In this monastery in Thailand, there is a swift transition from darkness to dawn, the time when monks are allowed to go on pindabaht. This simple daily ritual of seeking alms food, established by the Buddha over 2,500 years ago, is at the same time a profound system of give-and-take designed to foster interdependency and humility. No matter how accomplished monks are as meditators or respected as spiritual advisors, their alms bowls and stomachs are empty every morning.
Every day millions of Thais wake up to prepare and then offer food to more than 300,000 monks. From the busiest streets in Bangkok to the most remote rural villages, laypeople make offerings as a symbol of their faith in the Buddha’s teachings and the monastics who embody them. The process of placing food into the alms bowl is regal yet relaxed, as natural as sunrise and sunset. And while this offering cycle may appear to provide only physical nourishment to the monks, the dignity it provides affords givers and receivers alike an emotional fullness that food alone cannot.
In contrast to the calm and dignified alms tradition, my personal relationship with food and weight has been fraught with anxiety. In America, I am food-obsessed. Even though I had a long career in the field of weight-related disorders and wrote a book about compulsive eating, I’ve gone through countless cycles of managing and then mismanaging food. My craving to feel satisfied has essentially been a trapdoor to the hell realms.
Yet living in the monastery, I notice that I hardly ever feel hungry. The food cravings that have controlled me for so many years are all but absent. This amazes me. It is not something I expected when I set off for a nearly two-year stay at Ajahn Anan’s austere branch monastery and later Ajahn Ganha’s more established one.
While my struggles in life have centered primarily on food, I’m not alone in the struggle with craving. Everyone in the monastery is a comrade. While we don’t really go into the details of our own particular brand of craving and its inevitable suffering, we have all come to this refuge to practice contentment, to transform craving into a path to enlightenment. Not that this is so simple. The Buddha said it is easier to conquer an army of one thousand a thousand times over than it is to change one habit.
Each morning at dawn, I delight in watching the monks disappear through the mist on their way to collect the daily food offerings. In a meditative gait with downcast eyes, their covered begging bowls strapped over their right shoulders, they tread barefoot down the dirt path.
They are greeted by villagers well prepared to be generous. Small plastic bags sealed tightly with rubber bands are typically stuffed with rice, curries, noodles, vegetables and fish. Fresh fruits, cakes, beverages, plump bunches of orchids and fresh roses are all meticulously arranged on straw mats or small tables. Hunchbacked old women, shop-keepers, mothers with babies, schoolchildren and teenagers hear the shout: Phra ma leow! (The monks are here!) Everyone crouches on their knees, heads lowered and hands held together in anjali. Offerings are placed with great care into each begging bowl, often compared to the skull of a Buddha. To place offerings roughly or disrespectfully would be unthinkable. The perfectly round bowl is a sacred symbol reminding monks and laypeople that giving and receiving are interconnected, with no beginning and no end.
When heavier items like whole fruits or bottled water are offered, the monks flip over the metal lids of the bowls. The delicate balance between tipping and flipping requires impressive dexterity. As the monks move on, donors bow three times in honor of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The transaction is brief, without eye contact, words or even spoken blessings. Offering alms food is considered so meritorious that a blessing from the monks is not necessary. The whole process takes about an hour.
While the monks are on pindabaht, I am alone in the monastery. I am relieved of the pressure I sometimes feel in their presence. I enjoy my solitude puttering around the large but primitive outdoor kitchen—so unlike my kitchen at home, jammed with its appliances and gadgets. Certainly, many monastery kitchens are modern and well-equipped, but this one is particularly spare: a few dull knives, spatulas, a mortar and pestle and a rusty can opener that doesn’t live up to its name. Cans of anchovies are usually pounded open with a pot handle. There’s only a ground-level sink where I squat to wash dishes from a single tap of cold water. A slanted aluminum roof helps shield me from the blazing sun and torrential rains.
My daily responsibility is to put out a tray of milk and to cook the brown rice. There’s no plug near the small prep table, so I place the rice cooker on top of a plastic chair in order to reach the one and only outlet high up on a wall. The rice cooker wobbles and spouts frothy brown water as it cooks. I’m always relieved when the rice is done and not splattered all over the dusty cement floor. The distracting sounds of the telephone, radio and garbage disposal don’t exist in this world. I’m surrounded by tall trees and colorful birds. It’s quiet, peaceful and conducive to mindfulness. The bare simplicity helps me experience both the kitchen and the cooking tasks as sacred.
As soon as the monks return, we immediately begin organizing the alms food. The large mounds of rice, considered the highest symbol of faith, are placed in two large metal bowls. Everything is organized onto large trays according to types: vegetarian, noodles, curries, desserts and beverages. On festival days, dozens of laypeople come to the monastery laden with even more offerings, all magnificently prepared and arranged. Every piece of fruit is sliced and peeled to perfection. Each bowl or platter of food, sometimes served with four or more condiments, is garnished like a dish in a five-star restaurant.
Prior to the 8:00 A.M. meal, the monks return to their specific spots, arranged by seniority on the elevated tiled floor, and meditate. The ringing of a bell signals that the meal is ready to be offered. On most days, I offer the meal to the monks. On festival days, or on special occasions, a community elder or an honoree makes the offerings. While men can make hand-to-hand offerings to the monks, women place offerings on a cloth to ensure there is no physical contact. Oftentimes, an entire family will place one hand on the shoulder of the giver so that the blessings are shared. My heart is always touched by this human dharma tree, which to me represents the branches and trunk of wholesomeness that sprout from generosity.
Ajahn Anan accepts each tray, takes his portion, and then passes it down the line to the other monastics waiting in silence. I then fill my bowl. The massive amounts of excess food will go to visitors, locals and laborers.
While Ajahn Anan and the monks chant the traditional meal blessing, it’s customary for the lay community to pour water from a small pitcher into a bowl, which symbolizes the transference of merit to deceased relatives and friends. These few moments feel timeless as the Pali chanting fills the hall:
As the rivers full of water
Go to make the ocean full,
So that which is given here,
Goes to the benefit of the departed
We then cast our eyes into our bowls and silently recite the customary contemplation designed to prepare our hearts and minds for mindful eating.
Wisely reflecting, I use this alms food, not for fun, not for pleasure, not for fattening, not for beautification, only for the maintenance and nourishment of this body, for keeping it healthy, for helping with the holy life, thinking thus: I will allay hunger without overeating, so that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.
I make the effort to connect with these intentions even though it feels so alien to my pleasure-seeking, comfort-craving habits. Who am I to judge this contemplation given my tumultuous history with food, the twenty-five extra pounds on my body, and so much craving in my heart? Despite the abundance of delicious food, the expectation is that we will always eat modestly and mindfully so that our meditation practice remains seamless.
At the monastery, there’s never any talk of hunger or of aversion to the heat that drenches us all in sweat. In fact, no one complains or discusses any type of craving. To talk about what we are coveting or avoiding would be rude and not tolerated. Restraint in body, speech and mind is both expected and respected; lack of it a cause for swift admonishment. Our training is to cultivate oht-tohn, patient endurance—the sustained and dignified acceptance of what’s offered. We receive with appreciation and gratitude, not judgment or desire.
My reverence for these somber rituals often loses its glow after I sit down on my straw mat on the floor to eat alone in the kitchen. Ants have no problem joining me as they crawl boldly across the bags of food, the rim of my metal food bowl, my legs, my arms and my toes. Depending on my level of concentration, I note my acceptance or contention with the invasion.
My vegetarian food routine is satisfying even though to my palate none of it tastes particularly good or bad. It’s all a sea of sensations. Since paper napkins are rarely available, toilet tissue is used instead. Picking off the greasy bits of food that stick to my hands and mouth hasn’t been an easy adjustment. I regularly note the striking contrast between the soft cloth napkin I use at home and the monastery’s whitish-gray toilet tissue housed in a hot-pink plastic container.
Before lifting my aching body off the floor mat, I dedicate any merit that comes from this meal offering to the countless beings that helped make it possible. This offering cycle opens me not only to the physical nourishment that comes from alms food but to the emotional nourishment that comes naturally from gratitude. It takes only a short time to clearly realize that other qualities such as restraint, surrender and contentment also help free me from craving and the suffering that it creates.
Friends familiar with my challenging relationship with food are surprised to learn that I never get hungry, even though the one meal of the day is finished by 8:30 or 9:00 A.M. The fullness that comes from being both a recipient and a donor in the offering cycle, mindful eating, and the fierce heat make the rule of eating once a day easier to keep than I imagined. Within a few months, I have effortlessly lost the excess weight that I had put on from years of overeating “for fun and for pleasure.” I have found, however, one outstanding exception: when my appetite becomes ravenous, when my mood turns sour.
Every Friday like clockwork, my body and my mind return to my world at home in Berkeley, California, 6,000 miles away, where I am a practicing Jew and Buddhist. I desperately crave an experience that lies deep in my bones. Shabbat, an ancient Jewish observance, begins every Friday evening at sundown and continues until sunset the following day. It is a holy time spent without any interference from worldly affairs such as business, telephones and computers. Like life at the monastery, Shabbat is a time to turn away from the trivial, toward the transcendent. Every meal is a call to holiness and an opportunity for gratitude and appreciation. In Judaism, the laws of kashrut (specific dietary restrictions) are ongoing practices that demand close attention be paid to what we eat. In both the Buddhist and Jewish traditions, restrictions instill a sense of self-discipline and dignity to eating.
The Shabbat dinner table is often compared to an altar. Special china, silverware, tablecloths and napkins help create this sacred time and space. As in the monastery, careful preparation and beautiful presentation of foods contribute to the sanctity. Friends arrive with offerings for the feast, and the comforting aromas of traditional foods such as kosher chicken and potato kugel permeate the house.
The woman of the house ushers in Shabbat by lighting candles and chanting special blessings. Everyone exhales as the transition is made from the secular to the sacred. At my home, my husband poetically recites The Woman of Valor proverbs, extolling the virtues of a good wife:
Her worth is far above rubies. . . . The heart of her husband trusts her and nothing shall he lack. . . . Many women have done superbly, but you surpass them all.
He then chants with gusto the Kiddush blessing over the wine. The wine is passed around, male and female lips sipping from the same silver cup. Finally, there is the blessing over the braided challah bread. Two challahs are picked up and held together while everyone recites the blessing. Although it’s nontraditional, we place a piece of the blessed bread in each other’s mouths, a symbol of the various ways we feed one another. Like the alms bowl, the braids of bread symbolize our interconnectedness with each other and with holiness. Once the Shabbat rituals are complete, the festive meal begins. Piping-hot platters and bowls of food are passed around, the pitch of conversations and laughter rises. Men and women sit together, often shoulder to shoulder, on comfortable chairs while the candles flicker in the background. Unlike the monastery, where any talk about cravings is prohibited 24/7, at a Shabbat table there are constant comments about the luscious meal, and multiple helpings are the norm. The long and beautiful grace after the meal is sung loudly and joyfully by everyone, followed by Hebrew songs. We linger at the table nibbling on cakes and fruit, enjoying the leisure and the shared ceremony that bring a palpable, unrestricted feeling of pleasure to everyone there. The Shabbat meal is a sensual observance, not simply a utilitarian task “for the maintenance and nourishment of this body.” Cravings are indulged. Comfort is enjoyed. Restraint is released.
When I’m in the monastery and I know it’s Shabbat, it feels impossible to reconcile the gap between the juicy Shabbat observances and the austere and somber Buddhist mealtimes. Despite the shared depth of these two timeless traditions, I ache for the female rituals, the familiar foods, the singing and the scents. Above all, I miss the love of my husband and the intimacy that comes from a history of sharing Shabbat with close friends.
As I sit on the mat millimeters above the cement floor, feeling completely miserable, my mind leaps to seductive images of what my friends are doing and eating. Just imagining indulgence, my mind and body quiver. Solitude and moderation are so dull by comparison. During these moments, the monastery feels so foreign, cold and alienating—the austerities, the restraint, the silence, the segregation by sex and status, the armies of ants and the toilet paper napkins. I wonder, shaking my head from side to side, “What in the world am I doing here?”
Yet, I don’t leave. Even when my mind screams, “Go for the waist-high sink and the cloth napkins, the feasting and singing, the intimacy of friends and family,” I stay. Deep in my heart and my stomach, I know that what I really want cannot be found in the personal contacts and physical comforts that I crave. Obtaining these pleasures, however lovely and satisfying, is not the true purpose of my life. Nor are they the reason I came across the world to practice meditation.
The Buddha instructed his disciples to understand the pain of craving, the incessant misery that comes from volleying between liking and loathing. The desire for sensual pleasures, no matter how meaningful they may be, that grips me every Friday both at home and at the monastery will never help me attain what I’m committed to. The noble presence of my enlightened master, Ajahn Anan, reminds me that the highest form of happiness is peace of mind and the complete fulfillment that comes from the end of all craving.
Ronna Kabatznick is on the advisory council of the Center for Mindful Eating (www.tcme.org). At the time this article was written, she was on its board of directors.