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 day.

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 skinny.

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 it.

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 devotion.

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 the Fork.

“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 Buddhism.

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 fundamental.

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 unskillful.

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 meditation.

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.

10 Responses to “Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork”

  1. Deb Mc Says:

    Thank you, this was a very well structured presentation of all the different components someone should consider when learning about Buddhism. Very good use of personification of the behaviors. Deb


  2. Terasi Says:

    Dear Bhante, I don’t know if you read forums, or if you’ve read this one. Here someone is asking “how if everyone is America becomes Buddhists” and he expresses concern about distortion and diffusion of Buddhism.


  3. aparna Pallavi Says:

    Hi Venerable,

    On the question of food, I wonder how Buddhism works out the vegetarian-non-vegetarian food choices question. Buddha forbids killing, but by continuing to eat meat — market meat, don’t we encourage others to not just kill but also commodify living beings? On the other hand it is very difficult to train the palate and the system to vegetarian food if you are brought up on meat. I gave up after a 12 year effort when my health and palate both rebelled. Or does the answer lie in doing your own killing to the extent of nutritional requirement, cleanly? As an environmentalist I had supported the right of tribals to hunt sustainably in forests, but could not stomach it when I actually saw it done. So where, finally, does meat-eating fit in with Buddhist practice?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      The Buddhist teachings on vegetarianism are not precisely defined. There seems to be a implicit assumption that:
      Killing is more blameworthy than having meat killed.
      Having meat killed is more blameworthy than buying meat
      Buying meat is more blameworthy than accepting meat
      Accepting meat is blameless if the meat was not killed with the
      acceptor in mind.
      This hierarchy is not actually presented anywhere but seems to be the conventional interpretation. Buddhists in Asia tend not to want to be butchers, leaving that to Muslims or Christians, for instance, but then do not mind buying meat. The difference between having meat killed and buying meat is important in modern times because of refrigeration and complex food distribution systems. Theravada monks are not supposed to accept meat if it is killed with them in mind, but don’t generally worry about it if is bought with them in mind. This hierarchy might actually correspond to the karmic impact of the respective actions. I am personally a vegetarian, and feel that there is little difference between having someone else kill the meat and buying meat at the store.Many wise monks disagree with me, though many agree as well. A lot of monks are vegetarian in Burma. Mahayana (but not Tibetan) monastic rules forbid eating meat altogether, which means it is recommended for laity as well.


  4. Matt Basil Says:

    as far as i know a Buddhist monk wake up everyday around 3:30 – 3:45 am, and go to sleep around 11 pm – and they sleep upright. meaning he sleeps less that 5 hours a day. one meal a day( without protein of course) and 5 hours sleep,how do they even live?


  5. Matt Basil Says:

    as far as i know a Buddhist monk wake up everyday around 3:30 – 3:45 am, and go to sleep around 11 pm – and they sleep upright. meaning he sleeps less that 5 hours a day. one meal a day( without protein of course) and 5 hours sleep,how do they even live?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      I am lazier than that: I wake up at 4:30 and go to bed at 10:00 and sleep lying down. I eat breakfast and lunch. I am a vegetarian, but many Theravada monks are not. All the above is consistent with the monastic code.


  6. josesiem Says:

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog. Your observations on western Buddhism are accurate and I, too, bemoan the missing elements. If I talk about precepts, people seem to space out, nod off, or argue, bringing some kind of nondual zen anecdote to the discussion. I noticed myself guilty of being many of the kinds of eaters.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Jose, Thanks for your note. Many of us go through stages in our Buddhist careers; I identified with different eaters myself at different stages. If you have not seen it yet, you might want to check out my current blog series on Western Folk Buddhism which will make some of the same observations from a different perspective.


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