One consistent challenge for me as a monastic of the Chinese tradition has been to adjust my eating habits. I am not a gourmand, but like many I do make conscious choices about what I eat and drink. For example, I like noodles and bread more than rice, and I prefer red beans to mung beans, and I don’t eat bananas. In a Chinese monastery, mealtimes are formally framed as receiving food offerings. This gives us a very limited range of choices to pick and choose what we really want. Talking and eye contact is not allowed during mealtimes; we mindfully eat what we are given and have permission to return food only if it’s too much, although we can ask for more if we don’t have enough. On top of that, we only have milk powder, brown sugar, and saltine crackers for snacks.
After six months, I found that almost all of us in our class were sharing what we asked our families and friends to bring when they came to visit us on certain days of the month. These periods became our “happy hour.”
One day, when some of us were working in the kitchen helping to organize the mooncakes offered to our monastery during the Mid-Autumn Festival, I found out that all of them were filled with mung bean stuffing. I was rather disappointed and complained about how not a single mooncake had red beans. Some of us were talking about buying some red bean mooncakes when we went out next time. Our supervisor overheard our conversation and told us to sit down. “Do you know what bhikkhu and bhikkhuni means?” she asked, referring to the traditional titles for male and female renunciants. We fell silent.
“It means beggar,” came the pointed answer. “We eat what we are offered. Through this offering, people cultivate merit and we practice letting go of the concepts of ‘like’ and ‘dislike.’”
That night, when I wrote my daily reflection, I pointed out that I know I have preferences, but I never realized that I was subconsciously craving for them. “Why does our approach to eating, which is meant to help us let go of our attachments, ironically enhance our craving for what we like?” I wondered. Based on this observation, I came up with an idea and told our supervisor that whenever we craved chocolates, she should give us so many chocolates to eat that we felt disgusted and never looked at them again. She gave me a strange look, but I really thought that it might work. Just like what happens in relationships and marriages, “familiarity breeds contempt.” People yearn to be together when they are distant, but “divorce” when they invade each other’s personal interior space.
I’ve never had a chance to test this idea, simply because none of us ever had the opportunity to have too much of anything for very long. The best I could do was to watch myself, and to not chase after the feeling of desire or craving when encountering something I felt biased toward or preferred.
Years ago, our congregants somehow found out that I like blueberry bagels. Suddenly, all kinds of blueberry bagels from famous bakeries in New York City kept arriving at our center. For a whole month, breakfast was just a pile of bagels every week. Eventually, our former abbot, Ven. Guo Xing, asked why we had so many bagels. Everyone looked at me. I felt guilty and lowered my head.
He then told us a story about Shifu Ven. Sheng Yen. Someone offered a bag of cherries to Shifu. He tried one and praised them: “Delicious!” The next day, a big case of cherries was delivered to the temple by the same person. Shifu then told that person, “I only said it was delicious, but I did not say I like it.” Our abbot explained that what Shifu meant was that he clearly perceived the good taste of the cherry, but he did not cling to the taste and desire it further.
I found out that to neutralize my preferences or cravings was not to suppress them. Nor was it to deny their reality. The fifth and sixth chapters of the Surangama Sutra, introduce a total of 25 practices on six objects, six organs or faculties, six states of mind, and seven great elements, to achieve enlightenment. For the practices related to eating, one can contemplate the true nature of the tastes (object) and where they arise from, or contemplate the essence of the tongue (organ) and meditate on the true ability of the tongue to taste. Eventually, one can find out that when the mind stops discriminating and drawing up conceptual likes and dislikes, the true taste is “no taste,” and that’s the true ability of the tongue. We find ourselves not generating likes or dislikes to any taste, while clearly knowing what it is.
I knew that this is my long-term ultimate goal. The most important thing was to stop the bagel offerings first. So I went to tell people: “All the bagels taste equally delicious, so I don’t prefer any kind now.” Soon, there were two-dozen bagels with different flavors being offered to our temple. I then realized that copying the wisdom of others wouldn’t make me a wiser person.
I then told people that the doctors were warning me to control my carbohydrate intake.
Finally, the bagel offerings ended.