Monday, 25 July 2016

An American Monk in Burma: "I Once Ate Organic, was a Vegetarian, followed Ayurvedic Principles...now, 'What Comes Into the Bowl!"


Bhikkhu Obhasa is an American monk living in Myanmar. The above photo shows the view from his secluded kuti from Kalaw, his meditation "cushion" being a straw hand-made Shan seat. He shares his thoughts with his new dietary restrictions:

"One of the biggest sacrifices of ordaining was putting my dietary health options into the hands of a culture with very little understanding of healthy nutrition. I ate organic, was a vegetarian, followed Ayurvedic principles for my body constitutional type, etc. I let go of that to live in a country that does copious pesticide and herbicide spraying, loves dishes swimming in low quality oils, loves sweets and pre-packaged food with artificial ingredients, etc. They don't seem to take care of their own nutritional health nor do they seem to have much nutritional education. There seemed no way they'd be able to take care of mine.

Still being a relatively new monk having just entered my second rains retreat, it has slowly dawned on me just how much stress I had put the mind/body under in this decision to move across the world to a new culture and life as a monk. In that stress, I noticed the mind seeking comfort by trying to control food, which inadvertently often caused more stress. In the mental health field of studies in America the powers-that-be have decreed obsession over such dietary concerns an actual mental disorder. My own observations of mind was seeing the same thing. Agitation and worry over diet and strict adherences to my dietary beliefs and choices only lead to more agitation. Who knows? I wouldn't doubt if that mental stess is actually as bad as or worse for my physical health than the food I'm fussing over. One thing I've done is re-examine some of my food beliefs and found some of them to actually not be true. Another is to loosen up on being a vegetarian, occasionally eating meat. In doing so, I have seen that there was attachment and defilement in both habits. Since then I have let go of some of the control I thought I needed to exert and life has become easier and I grow closer to exemplifying 'paccuppannena yapenti', being content with what is. In this case, what comes into the bowl.

Once the mind lightened up a bit, I actually noticed some of the positives of alms food in Myanmar. In most places devotees still offer fresh home cooked food with a fair variety of rice, veggies, meat dishes, salads, and other proteins. Within what's offered is usually a fairly balanced meal of fresh good. I dare say that what's offered overall is at least as, if not more, healthy than how most people eat back home. It's also pretty easy to be vegetarian here as protein via beans, peanuts, and tofu is commonly offered, and even more is regularly available if one eats eggs. Myanmar grows ample fresh fruit although they seldom offer it as they don't seem to eat too much themselves. It does though from time to time make it into the alms bowl. I occassionally praise the healthiness of certain offerings when appropriate, and often several families catch on to this appreciation and offer fruits, fresh cooked veggies, salads, and other healthier dishes.

Another positive aspect of Myanmar alms food is the sheer abundance given in many places and people seem to be extra generous towards foreign monks. This means I can be selective with my diet, choosing a good balance and allowing me to avoid the unhealthier options. In a pinch, I can always just eat more rice like the locals do which is always plentiful. And I can certainly forego the prepackaged snacks, deep fried treats, and the abundant artificial drinks and sweets. That's just lobha.

Overall, so far I feel pretty healthy. As my attitude has lightened up, the mind has loosened up and let go of some attachments. The wisdom that has arisen seems to find a way to maintain dietary health within what is given. So not only does the food situation seem healthier than it did upon first impression, the mind has become healthier too."