There’s a lot you don’t know about Buddha. To start with, Buddha was thin. The pudgy statues you see smiling at you at Chinese restaurants and yoga studios aren’t actually Buddha—or not the Buddha anyway, not the one who lived in ancient India and meditated a lot and ultimately began teaching what we now call Buddhism. That chubby guy is a fabled monk who wandered the Chinese countryside at least a thousand years later, performing minor magic and predicting the future. Over the years he became a folk hero and a symbol of happiness and good fortune. He’s especially popular in Japan these days, where they call him Hotei (pronounced hoe-tay) and see him as a jolly old man—a little like Santa Claus, but handing out luck instead of toys.
Hotei muddied the waters a bit by composing a poem on his deathbed suggesting he might have been the reincarnation of some other Buddha. But he was certainly not the original Buddha. Statues and paintings of the real Buddha typically show him as lean and trim—even in his younger years as a pampered prince. (More on that in a minute.) By all accounts he was a pretty good-looking guy. Buddha was many things over the course of his life, but he was never fat.
In fact, you’ll sometimes see images of the Buddha looking downright skeletal. Those depict the years when Buddha was on a diet. That’s right—Buddha tried dieting, too. And it worked—sort of. They say he lost so much weight that his ribs “jutted out as gaunt as the crazy rafters of an old roofless barn”1 and if you touched his stomach you could feel his spine. In other words, he got thin thin.
Buddha wasn’t dieting to look good in a swimsuit. He wasn’t even technically the Buddha yet. He was just a normal guy a little confused about life. Back then, there was already a long tradition in India of trying to liberate the mind through conquering the body. Modern yoga has its roots in these ascetic practices, which involved not just stretching your body into proscribed poses and postures, but sleeping on a bed of nails, beating yourself with branches, holding your breath for minutes on end, and fasting for days, weeks, even months at a time. That’s what Buddha was trying.
For Buddha, this got pretty dire, and he nearly fasted himself to death in his quest. When he realized this extreme form of fasting wasn’t getting him any closer to enlightenment, he took a softer approach. 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.”
With the benefit of data and modern science, we now know more specifically what he meant by improper time. Buddha’s Diet looks at Buddha’s middle way as it applies to eating. It isn’t complicated or expensive. You don’t need to join a club or buy special meals or juices. There aren’t obscure ingredients to eat every day or to banish from your kitchen altogether. You just need to follow a few guidelines that Buddha worked out. These will help you lose weight and feel better and eventually stop thinking about food much at all.