Vipassana: May All Beings Be Happy and Vegan, too

Evening snack of fruit for the new studentsI’ve just returned from my fourth 10-day Vipassana meditation course. How peaceful it felt being unplugged and letting the world outside the camp fade away!

However, I realize that for many people joining a 10-day silent meditation for their first time, the food can be a concern.

If you are an omnivore, you may worry whether you’ll be satisfied with meals that are billed as “vegetarian.” Likewise, vegans may be worried if there’s going to be food containing eggs or dairy products.

Relax.

  • vipassana mettaFor vegans, with few exceptions the dishes are vegan, and on the rare occasion they do contain dairy, it’s labeled. There is usually non-dairy milk available, and salad dressings are also vegan.
  • For omnivores, there is butter, cow’s milk, yogurt, and occasionally cheese available as condiments. While I don’t condone dairy, having familiar foods available helps make the course environment less stressful.
  • If you have any questions about the ingredients, you are allowed to ask the kitchen staff (an exception to the “Noble Silence” practiced with fellow meditators).

Some raw vegans and fruitarians contacted me following my previous post (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”) to ask if there are enough fruit and vegetables to survive. As I have also been on a high raw vegan diet, I can relate–yet I think it’s a lot to expect to eat exclusively fruits and vegetables, because they are costly and often in limited supply.

Because Vipassana courses are free of charge, you attend as a monk or a nun—as beggars—and cannot complain if food doesn’t meet your taste or dietary profile. Courses are funded by donations, with some food being donated by old students. Cooks are volunteers, just as the assistant teacher, class manager, and other roles.

Of course, feel free to contact the Vipassana center ahead of time and inquire if you have dietary concerns. I write this as someone who has volunteered in the kitchen.

Typical Daily Menu

I have attended Vipassana courses in Hawaii and Japan, and found the menus quite similar. I learned from other old students it’s consistent with other Vipassana centers.

Breakfasts were basic and the same each day: A choice of oatmeal, boxed cereals, and whole-grain bread, with peanut butter and jelly, and butter. Stewed prunes. And seasonal fruit, such as bananas, oranges, papaya, and pineapple. There was instant coffee, and a variety of teas including green, black and herbal teas. A number of days, there was an urn filled with peppermint tea, ginger and tumeric tea, or tulsi tea, made with roibos tea and licorice.

Lunches were varied and flavorful, filled with metta (“loving kindness,” in the Pali language) of the volunteer cooks. Ratatouie, lentil soup, thai curry, pumpkin and sweet potato curry, spaghetti with lentils, tofu steaks with mashed potatoes and gravy, chana masala, roasted vegetables such as zucchini and pumpkin and carrots, and polenta. Chickpeas were featured in  hummous and salads, and curries often contained fresh cilantro. There was brown rice at every meal.

All this amazing food, yet we had been instructed to eat only three-fourths of our typical volume to avoid drowsiness? Talk about misery!

Sticking with one helping, I filled my bowl with the main dish and made a big plate of salad. In additon to lettuce, there was cucumbers, celery, carrots, and often purple or green cabbage. There were usually 2-3 homemade dressings to choose from, and olive oil and apple cider vinegar were also provided, as well as sunflower seeds, gomasio, and ground flax seed for sprinkling.

Everything was so colorful that I wished I could have taken photos, but we surrender our phones at the beginning of the course, along with any reading and writing materials.

A Vipassana course is not about the food

You join a Vipassana course to learn and practice the meditation technique passed down since over 2500 years ago by Gotema the Buddha to develop equanimity and liberate yourself from craving and aversions in order to come out of misery.  As teacher S.N. Goenka’s pre-recorded discourse reminds us over and over again, equanimity equals purity. Vipassana is meditation of purification.

Vipassana courses are designed for, and run like clockwork, for the student’s benefit. Having meals served eliminates the need for students to occupy themselves with cooking and allows them to focus their energy on meditating for 10 hours each day.

You can find out about Vipassana courses near you or all over the world at http://dhamma.org

Old Vipassana Students Fast for 19 hours each day

The daily schedule at a Vipassana course begins with a wake up bell at 4:00 am and ends with bedtime between 9:00-10:00 pm. Breakfast is served at 6:30 am after a 2-hour meditation period.

As mentioned in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” a bell is rung at meal times and other important times. At 5pm, new students (those taking the course for the first time) are offered fruit and tea with milk (including non-dairy milk). Old students are allowed to have tea but without milk, and no fruit.

Given that lunch was the highlight of the day (other than the meditation), I am not too proud to admit I still found meditation difficult right before lunchtime, drifting toward the dining hall so I would be nearer the front of the line when the bell rang for lunch at 11:00am.

My monkey mind goes like: “I’ve been meditating for 5 hours today, the last stretch of 3 hours and it will be my last food until tomorrow at 6:30 am.”

Going without eating for 19 hours for 9 days in a row is about as close as I’ve come to fasting. They could have given me anything vegan and I would have been happy. But the food really tasted good, and there was always enough.

In fact, after taking a course like this a few times, you’ll begin to wonder if dinner is really necessary? It’s nice to give your body a break from eating, since digestion consumes so much energy.

Metta Day

On the final day of the course, known as “Metta Day,” the kitchen volunteers were recognized and given a standing ovation by all the students.

I wish that many of my fellow meditators will recognize how vegan food sustained them through this life-changing experience of a Vipassana course. I hope that many will reduce or eliminate meat and animal products after realizing that when we say “May all beings share my peace, my harmony. May all beings be happy, be liberated” we are also referring to non-human animals.

Do you have any experiences with food during a Vipassana course or after returning to your normal life you can share? Please leave them in the comments below.

Photos courtesy of Pohoiki Dhamma Farm.