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Thread: sutta study: The Four Nutriments of Life

  1. #1
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    sutta study: The Four Nutriments of Life

    dear forum

    the Buddha's teaching of the Four Nutriments (ahara) has always intrigued me

    for many years i wondered what this teaching is actually about? what is its purpose?

    the Buddha was certainly not one to waste words

    so i thought to start this thread inquiring into the sutta and especially the similes used

    i sense by comprehending the similes the relevant understanding may arise

    with metta

    element

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    Introduction:

    Question 1: What is meant by the sentence "for the sustenance of beings born and for the support of beings seeking birth"?



    There are, O monks, four nutriments for the sustenance of beings born and for the support of beings seeking birth. What are the four?

    Edible food, coarse and fine; secondly, sense-impression; thirdly, volitional thought; fourthly, consciousness.

    Puttamansa Sutta: A Son's Flesh
    Last edited by Element; 19 Sep 11 at 02:22.

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    Nutriment #1: Edible food, coarse and fine

    The discourse on the first nutriment may offer some insight into this sutta, given the message of the simile is quite clear and straightforward



    How, O monks, should the nutriment edible food be considered?

    Suppose a couple, husband and wife, have set out on a journey through the desert, carrying only limited provisions. They have with them their only son, dearly beloved by them. Now, while these two traveled through the desert, their limited stock of provisions ran out and came to an end, but there was still a stretch of desert not yet crossed. Then the two thought: 'Our small stock of provisions has run out, it has come to an end; and there is still a stretch of desert that is not yet crossed. Should we not kill our only son, so dearly beloved, prepare dried and roasted meat, and eating our son's flesh, we may cross in that way the remaining part of the desert, lest all three of us perish?'

    And these two, husband and wife, killed their only son, so dearly beloved by them, prepared dried and roasted meat, and, eating their son's flesh, crossed in that way the remaining part of the desert. And while eating their son's flesh, they were beating their breast and crying: 'Where are you, our only and beloved son? Where are you, our only and beloved son?'

    What do you think, O monks? Will they eat the food for the pleasure of it, for enjoyment, for comeliness' sake, for (the body's) embellishment?

    Certainly not, O Lord.

    Will they not rather eat the food merely for the sake of crossing the desert?

    So it is, O Lord.

    In the same manner, I say, O monks, should edible food be considered. If, O monks, the nutriment edible food is comprehended, the lust for the five sense-objects is (thereby) comprehended. And if lust for the five sense-objects is comprehended, there is no fetter enchained by which a noble disciple might come to this world again.

    Puttamansa Sutta: A Son's Flesh
    Last edited by Element; 18 Sep 11 at 23:41.

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    Nutriment #2: Sense Impression



    And how, O monks, should the nutriment sense-impression be considered?

    Suppose, O monks, there is a skinned cow that stands close to a wall, then the creatures living in the wall will nibble at the cow; and if the skinned cow stands near a tree, then the creatures living in the tree will nibble at it; if it stands in the water, the creatures living in the water will nibble at it; if it stands in the open air, the creatures living in the air will nibble at it. Wherever that skinned cow stands, the creatures living there will nibble at it.

    In that manner, I say, O monks, should the nutriment sense-impression be considered. If the nutriment sense-impression is comprehended, the three kinds of feeling are thereby comprehended. And if the three kinds of feeling are comprehended, there is, I say, no further work left to do for the noble disciple.

    Puttamansa Sutta: A Son's Flesh
    Last edited by Element; 21 Sep 11 at 04:57.

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    Nutriment #3: Volition



    And how, O monks, should the nutriment volitional thought be considered?

    Suppose, O monks, there is a pit of glowing embers, filled to cover a man's height, with embers glowing without flames and smoke. Now a man comes that way, who loves life and does not wish to die, who wishes for happiness and detests suffering. Then two strong men would seize both his arms and drag him to the pit of glowing embers. Then, O monks, far away from it would recoil that man's will, far away from it his longing, far away his inclination. And why? Because the man knows: 'If I fall into that pit of glowing embers, I shall meet death or deadly pain.'

    In that manner, I say, O monks, should the nutriment volitional thought be considered. If the nutriment volitional thought is comprehended, the three kinds of craving are thereby comprehended. And if the three kinds of craving are comprehended, there is, I say, no further work left to do for the noble disciple.

    Puttamansa Sutta: A Son's Flesh
    Last edited by Element; 18 Sep 11 at 23:41.

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    Nutriment #4: Consciousness



    And how, O monks, should the nutriment consciousness be considered?

    Suppose, O monks, people have seized a criminal, a robber, and brought him before the king saying: 'This is a criminal, a robber, O Majesty! Mete out to him the punishment you think fit!' Then the king would tell them: 'Go, and in the morning strike this man with a hundred spears!' And they strike him in the morning with a hundred spears. At noon the king would ask his men: 'How is that man?' — 'He is still alive, Your Majesty.' — 'Then go and strike him again at noontime with a hundred spears!' So they did, and in the evening the king asks them again: 'How is that man?' — 'He is still alive.' — 'Then go and in the evening strike him again with a hundred spears!' And so they did.

    What do you think, O monks? Will that man, struck with three hundred spears during a day, suffer pain and torment owing to that?

    Even if he were to be struck only by a single spear, he would suffer pain and torment owing to that. How much more if he is being struck by three hundred spears!"

    Puttamansa Sutta: A Son's Flesh
    Last edited by Element; 18 Sep 11 at 23:41.

  7. #7
    Forums Member FBM's Avatar
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    One of the interesting things about learning foreign languages and culture is how their similes and metaphors compare to those of my native language and culture. Sometimes they're remarkably similar and sometimes no amount of explanation can make them clear. I think the necessary information that might explain those images in the sutta passages above has been lost in the intervening 2,500 years. At least, I haven't been able to find explanations for them.

    When I read those passages, I just take the obvious advice about cultivating dispassion towards, food, sense impressions, volition and consciousness. These are things that we ordinarily attach to, cling to, chase after and/or be enamored of, but they all bear the 3 marks of existence, so they are ultimately unsatisfactory. That's about all I can do with it. Wish I had something more, Element.

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    Quote Originally Posted by FBM View Post
    I think the necessary information that might explain those images in the sutta passages above has been lost in the intervening 2,500 years. At least, I haven't been able to find explanations for them.
    You have given up already! I sense there is more to the similes.

    Quote Originally Posted by FBM View Post
    When I read those passages, I just take the obvious advice about cultivating dispassion towards, food, sense impressions, volition and consciousness. These are things that we ordinarily attach to, cling to, chase after and/or be enamored of, but they all bear the 3 marks of existence, so they are ultimately unsatisfactory.
    Sure.

    But if the Buddha was just exhorting non-attachment, he already taught about not attaching to the five aggregates, to the six sense bases, etc

    I suppose my inquiry is why did the Buddha decide to make a special teaching out of these four things and called them 'nutriment'?

    Last edited by Element; 19 Sep 11 at 02:32.

  9. #9
    Forums Member Esho's Avatar
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    Hi Element,

    Curiously, last week I started through "The Commentary to the Discourse on Right View" translated from Pali by Bhikkhu Nanamoli.

    The Sammaditthi Sutta has a special section about the Nutriments. To me, the term "nutriment" was too, a very intriguing approach given by Buddha. I haven't gone through all the commentary because it is felt a little bit Abhidamic but when Nanamoli reaches the section of "The Four Nutriments" he comments:

    10. Herein, this is the elucidation of the terms that are not clear. Nutriment (ahara) is a condition (paccaya). For a condition nourishes its own fruit, therefore it is called nutriment.[21]

    11. Of beings that already have come to be (bhutanam va sattanam), etc.: Here come to be (bhuta) means come to birth, reborn; seeking a new existence (sambhavesinam) means those who seek, search for, existence, birth, production. Therein, among the four kinds of generation,[22] beings born from eggs and from the womb are said to be "seeking a new existence" as long as they have not broken out of the eggshell or the placenta. When they have broken out of the eggshell or the placenta and emerged outside, they are said to have "come to be." The moisture-born and the spontaneously born are said to be "seeking a new existence" at the first moment of consciousness; from the second moment of consciousness onwards they are said to have "come to be."

    Or alternatively, "come to be" is born, reproduced; this is a term for those who have destroyed the cankers (Arahants), who are reckoned thus: "They have come to be only, but they will not come to be again." "Seeking a new existence" means they seek a new existence; this is a term for worldlings and disciples in higher training who seek a new existence in the future too, because they have not abandoned the fetter of being. Thus by these two terms he includes all beings in all ways.

    For the maintenance (thitiya); for the purpose of maintaining. For the support (anuggahaya): for the purpose of supporting, for the purpose of helping. This is merely a difference of words, but the meaning of the two terms is one only. Or alternatively, "for the maintenance" is for the non-interruption of this or that being by means of the serial connection of arisen states. "For the support" is for the arising of unarisen (states). And both these expressions should be regarded as applicable in both cases thus: "For the maintenance and support of those that have come to be, and for the maintenance and support of those seeking a new existence."

    idem
    Of importance, footnote [21]:

    Quote Originally Posted by 21
    The verb aharati normally means "to bring" but here it is rendered as "nourish" to underscore it's connection with ahara, nutriment.
    So, in general, "nutriments" are conditions that fed the need of a sort of "come to be"; those that have not conquer the fetter of being. Also the commentaries go further when making clear "Nutriment" as maintenance (thitiya) and support (anuggahaya), as explained above.

    I have not gone further with the document due the very slowly pace I need for this explorations.

    Hope this can bring some help.

    Last edited by Esho; 19 Sep 11 at 03:29.

  10. #10
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    Thanks Kaarine

    Quote Originally Posted by Bhikkhu Nanamoli
    10. Herein, this is the elucidation of the terms that are not clear. Nutriment (ahara) is a condition (paccaya). For a condition nourishes its own fruit, therefore it is called nutriment.
    The above does not really reasonate with me, i.e., ahara synonomous with paccaya. Most commonly (not always), 'paccaya' is used as a condition for suffering, such as avijjāpaccayāsaṅkhārā (ignorance conditions fabricators).

    Quote Originally Posted by Bhikkhu Nanamoli
    Or alternatively, "come to be" is born, reproduced; this is a term for those who have destroyed the cankers (Arahants), who are reckoned thus: "They have come to be only, but they will not come to be again."
    Again, the above does not resonate with me. Arahants have destroyed "being". For me, "being" is an asava (mental formation) rather than the existence of an organism. For example, MN 121 clearly states the arahant has ended the asava of being.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bhikkhu Nanamoli
    For the maintenance (thitiya); for the purpose of maintaining. For the support (anuggahaya): for the purpose of supporting, for the purpose of helping.
    Interesting. The translation of words here may be helpful.

    cattārome āhārā bhūtānaṃ vā sattānaṃ ṭhitiyā sambhavesīnaṃ vā anuggahāya

    there are these four kinds of nutriment for the maintenance of beings that have already come to be and for the assistance (help) of those about to come to be [Bhikkhu Bodhi translation]

    anuggaṇha (adj.) [cp. anuggaha] compassionate, ready to help PvA 42 ˚sīla

    thus, each day, monks chant about how their alms food maintains & supports their spiritual life



    Paṭisaṅkhā yoniso piṇḍapātaṃ paṭisevāmi,

    Considering it thoughtfully, I use alms food,

    Neva davāya na madāya na maṇḍanāya na vibhūsanāya,

    Not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on bulk, nor for beautification,

    Yāvadeva imassa kāyassa ṭhitiyā yāpanāya vihiṃsuparatiyā brahma-cariyānuggahāya,

    But simply for the survival & continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the holy life,

    Iti purāṇańca vedanaṃ paṭihaṅkhāmi navańca vedanaṃ na uppādessāmi,

    (Thinking,) Thus will I destroy old feelings (of hunger) and not create new feelings (from overeating).

    Yātrā ca me bhavissati anavajjatā ca phāsu-vihāro cāti.

    I will maintain myself, be blameless & live in comfort.

    Pali Chanting
    Last edited by Element; 19 Sep 11 at 05:40.

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