Mindful Consumption and The Four Kinds of Nutriments

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The Buddha advised us to identify the kinds of nutriments that have been feeding our pain and then simply to stop ingesting them.  The Buddha is a physician.  That is why he invited us to bring our suffering to him.  We are also physicians.  We must be determined to transform our difficulties, to confirm that well-being is possible.  (From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, by Thich Nhat Hahn)


Dear Still Water Friends,

Recently, I participated in the Mindfulness As Medicine – Healing From Trauma, Loss & Illness retreat at the Omega Institute led by Sr. Dang Nghiem, along with five other monastics from Plum Village’s U.S. monasteries. The inspiring “Sister D” is a Vietnam War orphan who came to America, studied medicine and swapped her stethoscope for the robes of a Buddhist nun after suffering a tragic personal loss. The part of the retreat that was most transformative for me was our discussion of how and what we consume to avoiding suffering.  This topic is personally poignant because parental consumption of alcohol and drugs have caused disabilities and many difficulties for someone I love.

In practicing the Fifth Mindfulness training, we are asked to look deeply into how we consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments: edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness.  During Dharma discussion of this training at my retreat, a participant asked for a fuller explanation of the Four Nutriments.  The monastics’ somewhat truncated explanation moved me to learn more about this aspect of the training. This led to my discovery of the Putamansa Sutra, or The Discourse on the Son’s Flesh, in which the Buddha goes deeply into the four kinds of nutriment.  The essence of this teaching is that everything exists through nutriment:  joy, peace, happiness, liberation, depression, anger, jealousy, etc.  These mental formations manifest because they have been fed in a particular way.

The Buddha used very graphic images in the Putamansa Sutra to deliver this teaching.  To explain how consumption of edible foods affects wellbeing, the Buddha gives the image of a family, a married couple and infant son, lost and without provisions in a remote desert.  Desperate, the couple the couple realizes that the only way anyone will survive is if they kill their only son and eat his flesh.  And they do this with much sorrow and tears.  Thus, the Buddha invites us to look at edible foods as if we are eating the flesh of our only child.  When we look into the nature of our edible foods we should consider all the aspects of joy and suffering connected to them.

The nutriments of sense impressions are things we perceive with our eyes, ears, noses, taste buds, and the touch of our bodies.  In the Putamansa Sutra, the Buddha asks us to imagine a cow with no protective skin being bitten by blood-sucking maggots.  The Buddha invites us to ponder on our relations with sense impressions as if we lack a protective barrier from harmful sensations.

The nutriment of volition is the motivational energy that points us in a certain direction.  To look deeply into the nutriment of volition is to ask, “What is it I most want?  What am I looking for?”  The Buddha in the Putamansa Sutra uses the image of a pit of glowing charcoal embers in a village.  Although there is no fire, a villager realizes that all it takes is the slightest breath for the embers to spring flames into being and he moves to another village.  Thus, we are asked to consider carefully the consequences of our intentions.

Finally, the nutriment of consciousness comes from the seeds, bija, of the 51 categories of mental formation in Buddhist psychology, which are classified as wholesome, unwholesome and neutral.  Each of these seeds exists in our consciousness and has been watered in particular ways either through experiences we have had or via ideas that we feed ourselves.  In the Putamansa Sutra, the Buddha uses the image of a criminal who is being punished by being pierced by 300 swords. The Buddha invites us to become skillful and avoid the stabs we receive when we nourish the unwholesome seeds.

This Thursday Evening, after our meditation period, we will recite the Fifth Mindfulness Training and look deeply into our consumption of the Four Nutriments.  Are we aware of the joy and suffering caused by what we consume?  And if so, does our practice address the transformation of our consumption patterns?

You are invited to be with us,

Books by Sister Dang Nghiem include Mindfulness As Medicine: A Story Of Healing Body And Spirit, and Healing: A Woman’s Journey From Doctor To Nun.

The text of “The Sutra On The Four Kinds Of Nutriments” is below.


Andy Katz

The Sutra On The Four Kinds Of Nutriments

This is what I heard one time when the Buddha was in Anathapindika’s monastery in the Jeta Grove, near the town of Sravasti. That day, the Buddha told the monks: “There are four kinds of nutriments which enable living beings to grow and maintain life. What are these four nutriments? The first is edible food, the second is the food of sense impressions, the third is the food of volition, and the fourth is the food of consciousness.”

“Bhikkhus, how should a practitioner regard edible food? Imagine a young couple with a baby boy whom they look after and raise with all their love. One day they decide to bring their son to another country to make their living. They have to go through the difficulties and dangers of a desert. During the journey, they run out of provisions and fall extremely hungry. There is no way out for them and they discuss the following plan: ‘We only have one son whom we love with all our heart. If we eat his flesh, we shall survive and manage to overcome this dangerous situation. If we do not eat his flesh, all three of us will die.’ After this discussion, they kill their son. Shedding tears of pain and gritting their teeth, they eat the flesh of their son, just so as to be able to live and come out of the desert.

The Buddha asked: “Do you think that couple ate their son’s flesh because they wanted to enjoy its taste and because they wanted their bodies to have the nutriment that would make them more beautiful?”

The monks replied: “No, Venerable Lord.”

The Buddha asked: “Were the couple forced to eat their son’s flesh in order to survive and escape from the dangers of the desert?”

The monks replied: “Yes, Venerable Lord.”

The Buddha taught: “Monks, every time we ingest edible food, we should train ourselves to look at it as our son’s flesh. If we meditate on it in this way, we shall have clear insight and understanding which puts an end to misperceptions about edible food, and our attachment to sensual pleasures will dissolve. Once the attachment to sensual pleasures is transformed, there are no longer any internal formations concerning the five objects of sensual pleasure in the noble disciple who applies himself to the training and the practice. When the internal formations still bind us, we have to keep returning to this world.

“How should the practitioner meditate on the food of sense impressions? Imagine a cow which has lost its skin. Wherever it goes, the insects and maggots that live in the earth, in the dust, and on the vegetation attach themselves to the cow and suck its blood. If the cow lies on the earth, the maggots in the earth will attach themselves to it and feed off of it. Whether lying down or standing up, the cow will be irritated and suffer pain. When you ingest the food of sense impressions, you should practice to see it in this light. You will have insight and understanding which puts an end to misperceptions concerning the food of sense impressions. When you have this insight, you will no longer be attached to the three kinds of feeling. When he or she is no longer attached to the three kinds of feeling, the noble disciple does not need to strive anymore because whatever needs to be done has already been done.

“How should the practitioner meditate on the food of volition? Imagine there is a village or a large town situated near a pit of burning charcoal. There are only the smokeless, glowing embers left. Now there is an intelligent man with enough wisdom who does not want to suffer and only wants happiness and peace. He does not want to die; he only wants to live. He thinks: “Over there, the heat is very great. Although there is no smoke and there are no flames, still, if I have to go into that pit, there is no doubt that I shall die.” Knowing this, he is determined to leave that large town or that village and go somewhere else. The practitioner should meditate like this on the food of volition. Meditating like this, he will have insight and understanding which puts an end to misperceptions about the food of volition. When he arrives at that understanding, the three kinds of craving will be ended. When these three cravings are ended, the noble disciple who trains and practices will have no more work to do, because whatever needs to be done has already been done.

“How should the practitioner meditate on the food of consciousness? Imagine that the soldiers of the king have arrested a criminal. They bind him and bring him to the king. Because he has committed theft, he is punished by people piercing his body with three hundred knives. He is assailed by fear and pain all day and all night. The practitioner should regard the food of consciousness in this light. If he does, he will have insight and understanding which puts an end to misperceptions concerning the food of consciousness. When he has this understanding regarding the food of consciousness, the noble disciple who trains and practices will not need to strive anymore because whatever needs to be done has been done.”

When the Buddha had spoken, the monks were very happy to put the teachings into practice.

(Samyukta Agama, Sutra 373, translation appears in Chanting from the Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Monastics of Plum Village.)