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Dhamma Articles

Edible Food


All beings depend on food for their life. Enlightened One said “All beings subsist on nutriment”. As taught by Buddha there are these four types of foods namely Edible Food coarse and fine, Sense-Impression Food, Volitional-Thought Food and Consciousness Food. Of these four foods, our focus here is on edible food.

In the Sutta Nipatha Dwyathanupassana Sutta, Enlightened One told the bhikkus that if one were to be asked whether there is another path in the realization of duality, it must be stated that there is another way. What is that way? If any suffering arises, then it is due to food. But through realization of the cessation of food, one can attain the ultimate of Nirvana.

1. For the arising of this suffering, it is conditioned dependently by the nutriments. With the ultimate cessation of nutriment the suffering also ceases.
2. Realizing this with clarity that suffering arises from nutriments and with the realization of these nutriments with insight would not associate or attach to nutriments.
3. With complete annihilation of defilements and attaining the point of cleansing, the arahath who has established well in the dhamma cannot be counted (full realization of Nirvana).

At Jeta’s Grove addressing the bhikkus the Enlightened One said, “These four nutriments have what as their proximate cause, what as their origination, and what as that which brings them into? They have craving as the proximate cause, craving as their origination, craving as that which brings them into play. Thus the base for all these nutriments as told by the Enlightened One is craving. (Ahara Sutta)

Once to a question raised by the Enlightened One of What Is One, Arahath Sopaka who attained Nirvana at the age of seven years replied that all beings depend on food. Of all the food the sentient beings have the utmost urge to procure and consume edible food. In the animal kingdom they have only two main concerns, of food and security. As a result their senses are highly developed unlike with humans. These highly developed senses enabled all the animals living in Yala Animal sanctuary in the south of Sri Lanka to escape from the Tsunami on 26 December 2004 while thousands of humans perished.

Our attention on edible food in the last twenty to thirty years has increased exponentially. Not just in this country but in the whole world there is so much attention on edible food for many reasons. People today focus more than ever on this somatic body and look for food that will enhance its skin color, its shape, its strength and its wellness.

But alone with the attention on food a whole host of troubles have come in the form of sickness, obesity, hyper nutrition, glutinousness etc. Medical science too is regularly publishing data on food types and the electronic and print as well as social media are agog with millions of data of recipes, what to eat and what not etc.

Then the food and hospitality industry produce all forms of food and recipes claiming them to be the ultimate solution for leading a happy life. People are made to believe that it is the food that is the ultimate creator of happiness

While the focus is high on the edible food, there is hardly any attention on the defiling of the consciousness with mostly negative illustrations. TV, Cinema, Print Media and Social Media as well as the political forces are pursuing a course that is defiling the human consciousness badly.

Then there is these brands and branding of foods. Indeed the word brand came from an Old Norse word brandr meaning to burn. The people in UK & Europe burned the skin of their cattle with letters for identification and this was called branding. Burning the skin would have caused pain to cattle but after few days the wound would heal due to application of medicinal oil. Cured of wound the cattle went back to grazing. But the humans burn their consciousness with the brands and suffer till the end of their lives.

In the Puthra Mansa Sutta (son’s flesh) we find much to learn on the edible food and how we should attend to its consumption. A mother and a father with their little son decided to go on a journey through a dessert. Since the journey would take a long period they prepared many food items to be taken.

However in the middle of the dessert they ran out of food. Realizing that without food they will not be able to cross the dessert they decided to kill the child and use his flesh as food to enable them to cross the desert. The Enlightened One asked the Bhikkus, whether the parents would have eaten those flesh to decorate their bodies, to gain strength, or for pleasure?

The bhikkus replied not, but merely to survive the journey through dessert. Then the Enlightened One told bhikkus, so should they consume the edible food as a means to help them to cross this dessert of sansara and not to beautify their bodies, for gaining strength, to enjoy or for any other aspects.

However sadly though in the commentary written much later, this is hidden and a complete different meaning is given. There the commentary says that the mother told the father to kill her and use her flesh for food until they cross the dessert. The father refused saying that without the mother the child would not survive and suggested that he be killed and the flesh used for food.

Since both refused to kill the other, they decided that if they can cross the dessert would be able to have another child and thus to kill their child and use his flesh for food to cross the dessert. So they sat under a tree in the dessert with few leaves and the mother told the child to go to father who in return told the child to go to the mother.

This went on for a while and while moving from father to the mother and vice versa, the child fell dead under the same tree. Then the parents took the flesh and used same as food to cross the dessert. The commentary thus hides the important fact about edible food which is that same should not be consumed with greed, desire, to gain strength or to beautify the body but only to enable one to strive and end this sansara.

How does one use the edible food as an enabler to end this suffering and this becoming?

All four nutrients have craving as their cause, as their origination, as their source and as that which brings them into play. Craving has feeling as its cause, feeling has contact as its cause, contact has six sense-agencies as its cause, six sense-agencies have name & form as their cause, name & form has consciousness as its cause and consciousness has volitional formations as its cause. Volitional formation has ignorance as its cause. This itself is the co-dependent arising (patichcha samupppada).

What is the foundational principle of co-dependent arising? It is what the Enlightened One saw himself at the end of the 7th day of the first week spent at the base of the Ficus Religeosa Tree at Bodh Gaya after Enlightenment.

“Ithi imasmin sathi, idan hothi. Imassa uppada idan uppajjathi. Imasmin asathi idan nahothi. Imassa nirodhaa idan nirujjathi, yadidan avijja yaththueva asesa virago nirodha sankara nirodo, sankara niroda vingnana nirodo…….”

When this is there this arises. When this is born this is born. When this is not there this does not arise. When this ceases this also ceases.

Thereafter the Enlightened One uttered the three peons of joy.
1. To the Brahmin who is striving in meditation developing dhayana there arises without any doubt that all things (dharma) arise because of a cause.
2. To the Brahmin who is striving in meditation developing dhyana there arises without any doubt that when the cause is eradicated the things too are eradicated.
3. Brahmin who is striving in meditation developing dhayana will disperse the armies of mara just as the bright sun will lighten up the dark sky. (Udana Pali – Bodhi Vagga)

Thus it needs to be understood by the wise that this craving for the edible food and not consumption of it is cause for dependent arising. One may consume good food because one has funds earned with righteous work, business etc.

Even if 20 to 30 different dishes of food are there for a meal the important thing is to take that which is sufficient without engraved craving for the food but merely for the existence. On the other hand it may happen that on another day there may be only one or two dishes. The wise will consume food just as they did on the earlier occasion with no ill feeling or anger.

Unfortunately these days the children are not educated about food and instead the focus is making food tasty. For this many inorganic flavoring agents are added in food preparation to make food tasty. This makes the kids from the very young days attach to the taste of food and yearn for tasty foods often forsaking the negative impact those foods can cause.

The result is even children at a very young age becoming patients, mainly diabetic and even having high cholesterol. One can see this clearly at private hospitals, government hospitals. Also they become prisoners of taste relegating the actual food value ant the attachment or craving for taste a dangerous trend. Such attachment for food will not enable one to realize the ending of becoming (bhava). Of course we cannot completely shut out food. Indeed the Bodhisatva for 6 long years shunned food, merely depending on morsels causing much suffering. But he realized his folly and instead took the middle path and taking food only for this body to exist for his 45 years of service to humans, gods, Brahmas and all.

Thus with wisdom one can apply the principle of non-attachment when partaking edible food and this itself can enable such a person to achieve the cessation of suffering. One need not have to learn the whole Thripitaka to find the ultimate solace of Nirvana. Diligently applying the principle of non attachment to edible food itself, but seeing the edible food only as a means to keep this somatic body going till end while striving is indeed the noble way forward.

Therefore today living in this convoluted world where craving is the ultimate power not just for food only, one must devolve time as much as one can despite the business of their daily routines to annihilate the craving, the projection to existence (bhava neththi). That can be achieved with Mindfulness and Insight Meditation.

May the wisdom arise in the minds of humans about the danger in attachment to edible food so that they can find the ultimate solace of Nirvana.

Sugath Rajapakse
Formerly Senior Commercial Manager at Sri Lankan Airlines and presently Consultant to Air India GSA in Sri Lanka.

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