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Pinterest’s list of the top food trends of 2017 forecasted the rise of naan pizza, empanadas, octopus, sauerkraut, and “Buddha bowls,” which amount to colorful bowls of vegetables, grains, and legumes arranged in neat sections.
As of February 2017, searches for Buddha bowls were up nearly 450% year over year in the US (and there are a lot of results to scroll through: Pinterest has more two million Buddha bowl “ideas,” a.k.a. Pins, globally). As Thea Carp, Partner Insights Lead, wrote to me, “Buddha bowls have emerged as a trendy way to pack wholesome, nutrient-rich ingredients into a meal.”
In this case, what exists on Pinterest exists on Instagram—and on the internet and in the world, too. Buddha bowls appear on widely-read plant-centric food blogs, like 101 Cookbooks and Minimalist Baker; they’re rounded up on Buzzfeed and in Teen Vogue; they’re on restaurant menus in New York and Melbourne and Mexico City.
Just this week, a publicity email from an olive oil and vinegar brand landed in my inbox—as if confirmation from the universe!—with the subject line “Kick off Spring with a healthy Buddha Bowl recipe” (“the possibilities are endless and there are no rules,” the PR representative assured me). The trend has reached the corporations (its death knell, perhaps).
Yet there is no consensus on what they are (they share no dietary restrictions nor flavor profiles, though they're generally positioned as "healthy," in the vague sense of the word) or where the name originated: For Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks, the title refers to the specialness of eating from a single bowl, “as I understand the Buddha did—or, like some of the monks I've seen at dawn gathering food for their daily meals.” Dana Shultz of Minimalist Baker, on the other hand, references the 2007 Urban Dictionary definition—"a bowl which is packed so full that it has a rounded ‘belly’ appearance on the top much like the belly of a buddha”—but writes that she’s not making a religious statement: “I just like giant bowls of food.” (And, fair enough.)
But, Buddha bowls aside, even a quick trip to down the aisle of your local supermarket will bring you face to face with the spiritual: You can find tea, popcorn, and kombucha that tout health benefits and wholesome ingredients, their own version of Buddha on the front of the packaging.
If you’ve never paused and thought, “Why is a spiritual figure on my box of tea?” it’s because we are conditioned: Buddhism has been enmeshed in American food culture for over a century, even if it’s just now making a foray into what’s mainstream and commercial. So many of us expect to see Buddha at the spa and the natural foods store—even when Moses or Krishna might seem out of place.
In 1886, the prominent feminist, journalist, and writer Laura Carter Holloway Langford published The Buddhist Diet Book, a collection of recipes for physical and spiritual improvement that she had recorded while living among Western Buddhists in England and Germany. The book bucked the norm of that time not only by championing vegetarianism, but also by associating that unconventional choice with unfamiliar religion.
Late nineteenth century readers of Langford’s book were “troubled by her advocacy of Buddhist beliefs and practices and her explanations of the religious ground for vegetarianism,” records Thomas A. Tweed in American Encounters with Buddhism. And yet, despite their disturbance, many still recommended it on the grounds of its techniques and recipes.
“The directions for preparing food bear a strong resemblance to the methods already in vogue in the American kitchen,” consoled one reviewer, while simultaneously implying that the audience would presume Buddhism, a faith that challenged the core of the Judeo-Christian worldview, to defy culinary custom, as well.
“The author appears to be a devout Buddhist,” wrote another reader, “but the recipes can be appreciated by those who hold a different faith, and who use vegetables as auxiliaries to meat, instead of as the staff of life.”
Fast-forward 130 years to Buddha’s Diet: The Ancient Art of Losing Weight Without Losing Your Mind, an uplifting manual for achieving, as the back cover advertises, “weight-loss nirvana.” Written by Dan Zigmond, the Director of Analytics at Facebook and a Zen priest, and Tara Cottrell, a writer, digital strategist, and consultant for lifestyle and wellness brands in Silicon Valley, it merges Buddha’s instructions to his monks that they eat between dawn and noon with recent scientific studies conducted on rodents (and, then, on humans like you and me) with time-restricted diets.
The authors make an overarching, simple-to-remember recommendation for those dissatisfied with their weight or struggling with mindless eating: Consume calories only within a nine-hour window. (It sounds easy until you think about cramming all of your meals between 7 AM and 4 PM, or skipping drinks with your colleagues after work—and in that case, it’s a dietary shift that might be just as unconventional as Langford’s.)
Combine this mantra with daily weigh-ins (“The easiest way to [track the patterns] is with a networked scale that talks to your phone or tablet,” the authors suggest); Buddha’s concept of the Middle Way (a comfortable compromise between indulgence and asceticism, carelessness and obsession); and some meditation, if you wish, and you will have forever changed not simply your eating habits, but your mind, too—regardless of your religion.
Cottrell, who had a cursory knowledge of Buddhism before she started on the project (it’s Zigmond who is the religious expert) told me that she “heard from a whole bunch of people who read the book but didn’t know much about Buddha or intermittent fasting and found this kind of a way to explore both” without starting from scratch.
In Langford’s time and now, Buddhism is offered as a take-it-as-you-wish reservoir of solutions (and in these two cases, it’s diet that’s the issue at hand). Whole-hearted devotion to the faith is optional. “There’s a sort of cultural expectation that certain kinds of ‘Eastern’ religions have something to offer,” Scott Mitchell, who researches Buddhism in Western contexts at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California, explained to me. “So whatever the new problem will be—health and wellness, diet, exercise—there’s always going to be the question, ‘What does Buddhism have to say about this?’ It’s really easy to find what you’re looking for.”
Buddha bowls and Buddha-branded popcorn are the mainstream, commercial manifestation of that look-and-you-shall-find mentality: They’re evidence that, with our newfound fixation on “wellness” (a feel-good, whole-foods lifestyle in which paying close attention to what you consume is a form of self-respect), along with the popularity of “hippie fare,” as Christine Muhlke explored in a recent New York Times story, we expect Buddhism to have some answers. And we expect that we needn’t know that much about the religion—or devote our lives to it—to find and reap them.
When I asked Professor Mitchell if he was surprised to see Buddhist language, imagery, and principles amidst health and wellness trends, he laughed at me. “It doesn’t surprise me at all.”
It might be “mindfulness” that, as even Zigmond and Cottrell admit in Buddha’s Diet, has become today's buzzword (a 2013 Wired article explored Silicon Valley’s investment in meditation as a way to increase productivity), but twenty or thirty years ago, “it was ‘Zen and the Art of’ everything,” Mitchell reminded me. And indeed, 2001’s Zen and the Art of Cooking promotes “a mindful relationship with the food that we consume, which in turn brings better health, happiness, and peace of mind.” It’s a promise as big as Zigmond and Cottrell’s, if not bigger.
But the story goes back much further. In his 2014 paper "The Tranquil Mediator: Representing Buddhism and Buddhists in US Popular Media," Mitchell writes that Buddhism, which is “irrevocably connected to Asian cultures more broadly,” has been “cast as a panacea for Western ills since the dawn of the twentieth century”—the time of Langford. “Look at the historical record at the turn of the twentieth century, and people are describing [Buddhism] as a modern rationalization of religion that conforms well with modern notions of whatever,” Mitchell explained to me.
Within the context of colonialism, when “Westerners are feeling as though they have a right to look at other cultures and remove from those cultures things that will benefit [them],” Buddhism was understood (and reconciled) as a “malleable and flexible” faith. The combination of a religious tradition interpreted as modern, rational, and scientific along with an imperialist worldview set up the expectation that, when taken piecemeal, Buddhism could “easily negotiate the modern world.” You've got a problem? Buddhism has an answer.
In describing Buddhism’s place in Victorian-era United States, Tweed articulates this pick-and-choose Buddhism as a distinction between the all-in “adherents” and the so-so “sympathizers”—those who “internalized a Buddhist framework less completely,” using it “less systematically and comprehensively to interpret ordinary events and cosmic processes.” Sympathizers might, as Tweed explains, navigate the world with karma in mind while still clinging to the idea of an individual self that possesses a soul, which, McMahan says, is "incompatible with almost all forms of Asian Buddhism."
It’s the same form of you-pick Buddhism that Mitchell describes, and one that Professor David McMahan, who studies Buddhism and modernity at Franklin & Marshall University, has noticed over the past thirty years in particular.
“Meditation has been taken out of the Buddhist context,” McMahan told me—it’s popularly understood “not so much a way of achieving Buddhist ends like enlightenment or nirvana” but, instead, “wrapped up in broader discourses of health and wellness.” Forget about a goal for your next world—mindfulness is about finding psychological peace and physical "health" (and, often, beauty) in this body.
The mindfulness-based stress reduction of Silicon Valley, especially, “takes techniques of Buddhist meditation and strips away Buddhist philosophy and ethics and presents it as a health and wellness program.” (Or, phrased more emphatically, entrepreneurs are taking millennia-old traditions “and reshaping them to fit the Valley’s goal-oriented, data-driven, largely atheistic culture,” wrote Noah Shachtman in that same 2013 Wired story.)
In his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism, McMahan defines “contemporary spiritually eclectic Buddhist sympathizers” similar to those Tweed identified a hundred years earlier, as people who “quite consciously feel free as individuals to adopt or reject whatever bits and pieces they choose from Buddhism, as well as mixing and matching them with fragments of other traditions, thus creating their own personal religious bricolage.”
Because Buddhism has been, in his word, “demythologized"—its cosmology modernized; its myths reinterpreted; its rituals, miracles, and supernatural events de-emphasized—people can interpret it as a religion rooted more in science than dogma.
Once cleansed of its explicitly religious elements, Buddhism can become a faith that simultaneously aligns with and exists on a plane beyond scientific evidence—“offering something other than a dry, bland scientific worldview,” in McMahan’s words. As Zigmond remembered, “there was something about that confluence—that scientific research was echoing these ancient teachings—that seemed really interesting and appealing and made it stand out a little from all the work we’re always reading about scientists doing.” Buddhism, as McMahan writes, “serves as a reservoir of techniques that might be useful to accomplish such extra-Buddhist goals”—like stress relief, or healthy eating, or, yes, weight loss. Science with a spiritual boost.
And spirituality without the discomfort of religion. Eating a Buddha bowl, like wearing a kabbalah bracelet or chanting at the end of yoga class, is spiritual enough to make you feel connected with something larger (higher!), secular enough to coexist with your pre-existing faith and scientific rationale, and virtuous enough—or so it's been cast—to make you feel like you're doing something right.
With this history in mind, Zigmond and Cottrell’s book reads like a textbook example of Mitchell’s and McMahan’s theses.
The authors glean and simplify the religion for principles that apply to their work (understandably so—it needs to be condensed, as well as embraced by a huge audience) and they give permission that you, reader, can do the same as you peruse. Take what you want, be that science or faith or parts of both; leave what you don’t care for. Don’t like meditating? That’s fine (Cottrell doesn’t care for it much herself). Already on paleo diet? Mazel tov! Buddha’s Diet can help put it into overdrive.
“We both tried to stick to the teachings as much as we could, but not let them get in the way,” Zigmond explained to me. “There’s a lot that’s different from what Buddha literally said 2500 years ago, but we really did try to maintain the spirit of the Middle Way”—that road of moderation—and to “stay away from extremes” in everything they wrote.
So Buddha may have forbidden his monks from drinking alcohol (it was one of the few places where he did get specific about food rules), but this “doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drink.” Zigmond and Cottrell go on to point to scientific data that indicates that wine actually improves insulin sensitivity, which, in turn, might counteract the metabolic stress of a sugar overload—science! Buddhism can accommodate it nicely.
The whole book is rooted in this same science-Buddhism dance, a blending of “scientific data with ancient wisdom,” says a blurb from the Google engineer and motivational speaker-writer Chade-Meng Tan at the book’s opening. While the core tenet—limit your eating to nine hours of the day—would be defensible on scientific research alone, incorporating Buddhism into the book enabled Zigmond to “talk about a much broader set of things than [he] otherwise would have had it been an intermittent fasting book.” It’s Religion Lite, Science Plus.
Zigmond recalls one colleague describing the book as a Buddhist work disguised as a diet book, while another said it was a diet book disguised as Buddhist work. And while Zigmond wouldn’t agree with either reduction, he realizes that, in straddling all of these different spheres (the scientific and the spiritual, the secular and the religious, the encouragement of weight loss and of body acceptance, the restrictions and the permission), Buddha's Diet becomes more appealing than isolating.
“We’re talking about things that are pretty universal—food and our bodies; you can talk about it from the angle of trying to feel better or trying to be more spiritual and mindful.”
It would be easy to label the book—and the products in the grocery store, and the Buddha bowls on menus—as the appropriation and exotification of a religion in order to sell ideas (and bolster profits), but that would be a gross oversimplification, as well as a dismissal of the religion's last 150 years.
As McMahan makes a point to explain in his book, the popular western conception of Buddhism is “an actual new form of Buddhism that is the result of [...] modernization, westernization, reinterpretation, image-making, revitalization, and reform that has been taking place not only in the West but also in Asian countries for over a century.”
To write off this “detraditionalized” Buddhism as mere western appropriation would be, as McMahan argues, to ignore the Asian Buddhists who have had their own role in shaping the changes that have affected the religion not only in the US but also throughout urban centers in other parts of the world as well.
So if books like Buddha’s Diet and culinary phenomena like Buddha bowls are simply a reflection of and natural progression in the religion’s evolution, what risks, if any, are posed by the idea that Buddhism holds the answer to the problems and puzzles of healthful, mindful eating?
In a Wired profile of Zigmond from earlier this year, Cade Metz sums up the book in a neat sentence: “Using data from that Salk study [on time-restricted eating] and subsequent research, it shows the value of the Buddhist attitude toward food.”
It’s this sort of simplification—that Buddha’s Diet encompasses “the Buddhist attitude toward food”—that’s a bit frightening. Because a universal Buddhist attitude towards food, as I learned when I polled the experts I spoke with—cringing all the while—on whether they could articulate it, may not exist, and especially not in a palm-sized manual.
A singular Buddhist attitude towards food skips the distinction between monks—who, to this day, have very strict food restrictions—and laity, whose approach depends on local customs and cultural practices. Buddhists, like members of most other religious groups, live in many countries and regions, with dietary practices and levels of devotion that differ between communities, families, and individuals. And not all are vegetarian.
Buddha’s Diet, and even Buddha bowls, may very well accurately represent how some Buddhists eat, but to say it gives a fair picture of an all-encompassing, nonexistent Buddhist philosophy towards food is an inaccurate claim—one that the authors themselves wouldn’t make.
Besides, any tidy and true Buddhist attitude towards food, one former Zen monk told me, would focus not on the food itself but on stymying the craving for food.
When I spoke to him about the use of the language, imagery, and religious principles of Buddhism in the health and wellness movements, he explained to me that any obsessive relationship with food is an unhealthy one. Thinking about food, planning food, reading recipes or restaurant menus when you’re not hungry, browsing this website—all are distractions to stave off boredom and to displace other thoughts.
On this point, Zigmond would agree: “Buddha would be surprised and disappointed to see how much time we spend thinking and worrying [about food] these days.”