People have been telling each other what to eat for thousands of years. Most of the major religions around the world include some sort of dietary restrictions. Islam prohibits pork. Orthodox Jews refrain from mixing milk and meat. Catholics avoid certain foods during Lent. Some devout Hindus don’t just eschew eating animals, but also shy away from certain root vegetables because harvesting them kills the plant.
Back when Buddha laid down rules for his followers, he didn’t follow this pattern. In the West we often assume that Buddhists are vegetarians – and certainly some of them are – but that’s not generally the case. Nothing in the Buddhist scriptures prohibits eating meat, and there are many ancient stories of the Buddha and his first disciples eating all kinds of food. Some people are surprised to learn that even His Holiness the Dalai Lama eats meat – and grew up eating almost nothing else, since very few plants grow well in the harsh altitudes of Tibet. To this day in most of Asia, Buddhist vegetarians are the exception, not the rule.
In fact, although he gave incredibly detailed instructions on things like where his monks could sleep and what they could wear, the Buddha said very little about what his followers could or couldn’t eat. On the contrary, tradition stated that monks should eat literally whatever was offered to them. In much of Southeast Asia, saffron-robed monks can still be seen making their alms rounds every morning, and then eating whatever their generous neighbors put in their begging bowls.
The one strict gastronomic rule the Buddha prescribed was that monks should avoid what he called “untimely eating.” Specifically, they should eat only between dawn and noon. Afternoon and evening eating was strictly prohibited. The Buddha didn’t care too much what monks ate, but he cared a lot when they ate it.
This may sound like an odd and nitpicky restriction, but the Buddha clearly meant it seriously. When he later boiled down the 227 rules he had made for monks into a sort of top-ten list for novices in training, the first few were the ones you might expect – rules like no killing and no stealing. But his funny dietary restriction also made the cut. When he whittled them down to eight rules that lay people could observe if they wanted to get more serious about Buddhism, he included that they “should not eat at night or at an improper time.”
The Buddha gave a few different explanations for this seeming obsession with meal schedules. But one of his clearest was this:
Monks, I do not eat in the evening. Because I avoid eating in the evening, I am in good health, light, energetic and live comfortably. You, too, monks, avoid eating in the evening, and you will have good health.
Fast forward to 2014, when Dr. Satchidananda Panda and his team of researchers at the prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in California published a fascinating study on obesity in mice. They took one group of mice and instead of their normal chow, they offered them a diet of high-fat, high-calorie foods, and let them eat as much as they wanted. The results would surprise no one: The mice got fat.
Then they took another group of mice and offered them exactly the same seemingly unhealthy diet, but this time they only let the mice eat for nine to twelve hours each day. During the rest of the day and at night, the mice got only water. In other words, these mice had the same all-you-can-eat buffet of tasty, fattening treats for most of their waking hours. The one rule was that they could only stuff themselves during some of their waking hours.
… read on in Buddha’s Diet.