of
interrelating and cooperating factors, and has been so since the most
ancient times. These factors include teachings at the conceptual
level, empirical investigation and direct experience of causality both
in nature and in mind; meditative absorption and calm, clarity and
purification of mental factors; ethics and rules of conduct, faith and
So, lets consider the needs and habits of the guests of the Buddhist
Banquette, not as diners, but as Buddhist practitioners.
Simply uninformed. Buddhism is a rather elaborate and sophisticated
meal, the required understanding of the various courses is not
trivial. Unfortunately, most of who are regarded as teachers in the
West, the Land of the Fork, are not completely in the picture
themselves. Much of the Buddhist Path is virtually unknown in the
West, for example the Buddha's extensive teachings on community. Often
the simply uninformed will misinterpret certain elements in Buddhism
negatively because they are confused by their root religions, for
instance, seeing bowing to an altar as worshiping a graven image or
"faith" as "blind faith" not realizing that the Buddha always
encouraged investigation. The information most broadly missing in the
available teachings is often selectively the elements most challenging
to Western mainstream culture.
Happy with Bread and Butter. Those happy with bread and butter
recognize a common core that many religions, "the Great Religions,"
share in common, then conclude that the rest can be dispensed with.
While embracing our sameness they become intolerant of our
differences. They may be attracted to Buddhism for a kind of
simplicity, but eschew the exotic in Buddhism. They fail to recognize
that the differences among religions can be crucial to realizing their
commonalities. Let me give an example: Like Buddhism, much of
Christianity values and attempts to cultivate selflessness. But where
Buddhism refers to the doctrine of no-self, Christianity refers to
God; rather than eliminating a self, it introduces something greater
than the self. Commonality and difference. Removing the difference
weakens the commonality; you might still have selflessness as a common
value, but you lose the ability to cultivate it.
Already eaten. Those who have already eaten attend a Buddhist lecture
one weekend and a Sufi dancing seminar the next. They never miss the
opportunity to hear a famous spiritual master speak, of whatever
faith. They also have an appreciation for the value of many religions,
but unlike those who are happy with bread and butter, they
particularly value religious diversity, always seeking a novel
experience. Now, we have seen that Buddhism, like your washing
machine, includes many cooperating elements. Those who have already
eaten are like a centipede who is unable to coordinate its myriad
feet. The many practices they experience cannot work together; they do
not have a history of working together. And often the neglected
mundane practices are critical in the Buddhist path.
More analytical than daring. The analytical, or skeptical, actively
find rational bases for removing individual elements from Buddhism.
They are often attracted to Buddhism because it by and large appears
refreshingly rational, much of it is almost scientific. It also values
personal investigation and seeing things as they are, and fairly well
avoids metaphysical speculation. However, many elements are
unacceptable for them, either because they appear in spite of the
general trend to be irrational, or because they resemble elements of
Christianity that have not survived the European Enlightenment fully
intact. Sometimes the rejected elements include faith, devotion,
hierarchy, ceremony and ritual. I've started writing another essay
called "Buddhist with Beliefs" in which I will point out that many
areas of the secular life, including Science, have these exact same
elements, and that big difference between Buddhist on the one hand,
and Christianity and Science on the other, is that the Buddha
establishes a rational basis for these elements. Ethics or morality
has gotten bad press in the West and Near East. It does indeed seem
that those who talk most of Good and Evil turn out to be the latter.
Buddhism is ethical to the core, but its ethics have an entirely
different, and more rational, basis than that of the Abrahamic faiths.
Other factors are rejected as simply un-forklike, or at least a hard
sell in the West. My own feeling is that if Buddhism fails to
challenge the West, there is no point in bringing it to the Land of
"Religiosity," as much as it is necessary, often scares people; it is
the world of terrorists, hypocritical opportunists, pedophiles,
blindly faithful suckers, and people who knock on your door to tell
you stuff, won't go away and keep coming back. These are scary things.
"Religiosity" (with scare quotes) sometimes might also remind the more
analytical than daring too closely of the root religion they thought
they put behind them. They often advocate a "secular" approach to
Grabbing something to eat. The busy are particularly challenged fully
to embrace a Buddhist way of life. They can't build a new foundation
while so many rooms are already under construction. Instead they add
Buddhism as another room, another area of busy-ness, nothing
Trying everything. In Asia one finds the Whole Buddhist Fare
functioning both in the practice of the individual and in the life of
the Buddhist community, in both the Land of the Fingers (Theravada
lands)and in the Land of the Chopstick (Mahayana lands). For them,
it's so much easier; they are born into a Buddhist Society. In the
West many are inspired by what they have learned of Buddhism, of the
Wisdom of its teachings, of its Compassion, of its Serenity and
Peacefulness, and how they experience the presence of well-known
people like Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and Steven Segal, and
other exemplars of Buddhism they might have encountered. However there
is little opportunity to see the Whole Buddhist Fare in the Land of
the Fork. People come with differing motivations, and expectations and
are for the most part timid in enjoying the Buddhist Banquette when
the opportunity arises. The person open to trying everything is very
rare. "A rare bird indeed," says Carol.
People bring a lot of different perspectives to the Buddhist
Banquette. But the upshot has been the slow development in the West of
a radically pruned down Buddhism when compared to what is found in
Asia or to what the Buddha taught. To a large extend, Buddhism has
become meditation. "That's what I mean by Spaghetti," exclaims Carol.
Almost all Western Buddhist centers focus on meditation and many offer
nothing else in the way of Buddhist practice or teaching.
Why meditation? Why should it be the single element with the widest
appeal in Western Buddhism? For "Simply Uninformed" meditation is
recognizable. Western yogas have meditated for years, the Buddha
almost always sits in meditation posture. For "Already Eaten"
meditation is the most reliable source of peak experiences. For "Bread
and Butter" meditation is a commonality with many religious traditions
at some level, or is at least similar to prayer and to many other
other contemplative practices. For "More Analytical Than Daring"
meditation has some solid science behind it, verifying certain
beneficial qualities, physical as well as psychological. Direct
benefits of other aspects of Buddhist are more difficult to quantify.
For "Grabbing Something To Eat" meditation fits well with the
structure of the Busy Life: It can be scheduled in a consistent way,
requiring little or no restructuring of the rest of one's life. It
generally requires a commitment of time, but "Grabbing's" life has
probably become busy in the first place through the repeated
willingness to add yet one more time commitment; it's how "Grabbing"
attained membership in a gym, for instance. For "Trying Everything"
meditation is perhaps less than what is desired. At the same time,
meditation in and of itself is a very sumptuous dish and can keep
one's fork active for a long time. But "Trying Everything" will
probably look for opportunities for something more complete.
Neglected are, for instance, the following:
The Buddha divided the program of learning and practice that he
advocated into three trainings: Virtue, Meditation and Wisdom, and two
of the three are critically neglected and the third is significantly.
Almost the whole area of Virtue (aka Ethics, Morality, Right Conduct)
is missing. (Some centers offer Buddhist Precepts but there seems to
be very little expectation that the relatively few people who take
them will actually follow some of the more challenging ones.) The
area of Wisdom is critically compromised. For the Buddha this
consisted of accepting a number of teachings provisionally, belonging
to Right View, as a foundation for focused investigation and insight,
in conjunction with meditation practice. But relatively few in Western
centers seem to know these provisional teachings, even those regarded
as Buddhist teachers. "What's left is marshmallow salad," explains
Carol. Although meditation is the most developed practice in the Land
of the Fork, my impression is that Right Effort is not practiced well,
the cultivation of skillfull mental states and the weeding out of the
The Refuges and other articles of faith and commitment are poorly
developed. Many Buddhist centers, perhaps most, do not offer the Three
Refuges, which are traditionally the initiation into the Buddhist
life. Elements of ritual and respect. Bowing and other traditional
rituals of respect have made some headway in traditional Zen Centers;
I'm not sure they have elsewhere. Many other centers have removed the
perceived "religiosity" of altars, chanting and bowing completely, for
instance, as in the Goenka-style Insight Meditation centers.
The practices of generosity and renunciation are not only rarely
understood, but seem rarely to be recognized as fundamental Buddhist
practices. Members of Buddhist centers generally have little
encouragement to simplify their lives. The centers are normally run
with at least a partially as part of the exchange economy with fees
for various programs and services, rather than on the model of giving
freely. Of course the community of renunciates, the Sangha, a
consistent and significant part of Asian Buddhism, is only beginning
to sprout in the West.
Since these various aspects function as a whole, even meditation
itself will always be inadequate without the other elements. Ajahn
Suwat from Thailand, leading a meditation retreat in the USA, once
commented, "I notice that when these people meditate they're awfully
grim." He soon attributed this to the lack of preparation of the
meditators in the other Buddhist teachings, in particular, in
Generosity and in Virtue, which in Asia would generally precede
training in meditation, and as Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests, develop a
sense of spaciousness and happiness as an appropriate context for
In the discussion of the Second Annual Buddhist Banquette of the
Springdale Buddhist Center and Ping Pong Club, Skipper represented the
Middle Way and prevailed. They decided as a group to provide a variety
of dishes very similar to the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to
Realization, of the previous year (and again not to serve beer or
anything other spirits — "Shucks"). In addition, they decided also
to put effort into educating people beforehand about what they will
find at the banquette. They hope that if they are steadfast in
offering the same each year, maybe they will gradually become a
community of Non-Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork.
"It's going to be a long haul," suggested Carol.