Physical Health in the Modern Sangha

What do modern monks do to avoid unhealthy foods and what do monks do for exercise?

Even in the time of the Buddha there must have been some sort of discernment to what should and should not be eaten. An example being the Buddha ate the spoiled food he was given before he passed away even though he knew it was unhealthy to do so out of compassion. In our modern times alms bowls must get some really very unhealthy food, how is this dealt with? I personally would never say anything negative about a gift and I am confident that a majority of monks would be very gracious and kind to anyone that decided to give them food. The question remains though, what does a monk do if he is given something he knows is unhealthy to eat? Like someone puts in candy, cake, cookies, etc… foods cooked with toxic oils… food that isn’t food (artificial, processed) …spoiled, rotted, poisonous.

As far as exercise what are some monks doing? What is acceptable? Are there monks doing yoga, weight lifting, body-weight training, walking distances? What are monks allowed to do when it comes to exercise?

I’m very curious, and I know there are a lot said in our teachings that could be pointed to that would suggest a monk shouldn’t care about such things for various reasons, but there are many passages as well that I think would support the practice of eating healthy and exercising .

The health of the monks of the Sangha I feel is an important issue. Obesity is becoming a global problem and the Sangha is struggling with it to some degree. The nutritional/health problems of the world are changing and the Sangha will need to make adjustments. What would those changes look like? Bringing benefital physical/nutritional health education for monks? How would that work? Better physical/nutritional education for the supporting lay community? What would that look like? I don’t know what needs to be done, but conversations about these things should at least be had.

Some articles that show the emerging issue…

Thailand’s Buddhist Monks Urged to Watch their Waistlines Amid Obesity Epidemic

Thailand’s Overweight Monks Are Put On A Diet

I’d really love to hear from people about this topic.

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Some of this has been discussed here recently:

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It isn’t a problem, for though Buddhist custom obliges us, out of compassion for the donor, to accept any allowable offering of food, it doesn’t oblige us to eat it.

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Bhante , if it is after noon hour meal time , would monks still able to accept the offering out of compassion ?

The 38th pācittiya rule states:

If a monk eats fresh or cooked food that he has stored, he commits an offense entailing confession.

And also contains the clause:

If he receives fresh or cooked food with the intention of eating it, he commits an offense of wrong conduct.

https://suttacentral.net/pli-tv-bu-vb-pc38/en/brahmali

Technically it wouldn’t be an offence to receive the food in the vikāla if one didn’t have the intention of storing it for one’s own consumption. However, in strict communities monks wouldn’t do even this much. Instead, if donors show up with food after midday, the receiving of it is left to anāgārikas or sāmaṇeras.

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Yes, yes, yes, and yes. The Buddha definitely did the latter. He walked all over the place, until the day he died, basically.

But as to what is acceptable, not all exercise is regarded to be appropriate in every community. A number of years ago the Thai sangha council published an official statement about the growing obesity problem. If I recall correctly, it said that weight training was inappropriate and that monks should do more walking meditation… I’m personally unconvinced walking back and forth a bit is going to make a lot of difference! But it’s better than nothing, that’s for sure.

I solved some back problems with bodyweight training, so such exercise can be about more than just weight management.I heard ajahn Sumedho used a rowing machine. I think such things should become more generally acceptable in the sangha.

Yup, including the reflection that in many places is traditionally done before each meal:

“Reflecting wisely, he uses almsfood neither for amusement nor for intoxication nor for the sake of physical beauty and attractiveness, but only for the endurance and continuance of this body, for ending discomfort, and for assisting the holy life, considering: ‘Thus I shall terminate old feelings without arousing new feelings and I shall be healthy and blameless and shall live in comfort." (Bodhi’s translation of MN2)

I think partly what needs to change is the general acceptance of obesity. Public perception of what is a healthy weight has shifted over time. Where I live it happens not irregularly that people say to skinny people that they should eat more. For some reason this is apparently seen as considerate. But if you’d tell people to lose weight, which is actually considered healthy by professionals, it’s considered insulting. That I feel is a large part of the problem; society’s norms. The sangha is just a reflection of that.

I always like to remember what the Buddha said:

A person who wears robes of rags,
lean, their limbs showing veins,
meditating alone in the forest,
that’s who I call a brahmin. (Dhp395)

By the way, ‘monks’ is generally understood to refer only to the community samaneras and bhikkhus, but there are also nuns.

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If shaming people for being overweight helped them to loose weight, then, believe me, there would be very few people overweight.

This thread seems to just be rehashing the previous thread.

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What evidence do you have that shame doesn’t work, and why should you be believed with what seems as a vague generalization?

A sense of shame is used in the suttas though

Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: (1) ‘We will possess the power of faith, a trainee’s power; (2) the power of moral shame, a trainee’s power; (3) the power of moral dread, a trainee’s power; (4) the power of energy, a trainee’s power; (5) the power of wisdom, a trainee’s power.’ Thus, bhikkhus, should you train yourselves.”

Are you implying monks shouldn’t feel shame at being overweight?

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Stigma and discrimination toward obese persons are pervasive and pose numerous consequences for their psychological and physical health. Despite decades of science documenting weight stigma, its public health implications are widely ignored. Instead, obese persons are blamed for their weight, with common perceptions that weight stigmatization is justifiable and may motivate individuals to adopt healthier behaviours. We examine evidence to address these assumptions and discuss their public health implications. On the basis of current findings, we propose that weight stigma is not a beneficial public health tool for reducing obesity. Rather, stigmatization of obese individuals threatens health, generates health disparities, and interferes with effective obesity intervention efforts. These findings highlight weight stigma as both a social justice issue and a priority for public health.

According to the above study and what I’ve personally seen when my monastic friends are fat shamed, fat shaming is harmful and doesn’t work.

The sense of moral shame that is talked about in the suttas is defined as

… the attitude of taking earnest care with regard to one’s actions and refraining from non-virtuous actions

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Thanks I’ll check it out.

Eating is an action though, and can be done unwholesomely/wholesomely and/or blamelessly.

In MN 3 the Buddha states that he’d rather monks go hungry for a day and night than being indulgant.

In AN 4.121

And what, mendicants, is the fear of shame? It’s when someone reflects: ‘If I were to do bad things by way of body, speech, and mind, wouldn’t others blame me for my conduct?’ Being afraid of shame, they give up bad conduct by way of body, speech, and mind, and develop good conduct by way of body, speech, and mind, keeping themselves pure. This is called the fear of shame.

Would “bad things” also encapsulate Greed, as in over eating by indulging in sensuality?

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Hi @Thito. According to that paper and others like it, fat shaming is counter productive and can be enormously harmful to those on the receiving end. This goes for lay people as well as monastics.

Earnest lay practitioners and monastics are in the process of purification and can be at any stage of the purification process. AN3.101 talks about the refining process for gold and compares it with the process that a serious practitioner undergoes.

“Gold has coarse corruptions: sand, soil, and gravel. A panner or their apprentice pours it into a pan, where they wash, rinse, and clean it. When that’s been eliminated, there are medium corruptions in the gold: fine grit and coarse sand.

In the same way, a mendicant who is committed to the higher mind has coarse corruptions: bad bodily, verbal, and mental conduct. A sincere, capable mendicant gives these up, gets rid of, eliminates, and obliterates them.

My point is that people arrive at a monastery in a relatively coarse state. :slight_smile: The monastery is a pressure cooker environment where distractions are minimised. No sex at all, no alcohol, drugs, movies, clubs, walks on the beach with the dog etc. Food is one of the few remaining pleasures until (hopefully) meditation kicks in. The way I see it is that eating more than you need to keep the body going is a protection in the same way as keeping busy, sleeping more than the body needs, gossiping with your fellow monastics and all the other strategies that titrate the intensity of dukkha. Over time and as the “gold” becomes more purified and malleable, the avoidance strategies can be let go of incrementally without causing mental health problems.

I don’t think we can judge anybody for coping as best they can. I trust that if someone can persevere with the refining process they will come to a time when

… that mind is stilled internally; it settles, unifies, and becomes immersed in samādhi. That immersion is peaceful and sublime and tranquil and unified, not held in place by forceful suppression.

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Your explanation is well intended, agreeable and commendable, but some members of this forum are against secularization of the dhamma and prefer to stick to Buddhist sources (I do appreciate the study though and will investigate it further as it doesn’t explicitly state confidence interval).

Returning to the suttas, I just found this rendition by Ven. Thanissaro of MN 39 which groups shame and conduct with moderation in eating.

Moderation in Eating

“And what more is to be done? ‘We will have a sense of moderation in eating. Considering it appropriately, we will take food not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on bulk, nor for beautification, but simply for the survival & continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the holy life, thinking, “I will destroy old feelings (of hunger) & not create new feelings (from overeating). Thus I will maintain myself, be blameless, & live in comfort”’: That’s how you should train yourselves. Now the thought may occur to you, ‘We are endowed with shame & compunction. Our bodily conduct is pure. Our verbal conduct… our mental conduct is pure. Our livelihood is pure. We guard the doors to our sense faculties. We have a sense of moderation in eating. That much is enough, that much means we’re done, so that the goal of our contemplative state has been reached. There’s nothing further to be done,’ and you may rest content with just that. So I tell you, monks. I exhort you, monks. Don’t let those of you who seek the contemplative state fall away from the goal of the contemplative state when there is more to be done.

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But the manner in which a monk in training is to be admonished with a view to establishing in him a sense of shame and an uprightness in conduct is quite different from the fat-shaming sort. See, for example, the teachings on the subject of monastic admonition in AN5.167, MN15 and MN65.

What stands out in these suttas is the reflectiveness and caution that one is advised to exercise before presuming to reprove a fellow brahmacarī at all. This is in sharp contrast with the kind of speech-acts that typically distinguish what is called “fat-shaming”, which are generally wanton, reckless and cruel.

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Thank you for sharing.
This certainly settles a bit of my concern. It must be very difficult for some monks to set aside food given to them, knowing that it may have been a gift from a person where it was all that individual had to offer.

@Sunyo Can you share any information you have on where monastics are currently doing these types of exercises? I have seen some of this information regarding the weight training and reluctantly agree with the conclusions being reached. Yoga and body weight training do see more appropriate because it is more focused on health specifically. These practice also focus hard on actual control of the body and breathing as well. I think if there were to be wide acceptance of physical fitness within the Sangha these to would be some of the best for recommendation.
I try to remember to use this reflection on eating before each meal. It is also what has perhaps been what as lead to some of my concern about the maintenance of the body. I would not feel blameless if I didn’t take care of my body and later became a burden on my community because I didn’t take care of my physical health and the maintenance of the body.

Anyone shaming someone for their weight is behaving in a poor manner, or improperly conveying their love and kindness. If someone loves who they are and do not desire to change certain aspects of themselves that is their decision. That decision does not give others the right to hurt their feelings. I know this conversation even could feel hurtful to some, but that is not the intention or the goal of the conversation. As a community it is important to look at physical health and give each other the opportunity to share concerns and share thoughts and solutions, it’s all about making things as good as we can for each other.
(Sorry I wasn’t aware of the other post before posting this one. It was called “Why are monks that eat only one meal a day overweight?” This topic is supposed to be more of what a monk can do about unhealthy food that is offered to them and what kind of exercises are allowed within the Sangha. I agree with you that it’s getting off topic in places.)

A shame in our thoughts and behaviors is needed, but it is not our place to place shame on others. Thito I think the concern you have is that for some it has become acceptable (and taught by some) to neglect personal responsibility when it comes to maintaining our physical health. They say that in doing so one should love oneself as they are, that there is no reason to change who you are. There is compassion in that thinking, but I do think it is misguided. I see your side.

I would love to hear more about what monks are actually currently doing and are allowed to do for physical exercise!

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I’m wondering what kind of equipment do you use for back exercises venerable?

I mean, I myself do bodyweight training / basic calisthenics. And if I try to exercise the front part of my body (chest, legs, abs), it is quite easy as there are lots of movements that are possible to be done without any equipment. But shoulder and back, especially to train the rotator cuff, these one are quite challenging without equipment. Which in reality shoulder and back exercises are what most people whom sit endlessly throughout the day need.

I started bodyweight training also due to shoulder and back issues, plus I don’t want to spend money for gym membership :laughing:, and to be able to do the appropriate exercises I bought a cheap gymnastic ring which is a gem for me. I saw someone using two bed sheets and a door as a substitute for gymnastic ring though, that’s next level saving. I think this is perhaps one of the reason why ajahn Sumedo use rowing machine? Besides that I think yoga mat is a must for floor exercises.

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Not really. The donors give for the sake of merit and the merit is generated by the mental factor of freedom-from-greed (alobha-cetasika) at the time they make their offering. The merit of the gift isn’t increased by our eating the food, nor diminished by our not eating it.

The contrary opinion, i.e., that the merit of a gift increases with utility, was debated at the Third Council and rejected by the Theravada.

Paribhogamayapuññakathā

Moreover, on most days in most places the almsfood offered will far exceed what the community can eat, and so the donors know perfectly well that the chances of their particular offering getting eaten by a monk aren’t that great. For example, on a typical day there will be about thirty handfuls of sticky rice in my almsbowl, of which I’m likely to eat no more than two or three. As for the rest of it, some will go to two monks who are too old and frail to walk for alms, some to the monastery’s cats and dogs, and some to any villagers who come to cut the grass or do other maintenance work in the monastery.

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That’s not what I was trying to say, though. Sorry if that was unclear. I’m saying if there is general acceptance of being overweight, not seeing it as a problem, then this won’t be any different in individuals in the sanghas. They will generally be more likely to accept their own overweight as well.

That’s what I think myself. But perhaps I’m biased. Although I have a healthy BMI of 20, the last year alone I have been called skinny about 5 times, including by monks. This is in Australia, where people are generally overweight. In all my years in the Netherlands this never happened even once. Personal story to help illustrate my point. I don’t want to shame anyone. Culture here is definately different and I feel it could play a part. (Not that there is a particularly big problem in this monastery, just in general.) I don’t know what it’s like in Asia, though.

I’m no doctor of course so this is not any advice on how to deal with your shoulders or back, but I got a set of gymnastic rings outside my hut. Was given them by my uncle who got them from a gym that was getting broken down. I know some monks here have similar things. One lay person living permanently in the monastery has also hung a simple metal rod somewhere.

Apart from that I walk every day on the hills, at least 30 minutes to get my lunch, but often more. And I do yoga as well.

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Unless you are born ‘big boned’ or a little plump solely due to genetics, most people who are overweight or obese know they need to manage/lose the extra weight, which is very hard to do with modern diets. There is excess sugar, fat or salt in so much processed food, even a small amount can reek havoc on the scale. Losing weight is VERY hard unless you devote a lot of mental and physical effort into a (calories in) < (calories out) lifestyle, something even lay people find hard to achieve. I can’t speak for the challenges faced by monastics trying to lose weight, but I reckon they are very aware of the health issues that come about from carrying all those extra pounds. While its not universal, most people in their 20-30s are able to keep the weight off whatever they eat, but just wait till you hit middle age :joy:.

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