Living Below the Line - When Food Becomes Medicine

Yesterday was a really good day. My body, for the most part, has adjusted to the Live Below the Line challenge and both my mood and my strength were high pretty much all the way through what was for me the first day of the workweek. It was also a very beautiful warm spring day of a season that has been very chilly and rainy so far. I wanted to garden! I wanted to go for a run! Unfortunately, though, by the time I got home from work my strength was quickly waning and I just didn’t think that my rice and lentils would provide me enough fuel for such activity. I know, I know, that’s highly debatable, and nutritionists and strict vegetarians alike might decry what I did next… I used some of my “banked” money to buy a tin of tuna fish and a slice of bread. I prepared a dinner of half a tuna sandwich and I was good to go.

We don’t usually ponder such things, do we? We eat what we want when we want it. We feel entitled to whatever fuel of whatever octane we might desire. This point first really dawned on me some years ago while I was pedaling my bicycle across the country on my very own vision quest of sorts. On the second day out I stopped in a restaurant for lunch and proceeded to devour a good 4,000 calories in that single sitting! I NEEDED it, yes. After all, I was carrying an appreciable amount of gear. But did I NEED to be riding my bicycle across the country? If I didn't NEED to be bicycling across the country, then I was essentially killing living things unnecessarily. And so I reflected on the fact that living things had been sacrificed and would continue to be sacrificed so that I could be doing what I felt I needed to do. With gratitude and humility I vowed to make the most of their offering for the betterment of the world.

Such an attitude is not a new one in the practice of Zen. During prolonged practice periods at many practice centers meals are taken in the very ritualistic manner of oryoki. Perhaps one way to think about oryoki is that it is not just a prayer before eating a meal – the eating of the meal itself becomes a prayer. Consider the Verse of Five Contemplations, for instance:

We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.

We reflect on our virtue and practice, and whether we are worthy of this offering.

We regard [this food] as essential to free ourselves of excesses such as greed.

We regard this food as good medicine to sustain our life.

For the sake of enlightenment, we now receive this food.

Thinking of food as medicine is kind of intriguing, isn’t it? When we take food as medicine we take it with a specific purpose in mind; there is a physiological necessity for our taking it. When we take food as medicine we neither take too little nor too much; we recognize that there is a dosage that is appropriate to our true needs, which are, of course, very much in line with the needs of all life in totality. And so it is that the Bowl Raising Verse is recited and eating commences:

The first portion is to end all evil,

The second is to cultivate all good,

The third is to free all beings.

May everyone realize the Buddha Way.

I’m grateful for this challenge allowing me to take this lesson to heart. No matter what religion we may practice, we can all make better use of that which we eat for the sake of our families, for the sake of our communities, and for the sake of our world. Let our food be medicine for our bodies, and let our actions be medicine for the world.


Image Credits

Oryoki image filtered by the author from one obtained via:


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


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