As Buddhism gained first acceptance and then popularity, it became a challenge for monks and nuns to maintain a lifestyle of simplicity and moderation, particularly when it came to food. People were only too happy to provide monks, not just with adequate sustenance, but with the best they could afford, and in generous amounts. “They chose not to take soft or hard food or drinks themselves, they did not give it to their parents, spouse or children, not to their slaves, servants or friends, and not to their colleagues or relatives, but they did give it to the monks who as a result were handsome, plump, and with radiant complexions and clear skin”(Vin.III,88). The Buddha became acutely aware that even diligent monks could easily become preoccupied with food and even slip into gluttony. His discourses are peppered with warnings against preoccupations with food. Maintain “a sensible attitude towards food” he counselled, “have an empty stomach, be moderate in food and with little desire” (e.g. Dhp.92; Sn.707). The plump and content monk, the Friar Tuck type, never became a stereotype in Buddhist lands as it did (and remains) in the Western imagination.
To head off the threat of gluttony and illustrate the attitude to food he expected from his monks and nuns Buddha gave this rather startling example. “Imagine two parents, a husband and wife, and their only son who they love dearly, were travelling through the wilderness with insufficient provisions. In the middle of the wilderness with still a long way to go they use up all their provisions. So thinking ‘All our provisions are exhausted. Let us kill and eat our son though we love him dearly, and prepare dried and spiced meat. Let not all three of us perish.’ Having done this they emerged from the wilderness. But while eating their sons flesh they would beat their breasts and cry ‘Where are you our son? Where are you?’ What do you think monks? Would those parents eat that food for amusement, for enjoyment or to enhance physical beauty and attractiveness?” No Lord.” “Would they not eat that food only for the purpose of crossing the wilderness?” “Yes Lord” (S.II,98-9). He then proceeded to asked them to eat only what was needed to maintain the body.
The prospect of regular meals and sometimes even sumptuous ones, created another less expected problem for the Buddhist Sangha. Some people came to see the Sangha as an attractive option to the struggles and drudgery of ordinary life. The monastic regulations contains more than a few stories of men ordaining for reasons entirely unrelated to the Sangha’s true purpose, including to get free meals. One of these accounts tells of the son of a noble family now fallen on hard times noticing that monks “having eaten good meals, lie down to sleep on beds sheltered from the wind” and then deciding that he wanted to join the Sangha so as to enjoy such benefits (Vin.I,86). On another occasion a man stopped off at the local monastery on the way home after a hard morning’s toil in the fields. One of the monks gave him “a helping of juicy, delicious fare” from his own bowl. Never having eaten so well before the man decided that the monk’s life had advantages that the farmer’s life do did not and he joined the Sangha. (Ja.I,311) The Buddha berated such opportunists as having entered the monkhood “for the sake of your belly” (Vin.I,58).
Being entirely dependent of others for their sustenance freed monks and nuns from the need to work and the complications of acquiring and preparing meals, but it also made them vulnerable in some ways. Food shortages and famines were a recurrent reality in India well into the 20th century. If the monsoon failed one year the result would be serious food shortages the next year. If it failed two years in a row there would be famine. Naturally, people would not feed monks when they had insufficient for themselves and thus Buddhist monks and other mendicants would become early victims of famines. There are several references to famines in the Tipiṭaka. One of these mentions food tickets being issued, although exactly what this means is uncertain. Perhaps the authorities, guilds or others with access to resources were issuing tickets to the hungry entitling them to a dole (S.IV,323). During another famine monks were given grain usually fed to horses. Although this grain had been steamed it still had to be mashed in a mortar before it could be eaten (Vin.III,7).