Diet, Physical Exercise, and Buddhist Spiritual Practice

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The Buddha taught that suffering is rooted in attachment to all that’s beloved and pleasing yet destined to change and vanish. So why bother with working out and dietary management if my body will inevitably succumb to ageing, sickness and death? Should I not just let nature take its course, watch what happens and accept it all gracefully?

 

 


 

DIET, PHYSICAL EXERCISE, AND BUDDHIST SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

 

Introduction

I normally consider myself to be a moderate eater and physically active, but some time ago I noticed I had gotten a little lardy around the midsection. Although far from being obese there was no denying those excess pounds of flesh. Obviously I was using fewer calories than I was consuming and my immediate thought was, I need to do something!

So, I incorporated some calisthenics and cardio training into my normal daily routine. I ate more raw fruit and vegetables and whole grain cereals and fewer processed, sugary, fatty foods.  I liked that I was getting slimmer and feeling much more energised. But I kept asking myself, should Buddhist spiritual practice include physical exercise and dietary management?

The Buddha taught that suffering is rooted in attachment to all that’s beloved and pleasing yet destined to change and vanish. So why bother with working out and counting calories if my body will inevitably succumb to ageing, sickness and death?  Are my attempts to improve the health and shape of my body through diet and exercise merely a sign of unwholesome attachment that will eventually result in sorrow? Should I not just let nature take its course, watch what happens and accept it all gracefully?

My purpose in writing this essay is to answer these questions. I begin by quoting two suttas in praise of mindful walking and moderate eating, and I offer them as evidence that the Buddha himself recognised that monks and lay followers may need to exercise and make calorie adjustments in order to maintain adequate fitness.

Next, I consider the modern-day context. We appear to be witnessing a man-made obesity “time bomb” that’s already impacting adversely on lives inside and outside of Buddhist temples. Given these toxic circumstances, I regard complacency as delusional and right action to include regular exercise and nutritional management in order to avoid obesity-linked health problems.

Moving on, I briefly mention some internet resources that encourage physical activity and nutritional awareness. I also refer to a commentary on the ‘Amagandha Sutta’, which discusses both the Theravada and Mahayana perspectives on meat-eating and vegetarianism. I concur that vegetarianism appears kinder, however it’s an imperfect world and neither meat nor vegetables offer a perfect spiritual solution.

Finally, I close the essay with a reminder that one’s doctor should be consulted before starting any exercise programme or making sudden dietary changes.


Diet and exercise in the Pali Canon

The Buddha’s code of monastic discipline or Patimokkha consists of 227 rules for ordained monks and 311 rules for ordained nuns.  [1] Within the Patimokkha are rules that specify the number and timing of their daily meals, rules that prohibit them from eating certain foods (namely, the flesh of humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears and hyenas), and rules that place restrictions upon their travelling, for example.  [2] As the Buddha himself explains, the rules governing monastic conduct were made with the following ten aims in mind:

” ‘the excellence of the Community, the comfort of the Community, the curbing of the impudent, the comfort of well-behaved bhikkhus, the restraint of effluents related to the present life, the prevention of effluents related to the next life, the arousing of faith in the faithless, the increase of the faithful, the establishment of the true Dhamma, and the fostering of discipline.’ ” [3]

The Buddha’s code of conduct for lay people consisted of five daily training rules or precepts and three additional precepts to be observed on special days; these precepts were given so the laity might remain mindful and avoid creating bad kamma through killing, stealing, sexual abuse, harmful speech, or heedlessness caused either by intoxicants (drugs, alcohol, etc) or by sensory indulgence, laziness, and vanity.  [4]

When reading about the Buddha’s rules and precepts it’s worth remembering that they were given to monks, nuns and lay persons who were living in a particular time and place. Obesity and other problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle most probably afflicted only the richer members of society; lack of exercise and being overweight are unlikely to have been a problem for the majority of citizens, which may be why the Buddha appears to have made few pronouncements on feeding and exercising.

Nevertheless, there are canonical indications that the Buddha recognised the benefits of regular exercise and moderate eating and encouraged his followers to do both.

In the Cankama Sutta the Buddha extols the benefits of walking meditation –

Monks, there are these five benefits of walking up & down. What five? One is fit for long journeys; one is fit for striving; one has little disease; that which is eaten, drunk, chewed, tasted, goes through proper digestion; the composure attained by walking up & down is long-lasting. These, monks, are the five benefits of walking up & down. [5]


The Buddha explains the benefits of mindful eating in the Donapaka Sutta

When a person is constantly mindful,
And knows when enough food has been taken,
All their afflictions become more slender
 — They age more gradually, protecting their lives. [6]

 

The modern day context

Despite the evidence of these suttas there are monks such as Venerable Yuttadhammo who maintain that exercising and dieting have no place in Buddhist spiritual practice. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his YouTube video condemnation of physical exercise [7] has attracted a lot of dissenting comments, though what he says in the video sounds to me to be consistent with dhamma and reasonable within the context of a traditional monastic lifestyle.

Certainly it’s true that the Buddha’s trainings in morality, concentration and wisdom were aimed at ending suffering by revealing the true nature of phenomena as impermanent (anicca), anxiety-inducing (dukkha), not-self (anatta); suffering is ended when clear seeing or wisdom is developed sufficiently to destroy all attachments to an illusory ego or self-identity that is founded upon ignorance, craving and aversion.

Understanding the above, it’s easy to appreciate why a monk like Venerable Yuttadhammo would regard exercising and dieting as a misguided attempt to delay the inevitable onset of ageing, sickness, infirmity, and death. Working out and dieting are seen as perpetuating suffering because it strengthens the attachment to an illusory ego and distracts effort away from the real spiritual work of maintaining presence and peace of mind come what may.

Unfortunately the monastic tradition is being undermined by modernity, and monks are themselves succumbing to the scourge of obesity and ill-heath that’s blighting the lives of increasing numbers of ordinary citizens outside the temples. According to The Telegraph newspaper reporting on the situation in Thailand –

Scientists have now concluded that the [morning alms round] is contributing to an obesity epidemic among the Buddhist monkhood. Academics and religious and heath officials have now launched a new campaign to promote leaner clerical living by weaning monks off unhealthy food, teach them how to prepare nutritional balanced meals and encouraging them to exercise. The aim is to help the monks lead longer healthier lives and also to reduce medical fees as the government covers such costs for members of the clergy.”  [8]

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There’s nothing natural or inevitable about this sorry state of affairs. According to nutritionist Kerry Torrens –

“The problem for the majority of us is that many of the processed foods we eat have added sugar which supplies energy in the form of calories, and very little else – so we end up consuming more than we need. This means our body has to draw on the nutrients from the rest of our diet to process the sugar and this can affect our health.” [9]


Citing the British Journal Of Sports Medicine as evidence, The Telegraph also reports that “sugar and carbohydrates are the real culprits in the obesity epidemic… poor diet now generates more disease than physical inactivity, alcohol and smoking combined.” [10]

In May 2015, the World Health Organisation concluded that as many as 74% of men and 64% of women would be obese by 2030.  [11] The consequences of this so-called ‘obesity time bomb’ are likely to be huge increases in heart disease, diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, mental health conditions, cancer, and musculoskeletal problems that reduce quality of life for sufferers and their carers. Medical services and public finances could be stretched to breaking point as nations struggle to cope with obesity-related problems and the demands of a growing and ageing population. [12]

So, we have a time bomb situation where food manufacturers are hoodwinking and hooking millions of consumers with highly processed, sugar-laden products [13], [14] and even Buddhist monks are being fattened and poisoned. Apologists for the food industry are saying that making changes without reducing profits and alienating customers is very difficult. [15] Governments appear reluctant to tackle food companies head on and consumers who want to make healthy choices are facing an uphill struggle against big advertising budgets, selective marketing and deliberate misinformation.

Modern sedentary living is endangering our human capacity for spiritual work by increasing our chances of developing obesity-related health problems. It therefore strikes me as delusional to just sit passively and watch the health problems multiply as the pounds pile on. Yes, any number of us may die today from all manner of causes, but dying needlessly through malnutrition and inactivity isn’t the Middle Way. 

Right action in these toxic circumstances demands that we eat fewer processed calories and do a little more physical activity in order to maintain adequate fitness. We need just be mindful enough to ensure that our diet and exercise regimes aren’t being motivated by some base desire to increase sporting prowess or boost sex appeal for ego’s sake.

 

Getting started

According to the UK’s Chief Medical Officers, the following benefits of being active daily are: it helps reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases; it helps maintain a healthier weight; it helps maintain ability to perform everyday tasks with ease; it improves self-esteem; it reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety. [16]

For anyone not used to vigorous physical activity the problem is likely to be, what kind of exercise and how much? In order to stay healthy, UK adults aged 19-64 are advised to be active daily and do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity such as cycling or fast walking every week, and  strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms). [17]

The UK’s NHS Choices [18] and America’s President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition [19] websites may be good places to start looking for a suitable exercise plan. Many of the commercial websites one sees on the internet are selling workout programmes aimed at body-obsessed folks who want the lean or ‘ripped’ look of celebrities like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lopez. Nevertheless, these websites usually provide some free content such as demo videos on how to perform popular exercises correctly and safely in order to maximise their benefits, and the workouts they recommend can be adapted to suit one’s particular requirements.

Anyone wishing to improve on their nutrition might like to start by consulting The UK Government’s Eatwell Guide (below) to incorporate a better balance of healthier and more sustainable food. [20]

Eatwell Guide (2)


Buddhists who have issues either with meat-eating or vegetarianism might like to read Piya Tan’s commentary on the Amagandha Sutta, which discusses both the Theravada and Mahayana perspective and concludes:

It should be said that a non-meat diet is not in itself a spiritual practice, but which entails many other wholesome qualities. The Buddhist training is the avoidance of taking life or causing pain to others (including oneself). We should create the conditions wherein a healthy non-meat or vegetarian lifestyle wherever or whenever possible. It is not a perfect world, even growing plants entails harming some kinds of living beings. As such, we have to consider growing and harvesting our food in a manner that respect living beings. [21]


Whilst happily concurring with the above I would also reiterate that it’s an imperfect world and dead meat is simply an aggregate of the four elements (earth, water, fire and wind) – as are fruits that have been plucked from trees and vegetables and cereals that have been ripped from the ground. Neither meat nor vegetable production methods can offer a perfect spiritual solution to the problem of maintaining adequate nutrition because they all involve killing. Rather than rationalise my dietary preferences (by rating different kinds of foods according to some arbitrary measure of wholesomness) I strive instead to avoid food wastage by eating only as much as my body requires.

Finally, if one’s health is in doubt or there are pre-existing medical conditions, it’s important to consult one’s doctor first before starting any exercise programme or making sudden dietary changes.

 

Conclusion

There are canonical indications that the Buddha recognised the benefits of regular exercise and moderate eating and encouraged his followers to do both – namely, the Cankama Sutta and the Donapaka Sutta.

Modern sedentary living is endangering our capacity for spiritual work by increasing our chances of developing dementia, heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems associated with poor nutrition, inactivity, and obsesity. Right action demands that we use diet and exercise not to increase physical prowess and sex appeal for ego’s sake but to correct nutritional deficiencies and maintain adequate bodily fitness.

The internet is a source of plentiful information on nutrition and exercises that can improve and maintain physical fitness.

Vegetarianism appears kinder than meat-eating and is likely to satisfy most people’s nutritional requirements. However, neither meat nor vegetables offer a perfect spiritual solution for an imperfect world.

It’s most important to seek medical advice before starting any exercise programme or making sudden dietary changes – especially when one’s health is in doubt or if one is aware of a pre-existing medical condition.

 

Notes

[1]  ‘A Glossary of Pali and Buddhist Terms’. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 17 December 2013.

[2]  ‘The Buddhist Monk’s Discipline: Some Points Explained for Laypeople’, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[3] ‘The Buddhist Monastic Code I: The  Pātimokkha Rules (Third Edition)’, translated and explained by Thanissaro Bhikkhu ‘. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2013.

[4] ‘Lay Buddhist Practice: The Shrine Room, Uposatha Day, Rains Residence’, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[5] ‘Cankama Sutta: Walking’ (AN 5.29), translated from the Pali by Aggacitta Bhikkhu & Kumara Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2 November 2013.

[6] ‘Donapaka Sutta: King Pasenadi Goes on a Diet’ (SN 3.13), translated from the Pali by Andrew Olendzki. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2 November 2013.

[7] ‘Ask A Monk: Physical Exercise’, by Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu, YouTube, 25 July 2011.

[8] ‘Thailand’s monks are put on diet and fitness regime amid “obesity time bomb”’, by Philip Sherwell. The Telegraph, 16 March 2016.

[9] ‘The truth about sugar’, by Kerry Torrens. BBC GoodFood, 21st April 2016.

[10] ‘Sugar is to blame for obesity epidemic – not couch potato habits’, by Laura Donelly. The Telegraph, 22 April 2015.

[11] ‘2016 – The year to tackle the obesity time bomb’, by Deb Cook. Nursing Times, 6 January 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] ‘Top 11 Biggest Lies of The Food Industry’, by Kris Gunnars BSc. Authority Nutrition, 2012-2016.

[14] ‘Sugar-Coating Science: How the Food Industry Misleads Consumers on Sugar’. Union Of Concerned Scientists, June 2014.

[15] ‘Reducing Sugar: A New Food Industry Challenge’, by Charlotte Stirling-Reed. SR Nutrition, 2016.

[16] ‘Fact Sheet 4: Physical activity guidelines for adults (19-64 years)’. Department of Health, Social Services, and Public Safety (DHSSPS), 11 July 2011.

[17] Ibid.

[18] NHS Choices (website home page).

[19] President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition (website home page).

[20] ‘Eatwell Guide’. Public Health England in association with the Welsh government, Food Standards Scotland and the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland, 2016.

[21] ‘Amagandha Sutta: The “Raw-meat Stench” Discourse’ (Sn 2.2), translated from the Pali by Piya Tan. The Dharmafarers, 2004.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Diet, Physical Exercise, and Buddhist Spiritual Practice

  1. Hey paul real enjoy this post I still like to eat meat but I was worry about my spiritual practice , realize that if u put more into the practice u get the same result when u eat meat or non meat eatter

  2. Hi James, thanks for reading and leaving me your thoughts.

    Keep looking, question everything!

    All the best 🙂

  3. The key here is the intention. Why do I want to lose weight? If i do it because I want to feel good is OK, actually someday I’m gonna die, but would be better if I have a quality of life during my remaining days, I think that the issue comes when we are attached to certain image or fantasy about the perfect body.

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