Human life begins as a small, dark speck, which needs nourishment (Pali: ahara) as a condition (paccaya) to evolve through a dependent process of coming-to-be (bhuta) that we call “b-e-i-n-g,” a somewhat obscure term designating a process that needs to be properly examined and analyzed to be understood.
Just as every living thing or being in this world (and even this world itself) needs the condition of nourishment to develop and continue being, so even this solar system needs the Sun and a particular set of co-existent conditions for the continuance of its just being there within the equilibrium and balance of the universe.
Everything living, large or small, in one way or another depends on nourishment. Just as the Earth needs certain conditions of oxygen, elements, and temperature to continue becoming and being, so human existence depends on a certain balance of conditions—of oxygen, of elements, and temperature—just to continue being.
The Buddha described human being in terms of two component parts—the mind and the body—both of which require nourishment (co-dependently and independently) to continue to survive.
Just as the body needs certain conditions and combinations, in terms of food, clothing, shelter, and medicines, to maintain and nourish its existence, so the mind apprehends and perceives, from the very earliest stages of mental consciousness, what it needs to do to contrive to get what the psychophysical (mind-body) organism requires in order to continue to survive and, subsequently, devise strategies to nourish its various wants and needs—both necessary and unnecessary—in both basic-elemental-essential and wholly-non-essential spheres.
Now, if nutriment is the one single fact about life that first needs to be understood, let us start from there and proceed to explain.
The Venerable Nyanaponika Maha Thera states the Buddha’s point quite succinctly in The Four Nutriments of Life: “All beings subsist on nutriment.”
This, according to the Buddha,
Is the one single fact about life that, above all, deserves to be remembered, contemplated and understood. And, if understood widely and deeply enough, this saying of the Buddha reveals, not only a truth that leads to the root of all existence, but also to its uprooting (in the sense that a palm tree, once uprooted, receives no more nourishment and ceases to continue to survive.)
Venerable Nyanaponika further explains: “The Buddha proved to be the one who saw to the root of all things, and he saw the root of all things as ‘nourishment.’”
Moreover, he saw that: “The laws of nutriment govern four kinds of nutriment: first, edible foods; second, sense impressions; third, volitions; and fourth, consciousness.”
This means one level of nourishment feeding the body and three more feeding the mind.
To continue to quote, Venerable Nyanaponika, observes: “It is hunger that stands behind the entire process of nutrition, wielding its whip relentlessly. The body, from birth to death, craves ceaselessly for material food; and the mind, similarly, hungers ceaselessly for its own kind of nourishment—for ever-new sense-impressions—and for an ever-expanding universe of ideas.”
Venerable Nyanaponika reiterates: “The body from birth to death craves for material food; and the mind hungers ceaselessly for its own kind of nourishment.”
Notice the words, “The mind hungers ceaselessly for its own kind of nourishment.” (Nyaniponika 1981, 1–3)
This is something we need to think about. And I think we all inherently know and will admit, quietly to ourselves at least, that such “hungering ceaselessly” is also at the root of our own personal mind-body distractions and mental dissatisfactions.
Moreover, if we were able to observe and analyze with detachment and objectivity the meanderings of mental consciousness, we would see it is relentlessly and ceaselessly hungering and gnawing away at our mind and body in a way that will eventually eat away even the very substance of our physical-mental being, through restless worry, fear, and resultant ill health.
If we were able to analyze clearly and properly and see phenomena the way they actually are, we would eventually gain the irrevocable insight that it is exactly this uncontrolled, uncurbed, and untamed process of ceaseless hungering for nutriment that causes most of our mind-body suffering.
Such is the problem of craving for nourishment, and the solution to the problem has been clearly explained by the Buddha, for those who have been fortunate enough to hear and listen.
The Buddha says:
Monks, when a monk becomes totally dispassionate towards one thing, when his lust for it entirely fades away, when he is entirely liberated from it, when he sees the complete ending of it, then he is one, who, after fully comprehending the goal, makes and end of suffering, here and now.
“What one thing?” The Buddha asks. And the answer is, “All beings subsist by nutriment.”
Explaining further, the Buddha states:
When a monk becomes totally dispassionate towards this one thing (nutriment), then his lust for it entirely fades away, when he is entirely liberated from it, and when he sees the complete ending of it, then O Monks, he is one who, after fully comprehending the goal, makes an end of suffering here and now. (AN 10, 27)
When the craving for nourishment, is finally uprooted, this brings the suffering of existence to an end. Not only the mind, but also the body has its untamed roots of hunger and craving, from the very beginning, to the very end of life.
Craving for something is the principal condition for intake or uptake, (upadaana), which means nutriment in its widest sense, and the needy body and the greedy mind may both be viewed as craving (tanhaa) what they hunger for and desire and want in the widest sense, which is often translated as volition, and which, in English, means wanting and desiring in both the positive and negative senses.
We are not consciously aware that such hidden needs and volitions are present—except for the obvious fact that, concerning bodily needs, there is a certain obvious, minimum amount of basic nourishment that requires fulfillment for man to continue to remain alive and survive in a healthy, functioning, ongoing state.
Concerning the mental needs of the mind, especially in early developmental stages, we are seldom aware of how the mind subversively works in its relentless and ceaseless hungering on non-conscious levels. The mind is a trickster, so we also have to learn its tricks.
We are not aware of all the things the craving mind needs and wants beyond the obvious grasping of the senses—reaching after the perceptible, desired six-sense-objects-of-contact, although we may also be vaguely aware of an sense of mental irritation and dissatisfaction, perpetually arising with an uneasy sense of gnawing awareness—because the mind still needs and wants something more than it already has—which it does not yet have and is, therefore, dissatisfied.
Nyanaponika Maha Thera. 1981. The Four Nutriments of Life. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
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