Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bad Buddhist vs. The Sixth Precept

I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from taking untimely meals.

Hmm, curious: I'd have expected the focus to be on the amount of food eaten (i.e., prohibition against gluttony) rather than the time of eating. Perhaps this is a reference to excessive between-meal snacking. Let's see what Google can tell us...

Ah, instant enlightenment! Here's a more explicit version of the sixth precept:

In observing the sixth precept, for example, the lay Buddhist eats one or two simple meals between dawn and noon and avoids taking food beyond that. This cuts down the time spent on meals and allows him more time to spend on mediation.

Furthermore, according to Access to Insight,

The sixth precept also follows the practice of bhikkhus and aims at cutting down the sloth which is experienced after a day's work and a substantial evening meal, while it ensures that the body is light and fit for meditative practice. In the precept, the words "outside the time" mean after twelve noon until dawn the following day. During this time no food is eaten. However, some flexibility will be needed here with people going out to work. For them it would mean no food after their midday lunch until breakfast the next day. If one is troubled by tiredness after work on a day when these precepts are undertaken then tea or coffee are allowable as refreshing drinks. If hunger is the trouble then cocoa (or even plain chocolate) should cure it. None of these refreshments should contain milk, which is considered a food, though sugar, honey and butter are allowed (to bhikkhus, and therefore to lay people keeping the Eight Precepts), presumably because one can take only a little of these things. Fruit juices which have been strained (without fruit pulp) are other possible drinks.

Did I read that right? Chocolate is the recommended solution if you're too tired to meditate after work? Gautama, my friend, I think you might be on to something here!

(Is it OK to use the big B's first name? I don't want to accidentally be an even worse Buddhist than I already am. Bad Buddhist doesn't wish to be Blasphemous Buddhist as well.)

I wonder why Thich Nhat Hanh didn't include the "untimely meal" thing in his Mindfulness Trainings. He stopped after the first Five Precepts. However, he does have a lot to say about mindful eating:

Some of us, while looking at a piece of carrot, can see the whole cosmos in it, can see the sunshine in it, can see the earth in it. It has come from the whole cosmos for our nourishment. You may like to smile to it before you put it in your mouth. When you chew it, you are aware that you are chewing a piece of carrot. Don't put anything else into your mouth, like your projects, your worries, your fear, just put the carrot in. And when you chew, chew only the carrot, not your projects or your ideas. You are capable of living in the present moment, in the here and the now. It is simple, but you need some training to just enjoy the piece of carrot. This is a miracle. I often teach "orange meditation" to my students. We spend time sitting together, each enjoying an orange. Placing the orange on the palm of our hand, we look at it while breathing in and out, so that the orange becomes a reality. If we are not here, totally present, the orange isn't here either. There are some people who eat an orange but don't really eat it. They eat their sorrow, fear, anger, past, and future. They are not really present, with body and mind united.

That brings another level of focus to the precept. I definitely grok the part about eating emotions. In fact, I find that just about every night, sometimes after dinner and sometimes during, I start fantasizing about devoting the rest of the p.m. to purely passive entertainment, with a focus on edible treats. The more "forbidden" the better. And I don't always resist temptation. Of course, every time is the last time, and I start a new Good Buddhist regime the next day. I find a way to get all the stuff done that I didn't do because I was zoning out. Or else I don't. And so it goes.

I spend a lot of time feeling guilty and weak because of this. But the point isn't really whether or not I indulge, or even whether I get things done. It's really about the emotional experience I'm having every evening, which prompts me to seek comfort and escape. It's a combination of current anxieties and old, old pain that has lost its mystery over the years but retains its power to send me scrambling for the frozen Snickers. (BTW, has anyone tried the Ben & Jerry's chocolate almond nougat flavor? I overheard someone in the grocery store saying it was like a pint of frozen Snickers, so I spent half an hour in the store commanding myself not to buy it, then bought two pints, and got it home and didn't like it. Whew! That was a seriously close call.)

In any case, I think the question of timeliness makes the most sense to me in these terms: Is it time to be present and mindful of what I'm eating, or is it time to be present and mindful of what I'm feeling? If the latter, then, well, the Snickers just has to go.

I think I'll keep this taped to the fridge. It's a 3-D model called "Gluttony" by Herb Yang. I'm intrigued by the prominence of the eyes: the gaze as a form of greed? Overdosing our eyeballs? The creature's own eyes and mouth are stitched shut, perhaps suggesting that the grotesquely large ones on its body prevent the fulfillment of the natural senses' functions. In other words, being enslaved to gluttony only creates more craving, leaving the true self starved.

In the Buddhist cosmology, there are six realms into which one can be born. The realm of Hungry Ghosts (preta in Sanskrit; peta in Pali) is all about the futility of pursuing gratification of physical desires. Inhabitants of this realm are depicted as having huge bellies but tiny mouths; what food they manage to swallow turns to fire inside them. This image is from HungryGhost.net.

Here's a detail from a 12th-century Japanese illustration of gaki, greedy souls condemned to eternal craving for a specific substance or object. Pretty wretched lot. Image from The Meditation Project.

Mmmmmmm, Snickers. A delicious public-domain image found on Wikimedia Commons, bless 'em!