Why is it so important for the Forest Tradition to eat from the bowl?

I have recently read Ajahn Chah’s biography Stillness flowing, and one of the things that I noticed was the importance he (and the forest tradition) gave to eating everything from the alms bowl. There is a funny episode when Ajahn Chah is invited to have lunch with the king, and another monk asks him whether he is not embarassed to eat in a bowl in front of the king - to which Ajahn Chah replies ‘aren’t you embarassed to eat in a plate in front of the Buddha?’. :smiley:
Anyway, why was this external symbol so important according to you? (like many other external symbols in that tradition). Aren’t these external things a bit like rites and rituals?
Also, in view of a recent discussion on the benefits for health intermittent fasting here: here:Daily Fasting Improves Health and Survival, Independent of Diet Composition and Calories
I thought it would be interestingo to raise the question of food combining, since according to many (you can Google e.g. Shelton or ‘food combining’) eating all sorts of foods together in one go is not very healthy. I like for example this analogy by Didier Sornette:

Think of our digestive system as a complex chemical plant. Let me
dare the following analogy: the way we mix foods is akin to requiring that a chemical
oil refinery should be able to process in the same unit both heavy viscous tar oil with light crude oil
together with purifying water for drinking and transforming coal into benzine! For an industrial unit,
this is clearly impossible. But this is the kind of task that we require our body routinely to perform.
Being highly adaptive, our digestive system does much better than any oil refinery and complies with
our erratic and irrational or irresponsible unconscious behaviors, but at the cost of tapping our energy
and of suboptimal absorption of the vital elements.


Well practically you can’t carry around a plate when going on alms rounds.
External symbols are important to start the spiritual journey (IMO), as unenlightened beings we are governed by conventions. Once one achieves full enlightenment he or she can eat off a piece of paper if there is nothing else around to eat it with. They will not be fazed by what they eat with. They will also not change from bowl to a plate or vice versa unless it’s necessary.


Alms bowl food is taken as given.
Plate food is taken as chosen.

From DN33, all beings are sustained by food, so eating from the bowl is an everyday demonstration and practice of extinguishment by not grasping.

For the nutrionists who worry, it can be observed that the bowl is large and eaten a mouthful at a time. Therefore the fingers can mix or select as taste guides.


Thanks for the DN reference. :grinning:
Concerning food combining the theory is that you shoud only eat certain foods in the same meal. For example having starches and proteins in the same meal is not advised. Or having fruit in the same meal as any other food. So if you are offered different types of food and you eat it all in one meal, you cannot combine it following these selection rules.
Btw even if you don’t have the rule of eating one meal only, or eating from the bowl, it is still very hard to follow the food combing rules consistently. I usually can’t myself, but I tend to feel lighter when I can.

I stack my food in my stomach mindfully, eating the food in the order that suits my body. For example, I eat some carbs first to start up digestion. Then I eat protein mixed with remaining carbs. Then I eat the fruit last so it is not consumed quickly.

I also eat slowly enough to annoy others with me. So perhaps that is “multiple meals” :laughing:


I think it’s possible to eat from metal plate etc. according to the vinaya. You could argue, that it’s not even necessary to wear a robe! Unenlightened people need symbols and role-models to navigate meanings and appropriate behaviours in society. The king expects the ‘monk’ to wear a ‘robe’ and eat from the ‘bowl’.


Ok thanks, good points, but from the book Stillness flowing I gathered that eating from the bowl is important for the monks themselves, as part of their practice, and not just to provide symbols to the lay people.


So what did it say the importance was, for monks?

It said it was important to stick to this practice for e.g. Ajahn Chah. I don’t remember if it said why, I don’t think so. The book is available online. Besides, this is precisely the question I am asking in this post.


My understanding of having one bowl and only three robes and wash cloth was important for Ajahn Chah, and the Forest monk tradition, because it challenges your defilements so you can address them. Eating from one bowl is kind of ridiculous, it leads to “Why?”

This “Why?” is important for understanding conditioning according to his biography “Stillness Flowing”. The theme of Ajahn Chah finding things to be “good enough” after suffering for a while shows up repeatedly. His threadbare robes and broken bowl are some examples. A forest monk may ask “Why am I limiting myself?” and Ajahn Chah would have a little quip for them from his experience overcoming that desire as a monk. You must also be very mindful of your few possessions, otherwise something like accidently getting your only wash cloth covered in sticky rice creates suffering.

You can also break down how a bowl is more practical for a renunciate who collects alms than a plate, but I don’t think that’s a spiritual point.

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I wonder if sometimes,in the past one monk would go out to gather food for the whole community?

I wonder if sometimes,in the past one monk would go out to gather food for the whole community?

there is a sutta (but I forgot which one) in which the Buddha visited some disciples living together (if my memory serves me well, the gatekeeper didn’t want to let him in, till one of the monks said that he was the Buddha and that he should be let in :grinning: ) Then the Buddha asked how the monks lived together, and the description was one of total harmony and collaboration (i.e. if there was something that needed to be done, the monk who saw that it needed to be done just did it). Maybe in that case monks took turns to go on alms round; I realise I didn’t do a very good job in describing the sutta, though if this rings a bell for someone and they can provide a reference, there might be some information on this too.

People have so many opinions about food: What food I like or dislike. What order food must be eaten in. What foods can be combined and which cannot.

We have all kinds of justifications for these opinions, of course: this is what this doctor said, this is how I feel when I eat like this, this is what is normal in our culture… All valid enough reasons in their own way, but completely besides the point for a renunciate.

Eating all your food mixed together in a single bowl cuts through the noise. You no longer are eating “rice and curry with a side salad and an orange” when you mash it all together in your dog bowl. It becomes what it actually is: simply “food.”

How refreshing! You no longer need to taste everything, juggle or wash a lazy Susan full of dishes, politely use your fork and spoon the “right” way… You can just eat. Quickly and efficiently. And then get back to what matters.


Such a good question from the OP. Where to begin? Isn’t it so important that the traditions of the historical Buddha and his Sangha be kept, respected, and continued? Just the simple act of the almsround, and the eating of the daily meal from the almsbowl speaks so directly to the practice of renunciation, and the cultivation of mindfulness as to the role of food in the life of a renunciate.

Paṭisaṅkhā yoniso piṇḍapātaṃ paṭisevāmi,
Wisely reflecting, I use almsfood:
Neva davāya,
Not for fun,
Na madāya,
Not for pleasure,
Na maṇḍanāya,
Not for fattening,
Na vibhūsanāya,
Not for beautification,
Yāvadeva imassa kāyassa ṭhitiyā,
Only for the maintenance and nourishment of this body,
For keeping it healthy,
For helping with the Holy Life;
Thinking thus,
Iti purāṇañca vedanaṃ paṭihaṅkhāmi,
I will allay hunger
Navañca vedanaṃ na uppādessāmi,
Without overeating,
Yātrā came bhavissati anavajjatā ca phāsuvihāro cā’ti
So that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.

As goofy as it may seem, I enjoyed my time as a samanera, and I still have my almsbowl from that time. I still eat from it. For me, it’s a practice. I collect almsbowls, and enjoyed a day in Bangkok watching almsbowls be made in the traditional way, hewn from metal by artisans that have spent generations performing this craft. So, for me, the almsbowl is something special, and it is an artifact that speaks volumes about the life of a renunciate, and an example to the world of simplicity and mindfulness.



I see your points and agree with them, except perhaps for this: it seems to me that even for a renunciate it’s good to look after their health (so if food combining is better for your health it would seem to be desirable). Wouldn’t you agree?

Thanks for the post, I have added milk and water to Voice examples

“But how do you live this way?”
“In this case, sir, whoever returns first from alms-round prepares the seats, and puts out the drinking water and the rubbish bin. If there’s anything left over, whoever returns last eats it if they like. Otherwise they throw it out where there is little that grows, or drop it into water that has no living creatures. Then they put away the seats, drinking water, and rubbish bin, and sweep the refectory. If someone sees that the pot of water for washing, drinking, or the toilet is empty they set it up. If he can’t do it, he summons another with a wave of the hand, and they set it up by lifting it with their hands. But we don’t break into speech for that reason.


Sure, look after your health.

But it’s far more important to make sure we’re using our years well than trying to eek out one or two more :slightly_smiling_face:


I think it’s well known that monks live long healthy lives! Under the circumstances assumptions about current food and exercise fads must be considered carefully.


Yes, its the old quality versus quantity argument.
Though speaking as an ex Information Analyst in the NHS, I have to observe that quality is more difficult to measure than quantity. :yum:

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I have just completed Ajahn Chah’s biography by A Jayasaro and I got a completely different impression. Ajahn Chah spent many years at the end of his life during which he was very sick and not even able to speak. Like Ajahn Jayasaro writes, he was sometimes irritable and the sickness seems to have generally affected even his personality. Amongst other things, he had developed type 2 diabetes, which according to medical research seems to be related to the consumption of high glycemic index food and beverages (like sticky rice and sodas - the former was certainly a main constituent of his diet and I have seen many references to sweet drinks like Pepsi Cola when reading about Wat Pah Pong). So the disregard for nutrition science and the contempt into which the medical establishment seems to have been held by Forest Monks according to what I gathered from that book (at least till Ajahn Chah became extremely ill at which point he accepted to undergo an operation and spent very long periods in hospitals) seems to have negatively affected his health and seems to be at least partly responsible for what happened to him late in life.

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