The New York Times recently reported that those who eat their biggest meal in the early hours have better success losing weight. Buried in the article was a comment which would catch the attention of anyone who has had close contact with Theravadin monastics, or, like me, has been one:
The lowest B.M.I.s were recorded in the fraction of people—about 8 percent of the total sample—who finished lunch by early afternoon and did not eat again until the next morning, fasting for 18 to 19 hours.
This is a similar eating practice followed by Theravadin monastics—bhikkhus and bhikkhunis—who follow the dietary rules of the Vinaya, the monastic code believed to have been written by the Buddha himself. According to the Vinaya, monastics can eat food only between dawn and noon.
Although this diet was intended to meet the specific needs of the Buddhist community in 5th-century India, some lay people have chosen to take on a version of the practice. There’s even a book advocating “the Buddha’s diet.”
The original logic of the monastic eating practice aimed to avoid causing aggravation to both monastics and laypeople, as explained in the Latukikopama Sutta (MN 66). The diet is neither intended as a health regimen, nor explicitly, as some have claimed, as an expression of a “middle way” between indulgence and asceticism. While it’s true that Buddhist monastic life was generally designed to be such a middle way, originally the Buddha allowed his monastics to go on alms round whenever they pleased. The Latukikopama Sutta explains that the Buddha forbade monastics from going on alms rounds after noon to avoid dangers that they might meet later in the day—stumbling into natural dangers in the dark, being propositioned for a tryst in the twilight hours, random hooligans—and to prevent inconveniencing or frightening lay people.
Considering that weight loss is only a significant issue in societies of satiety, the following of the bhikkhu diet as a health regimen is almost certainly an innovation of modern Western Buddhism. Some Theravadin lay people do follow the bhikkhu diet for a day every quarter moon as part of uposatha practice, where some monastic rules are followed “for the sake of cleansing the defilements of the mind” and making good karma, but not to slim their waistlines.
Since I’m an ex-monastic, you might think that I am against the use of the bhikkhu diet as a mere dieting tool—but you’d be wrong. I have used it that way myself from time to time, and recently, several weeks before I read the Times article, I had decided to take it on indefinitely.
The reason was simple: approaching 41 years of age, I found myself overweight and feeling the stressful, impermanent, and uncontrollable nature of my body. I needed to do something.
When I was a monk, the dietary rule turned out to be a profound practice for me. Learning how to tolerate hunger for hours a day became training for tolerating difficult emotions and physical pain. Restricting eating to the morning acts on your desire like focusing a camera lens: the way that the mind relates to the craving for pleasure and safety becomes clearer and easier to witness.
To use a metaphor of Ajahn Chah, the great Thai Forest teacher, the eating rule is like a Thai lizard hunter. He finds the mound where the lizard lives and closes off all the holes but one, then he waits, watching that one hole. Sooner or later the lizard comes out where he can catch it. In the same way, when you stop foraging for food whenever you want and limit yourself to the morning only, you can see your minds behavior around food more clearly.
As a layperson, following the bhikkhu diet is of course much more difficult. As a monk, I did not have to cook dinner for others while I myself was not eating or resist the urge to wake up my brain with a meal when I had to stay up late at night working. It was initially difficult as a layperson to adjust to the need to schedule a reasonable amount of healthy food before the noon cutoff. It was also hard to acclimatize myself to the season of hunger that began sometime in the late afternoon and continued until nighttime. After a week or two, however, the diet was feeling energizing. I was losing weight. There was an ironic, one might even say Epicurean, enjoyment in being able to eat freely in the morning, and also in not having to think about food after noon.
A sense of excitement began to grow about the diet. After feeling a little tired in the first week, I did as the monastics do: I began taking tonics in the late afternoon and evening (sugar, honey, and medicine are allowed according to all the different lineages). I would have tea and honey or a particular scandalous treat that is allowed for monastics courtesy of a loophole: dark chocolate. Due to the ingredients of pure dark chocolate being cocoa (a medicine) and sugar, monks in the Thai Forest tradition munch on the little dark squares at tea time. This might make us on the diet seem like dandies to you, but believe me—when dark chocolate is the only food stuff you are allowed, its flavor begins to turn ascetic pretty quickly.
That adjustment made, I began to settle into the diet comfortably, at least for the most part. I slipped occasionally due to a birthday party dinner or needing to work late at night. I decided to accept that there might be a “cheat day” once a week, a practice actually recommended in The Buddha’s Diet as good for your metabolism.
I also began to feel the mood that comes from settling into any difficult discipline, a mixture of increased self-confidence, self-respect, and a decrease in the kind of anxiety that results from not feeling able to rely on oneself. Other benefits included increased mental clarity and lightness in the latter half of the day, and better sleep at night.
Clark Strand, another ex-monk who tried the bhikkhu diet and wrote about it in Tricycle, fell off the wagon after a few months and gave it up. The friend whose bhikkhu practice inspired Strand to stop eating after noon also happens to be my former abbot, Thanissaro Bhikkhu. After Strand began eating after noon again, Ajahn Thanissaro reportedly told Strand, “It’s supposed to be part of a whole lifestyle. You take the bhikkhu out of the bhikkhu diet and all you’ve got is this guy who won’t eat anything after twelve noon because it keeps his weight down. Hard to have much commitment to that!”
Time will tell how I fare, but I’m inclined to think that Ajahn Thanissaro was right. Neither the Times nor even a slim waistline is enough inspiration to keep on the bhikkhu diet. So although one might take up the bhikkhu diet out of a desire for health, longevity in its embrace will require seeing its personal spiritual benefits (and I think it’s clear that it would not be beneficial for everyone). It will also require having a little of the bhikkhu or bhikkhuni in you. But then isn’t that supposed to be true of every follower of the Buddha?
[This article was first published in 2017.]