Saturday, October 19, 2013

Technical Matters: Buddhist Feeding Behavior

     Sometimes I am asked about whether Buddhists, or Buddhist monks, have many dietary restrictions. For laypeople keeping five precepts there are almost none—no killing one's own meat, no stealing one's food, and no consumption of alcohol or other substances which cloud the mind—but Theravada Buddhist monks have plenty of restrictions. 
     Vegetarianism, however, is not one of them. In the Buddha's time the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence to living beings, was not yet well established in the mainstream of Indian society, and the eating of meat, as is the case in the West today, was common, and socially acceptable. Monks being essentially beggars, and beggars not being choosers, they accepted meat put into their bowl, and ate it if they wanted to. It wasn't until Buddhist ethics became more integrated into Indian culture that Buddhists put more emphasis on vegetarianism; and some schools retroactively converted the Buddha himself into a vegetarian, although according to the evidence in the Pali texts (the oldest Buddhist texts we have) this appears unlikely.
     When the Buddha's cousin Devadatta tried to take over the Buddhist Sangha he allegedly insisted on reform of monastic discipline, and one reform that he desired was to make vegetarianism mandatory for monks. The Buddha refused to change the rules in this case. There are numerous rules regarding the eating of meat found in the Buddhist monastic code, some of them remaining in ignored, vestigial form even in the canonical monastic codes of vegetarian Mahayana schools. And according to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, describing the death of the Buddha, the evidence suggests that the Buddha himself died after eating some bad pork.
     According to the text, what the Buddha ate at his last meal was sūkaramaddava, sūkara meaning "pig," and maddava meaning "tender" or "soft." Most scholars who do not have a Mahayanist bias or a vegetarian axe to grind agree that in all likelihood the correct translation is "tender pork"; however, Mahayana Buddhists, possibly following the lead of an ancient school like the Sarvastivadins who favored vegetarianism, have interpreted the word to mean "something tender that pigs like," i.e. truffles, a kind of mushroom-like fungus. Hence the legend that the Buddha died after eating a mushroom.
     It is interesting that the Sarvastivadin version of the Majjhima Nikāya is very similar to the Theravadin version, but nevertheless lacks an equivalent of the Jīvaka Sutta (M55). In this text Jīvaka, the Buddha's personal physician, informs the Buddha that non-Buddhists are saying that the Buddhists favor killing, since they eat meat killed for their sake. The Buddha denies this, asserting that a Buddhist monk is not allowed to eat any meat that he sees, hears, or suspects has been killed for his sake. In the monastic code to eat such meat would be a dukkata offense. Meat not killed for a monk is allowable though. (Whether meat killed for a different monk would be allowable is not so clear, although I would assume that it is not.) 
     In the modern West this rule seldom comes up, except for fertile eggs, which count as living baby chickens. Infertile eggs, like those usually obtained at a grocery store, are not fertile, and thus are OK to crack and cook for monks.
     Other relatively well known dietary restrictions for Theravadin monks are: that they are allowed to eat substantial food only at the "right time," i.e. between dawn and midday; that they are allowed to eat only what was offered to them by someone who is not a monk; that they are not allowed to eat food that they have stored overnight, and thus must eat food they have received that same morning; that they are not allowed to cook their own meals (although reheating it is allowable); and that they are not allowed to ask for particularly good food containing ghee, butter, oil, honey, sugar, fish, meat, milk, and/or curd, unless they are sick or have received special permission from the person to ask for such things. Some of these rules are designed to prevent monks from being hermits, by requiring them to interact with laypeople. Others are to prevent them from being a burden on those laypeople.
     Some less well known rules involve the eating of meat. For example, there are ten kinds of flesh which are forbidden to monks: 1) human, 2) lion, 3) tiger, 4) leopard, 5) bear, 6) hyena, 7)elephant, 8) horse, 9) dog, and 10) snake. Largely because of this, a monk is required to ascertain what kind of meat is being given to him. There is also a strange rule saying that a monk is not allowed to eat raw meat or drink raw blood unless he is possessed by a demon. I actually read of a case like this, in a book attributed to the great Zen master Dogen. He said that a monk had a strange craving for raw meat, yet when Dogen watched him eating he saw that the monk was not eating the raw meat, but rather a small demon perched on the monk's head was eating it. Anyway, that's what the book said. (To this day necromancers in Burma get ghosts and demons to do their bidding by feeding them raw meat and blood until they become dependent on their supply.)
     Although the eating of meat is not forbidden to monks, ahimsa is taken to the extreme that monks in ancient times were not supposed to eat living, viable seeds. This has apparently been corrupted somewhat into a rule stating that only five kinds of fruit are allowable: 1) fruit that has been damaged by a knife; 2) fruit that has been damaged by a fingernail; 3) fruit that has been damaged by fire; 4) fruit that is naturally without seeds; and 5) fruit from which the seeds have been "expelled." I assume this originally meant that fruit with seeds should have the seeds cut out, dug out, or cooked so that the monk would not be killing living beings by eating it; but it has been corrupted into a formality by allowing monks to eat fruit with viable seeds so long as a non-monk has poked the peel with a knife or nicked it with a fingernail. Even a whole tray of fruit supposedly becomes allowable so long as one of the fruits is poked while it is touching the others on the tray.
     Consumable substances are divided into four categories: 1) ordinary food, which can be kept only until noon of the day it is received; 2) fruit and vegetable juices, which may be kept till the following dawn, and thus may be drunk in the afternoon and at night; 3) five designated medicinal "tonics"—ghee, butter, oil, honey, and sugar—which may be kept for a week and used for medicinal purposes; and 4) medicinal substances not included in the other categories, including herbal medicines like garlic, ginger, and ginseng, plus modern pharmaceuticals, which may be kept indefinitely. The rule for mixing these four kinds of substance is somewhat complicated, and even many conscientious monks break the rule without realizing it; also some people have been mystified by certain aspects of my behavior that are conditioned by this rule; so I will attempt some explanation.
     Whenever any of the four kinds of consumables are mixed together, they automatically come under the rule of the substance with the shortest time limit. For example, let's say a monk has some salt for medicinal purposes, and has had it in his possession for several months. Then one day he puts some on his food to flavor it. The salt automatically becomes ordinary food which can be kept only until noon of the day it is received; and since he has already had it for several months, his meal becomes food that has been stored overnight, the eating of which is a pācittiya offense. This also applies to sugar and milk in one's coffee: the coffee itself, arguably, could be considered an herbal tonic which can be kept indefinitely (it doesn't obviously fall under any of the other categories, especially if it's stored in the form of dry powder), the sugar can be kept for only a week, and the milk for only half a day, being considered regular food. (What category non-dairy creamer falls under is debatable, and somewhat controversial.) So I keep a jar of instant coffee, and always drink it plain; but if someone offers me a cup in the morning, I take milk with it.
     With regard to the medicinal oil that can be kept for one week, there is a section in the ancient texts listing the kinds of animal fat that may be rendered and used in this regard; and one of the animals whose grease is allowable is the susu or susukā, which is often declared to be a shark or alligator, but which is probably the gangetic dolphin, which, I'm pretty sure, is still called susu in India. (And as far as I know, there are no sharks or alligators in the Ganges valley.) So although possibly illegal and extremely politically incorrect, consuming dolphin fat is ecclesiastically pure. 
     There are certain controversies regarding monks and food, especially with regard to the eating of cheese and chocolate in the afternoon. This is common for monks ordained in Thai traditions, but is practically nonexistent among monks in Burmese traditions—a Burmese monk who would eat cheese or chocolate in the afternoon would also eat rice in the afternoon (and, admittedly, there are some of those). One Western monastic scholar who wrote a book on monastic discipline actually implied that eating cheese in the afternoon is allowable because cheese is technically a kind of butter. He pointed out that butter in ancient India was made from curd, not cream like it is nowadays. Cheese can't be called curd, though, because curd is specifically designated as ordinary, substantial food. But how is cheese made? It is curd with most of the remaining whey pressed out of it, often with a small amount of culture or other flavoring added. So cheese is actually a kind of purified curd; with more non-curd ingredients removed than put in, it contains more curd than curds do. (In fact the Burmese word for cheese literally translates as "hardened curd," which is exactly what it is.) Furthermore it is obviously a substantial food, being a meat substitute for vegetarians. Probably the main reason why cheese is considered allowable in the afternoon by monks in Thai traditions is that famous monks like Ajahn Mun ate cheese in the afternoon, and implying that these saints did something wrong is just too much like troublemaking. Plus, of course, they want to eat cheese in the afternoon. Hard chocolate is considered allowable at the "wrong time" so long as it is dark, without milk added (because it is considered to be a kind of very thick juice); so many monks feast on the highest quality, most expensive dark chocolate in the afternoon.
     In Burma, the strictest monks won't even drink tea in the afternoon, largely because of an obscure rule stating that the juice of all leaves is allowable to be drunk at the "wrong time" except for the water left over from cooking greens. Tea leaves are commonly eaten as a salad in Burma, so tea would qualify as the juice from cooked greens. This is getting pretty extreme on the strictness meter, however.
     There is also an obscure rule stating that the juice of all fruits is allowable except for the juice of grain (dhañña), presumably because beverages made from grain are usually fermented. The word for grain, though, is strangely interpreted in the sub-commentarial tradition to mean any fruit larger than two fists put together. So strict Burmese monks won't drink coconut milk in the afternoon, even though it seems quite kosher to me. Some Burmese monks won't drink Sprite either, because they think it's made out of some kind of large melon.
     There are many more rules concerning food. Some are matters of etiquette; for example it is an offense to carelessly make slurping noises, scatter rice around, lick one's fingers, or talk with one's mouth full. But going into fine detail on all this stuff is too much, so I'll stop here.

Burmese tea leaf salad (it's good)

1 comment:

  1. I have written a long article dealing with the source texts (and false assumptions about those source texts) in the Theravāda tradition. Although I appreciate the reasonable spirit in which you've written this article, I would disagree on a number of technical points (including, e.g., the stark difference between "source text" and commentary --an issue that you may or may not be aware intersects with this controversy).

    I hope you'll appreciate (at least decoratively!) that I display some of the Pali text in the old Burmese fashion.