Though born over two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha had many modern ideas about nutrition. First of all, the Buddha was keenly aware of interconnectedness and the mind-body-spirit connection, in particular. He said, “To keep the body in good health is a duty… otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” This sentiment is exemplified in the story of Buddha’s enlightenment and transformation by rice milk, which also serves as a parable form refutation of asceticism or extreme physical denial.
Dr. Gabor Maté, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts gives his analysis of the mind-body-spirit connection,
“The traditional medicines … of all cultures around the world have always taken for granted that mind and body can’t be separated. Now, Western medicine has cleaved the two apart for, really, 2,000 years. Socrates already criticized the doctors of his day for separating the mind from the body. And the irony—in fact, the tragedy—is that now we have the Western science that shows, incontrovertibly and in great detail, that mind and body can’t be separated, and so that any attempt to do so leaves the medical practitioner short of many tools to help clients. And, of course, it leaves patients short of what they need for their own healing.
The point now is that the emotional centers of the brain, which regulate our behaviors and our responses and our reactions, are physiologically connected with—and we know exactly how they’re connected—with the immune system, the nervous system and the hormonal apparatus. In fact, it’s no longer possible, scientifically, to speak of these as separate systems, as if immunity was separate from emotions, as if the nervous system was separate from the hormonal apparatus. There’s one system, and they’re wired together by the nervous system itself and joined together by chemical messengers that they all secrete, and so that whatever happens emotionally has an impact immunologically, and vice versa. So, for example, we know now that the white cells in the circulation of our—of the blood can manufacture every hormone that the brain can manufacture, and vice versa, so that the brain and the immune system are always talking to one another.
So, in short, we have one system. The science that studies it is called psychoneuroimmunology. And scientifically, it’s not even controversial, but it’s completely lacking from [most] medical practice.”
Integrative Nutrition, like Buddhism, approaches food and nutrition holistically; including not only the physical but also spiritual, emotional, and social dimensions of food and health. This approach seeks to obtain and maintain what Hyeon-Sook Lim, PhD calls “optimal health of body, emotions, sense of spiritual connection, and social link to one another, community, world, and planet as an interlinking whole.”
The Buddha says of this inter-connectivity, “To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” Similarly, T. Colin Campbell writes in The China Study 2006, “Good nutrition creates health in all areas of our existence. All parts are interconnected.”
Of the social and spiritual aspect of food, the Buddha said, “If you knew what I knew about generosity, you would not let one meal go by without sharing it.”
The Buddha showed himself to be deeply interested in nutrition: “What has come to be – if you know how to look deeply into its nature and identify its source of nutriment, you are already on the path of emancipation.” The Buddha (sounding like quite a foodie) literally describes mindful eating according to nutrient value as necessary to enlightenment, though there are metaphysical connotations as well. This is in stark contrast to the glorification of the craven senses represented by the continual feast of restaurant advertisements seen on American TV. How can food served so quickly and in such great quantity, with so little connection to the Earth or other people, that contributes to ill health and the destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems, ever be considered spiritually nutritious?
Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Eating for Peace, “What has come to be is our illness, our ill-being, our suffering, our violence, our despair. And if you practice looking deeply, meditation, you’ll be able to identify the sources of nutriments, of food, that has brought it into us.”
Your life fits you like a glove.
“Every human being is the author of his own health or disease,” the Buddha famously offered. It is an important lesson everyone must learn- to take responsibility for oneself. Magnus Mulliner writes, “Who controls you? Who puts you in a toxic environment and perhaps adds chemicals to your body or feeds dead, dysfunctional, denatured products into your mouth? Are you ultimately responsible for ‘choosing’ where you work, play, train, have fun, etc? We are all empowered, conscious beings …If you do not choose wisely you will shorten your quality and quantity of life on this amazing planet.”
Modern medicine tends to blame degenerative illness on genes or bad luck and has been slow to recognize the cause and effect of nutrition, including inner terrain and the mitigating effects of diet and environment in disease. As recently as the 1960′s tobacco was endorsed by American doctors in the American Medical Journal. Meanwhile twenty-five hundred years ago Buddha had complete faith in cause and effect. In fact, Buddha’s understanding of cause and effect led him to exclaim, “When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.”
You may ignore the law of cause and effect only to your own peril. Dr. Ruza Bogdanovich, N.D. writes in The Cure Is In the Cause, “There is no such thing as a free lunch. In Nature, there are neither rewards nor punishments- only consequences. The cure is in the cause. We have to accept the law of cause and effect or we will never find the cure. No technique exists that will cure anything on a permanent level if the cause is ignored. Today we [the medical establishment] are looking for symptoms, not the cause and because of it we have gone astray plugged with the so called incurable and degenerative diseases.”
According to Rahula, “The theory of karma is the theory of cause and effect, of action and reaction; it is a natural law, which has nothing to do with the idea of justice or reward and punishment. Every volitional action produces its effects or results. If a good action produces good effects, it is not justice, or reward, meted out by anybody or any power sitting in judgement of your action, but this is in virtue of its own nature, its own law.”
There are ramifications for your every action, and this is especially evident with what we eat. T. Colin Campbell writes in the China Study, “During the past two decades, we have acquired substantial evidence that most chronic diseases in America can be partially attributed to bad nutrition. Expert government panels have said it, the Surgeon General has said it and academic scientists have said it. More people die because of the way they eat than by tobacco use, accidents, or any other lifestyle or environmental factor. We know the incidence of obesity and diabetes is skyrocketing and that American’s health is slipping away, and we know what to blame: diet.”
He concludes, “What could one do to prevent more pain and suffering in this country than telling Americans unequivocally to eat less animal products, less highly refined plant products and more whole, plant based foods? It is a message soundly based on the breadth and depth of scientific evidence, and the government could make this clear as they did with cigarettes. Cigarettes kill and so do these bad foods. But instead of doing this, the government is saying that animal products, dairy and meat, refined sugar and fat in your diet are good for you!”
If you don’t like the effect, don’t produce the cause.
It is basic to being a Buddhist to wish the entire world to be healthy and free of suffering. That would include not only the poor animals that end up on our plate but also for those who ingest them ignorant of the deleterious nutritional ramifications, those cajoled by custom and advertising, and those victims of their own appetites. To make maters worse, today’s food is highly processed, poisoned with pesticides, growth hormones, genetic modification, artificial flavors, and preservatives that actually cause ill health and disease. Today one must be more mindful than ever with food manufacturers and restaurants willfully attempting to mislead the buying public into making unconscious and poor choices.
Moreover, one is in need of a scientist to understand the processes and chemical ingredients of most foods and a lawyer to figure out the legal nomenclature. What is autolysed yeast extract? What does ‘hydrogenated’ mean? How much silly putty may my chicken nugget contain before it is labeled on the package? How much ‘meat’ must Taco Bell ‘meat product‘ contain in order to legally call it ‘meat?’ etc.
Adding to the problem, when we were growing up we were told “Milk helps build strong bones” and “Wonder Bread helps build strong bodies eight ways.” These lessons are hard to unlearn, but unlearn them we must. Misinformation about human health can be very harmful, as is a medical and pharmaceutical system that benefits from disease and sickness. Furthermore, much of the Standard American Diet (including milk and Wonder Bread) is actually fertile ground for cancer, clogged arteries, heart disease, lowered immune function, osteoporosis, dementia and premature death.
The answer lies in Hypocrates aphorism, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This message should be available to anyone with ears now that the documentary, Forks Over Knives has begun it’s major market release. The film shows the value of a plant-based diet (forks) that shuns meat, fish, dairy and oil (knives), in favor of vegetables, fruit, greens and whole grains. This film gives us the knowledge to pursue more mindful eating which could have a vast impact not only on you, your friends and family but also on society for generations to come.
Every language and culture has an equivalent of the slogan, “You are what you eat.” But the Buddha went one step further. He said, “What you are is what you have been, and what you will be is what you do now.” The question is “What will you do now?”
See Also: What Would Buddha Eat?