Last week, I wrote an article on what I learned about mindful eating from my time at a Buddhist monastery. This week, instead of discussing how you eat like a Buddhist monk, I’m going to discuss what types of foods we actually ate at the monastery. As you can imagine, serious practitioners of Buddhism tend to be slim – part of this is from the practice of not taking more than you need and part of it is from their nutritious diet and often daily yoga sessions. As someone who frequently cooked for the residents while I was there, I became very familiar with the diet and wanted to share how cool it is. Although there may be different eating traditions practiced at different monasteries, here is what was typical of the monastery where I studied…
The 3 Bowls
Upon arrival, each resident is given a set of three small nesting bowls wrapped in cloth, called a jihatsu set. All formal meals are typically consumed from these bowls with chopsticks. Each meal usually consists of 3 different dishes – each dish designated for a different bowl. Since all of the bowls are small and can be held in the palm of the hand, they are quite useful for keeping portion sizes modest. Beverages aren’t consumed with meals, but tea is always passed down the table once everyone has finished eating. A cup of warm tea is a nice way to close a meal, but it actually served another purpose, it was swirled around each bowl essentially cleaning them- anything that was left over, you would drink with the tea water to prevent even the littlest crumb from being wasted.
Morning practice began at 5:00 and included walking meditation, seated meditation, extensive chanting, readings and small chores around monastery. By the time breakfast was being served, we had already been up for several hours. The morning meal always alternated between two dishes – either oatmeal or okayu, a Japanese rice porridge. If we were having oatmeal, we often would add nuts, almond milk and maybe a little maple syrup as toppings. If we were having okayu, we would add sesame seeds, shoyu and pieces of nori. It took me a little bit to get used to the taste of shoyu in the morning, but in the end, I didn’t mind it (there’s a Buddhism joke in there). Breakfast would then also always be served with sliced fruit and hardboiled eggs.
Lunch was another formal meal and we typically would eat it once we finished or “samu” or work assignment for the day. Most of the time, lunch would consist of a grain-based dish often with veggies and beans, a soup/stew type dish and a salad or vegetables that were often from the grounds’ beautiful organic vegetable garden. Beans/legumes, tempeh and tofu were the main protein sources during lunch and brown rice, quinoa and pastas were typically served as the grains.
Dinner was always a light and informal meal that was consumed after we had our third round of “sitting” or meditation for the day. Most of the time, dinner would consist of leftovers from that day’s lunch or the day before (things usually didn’t stick around from much longer than that!) and maybe a piece of homemade bread.
If you’re interested in learning more about this style of eating, check out 3 Bowls: Vegetarian Recipes from an American Zen Buddhist Monastery – it’s a lovely cookbook written by a man who used to be the chef at the monastery where I studied.