Alms-giv­ing gives some monks ill health

The Myanmar Times - - Pulse -

EV­ERY day, Phra Pisit Siri­wathatano would leave his tem­ple at dawn to con­duct a daily alms round in his Bangkok neigh­bour­hood of Non­thaburi. Tak­ing about two hours, the monk later re­turned to the monastery with a full alms bowl and a large sack filled with food of­fer­ings from Bud­dhist lay­men and lay­women. Some­times, peo­ple would also visit the tem­ple to of­fer lunch to him and other monks.

“Some peo­ple re­ally take pride in their food. But when we ate it, it was just too salty,” said Pisit. At age 58, Luang Por, Thai for “ven­er­a­ble fa­ther”, de­scribed his health as be­ing in a de­gen­er­a­tive state. One of his legs was hurt­ing from un­known causes, and he also said he got sick eas­ily. It was un­clear if he was suf­fer­ing from any dis­eases.

“When I eat un­healthy food, my body re­acts badly,” he said, also re­port­ing that the monks he knows are gen­er­ally not in good health.

The food Phra Pisit re­ceived that day in his alms round con­sisted of ready-to-eat meals bought from lo­cal fresh mar­kets, and even prepack­aged food from con­ve­nience stores. He didn’t com­ment on the meals. He can­not choose his food, and can only eat what’s of­fered to him.

A monk’s diet can con­sist of any­thing from ev­ery­day Thai cui­sine such as stir-fried veg­eta­bles, hot soup, curry, chilli paste, and more, topped off oc­ca­sion­ally with Thai golden sweets. As ap­petis­ing as they seem, some of them also come with high lev­els of sugar, fat and salt, and are un­healthy – a fact most peo­ple seem to over­look.

Ac­cord­ing to as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Jongjit Angkata­vanich, a health and nu­tri­tion ex­pert from Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity, it’s been found that 44 per­cent of monks in Bangkok are over­weight, while 52pc suf­fer from hy­per­c­holes­tero­laemia (ex­cess choles­terol in the blood­stream).

Com­par­a­tively, the fig­ure for or­di­nary men of sim­i­lar age fell to 37pc for be­ing over­weight and 39pc for hy­per­c­holes­tero­laemia. About 9pc of monks also suf­fer from di­a­betes.

Jongjit has been work­ing on her project – sup­ported by the Thai Health Pro­mo­tion Foun­da­tion – to study and im­prove the be­hav­iour and nu­tri­tion of monks since 2011. The nu­tri­tion­ist said these health prob­lems share a sim­i­lar root, and it’s borne from none other than the food monks con­sume each day.

Food such as curry with co­conut milk, for ex­am­ple, is a source of fat and salt. Soft drinks, sweet green tea and pro­cessed juices – a pop­u­lar of­fer­ing – come with high sugar con­tent. And when con­sumed re­peat­edly – es­pe­cially by monks who, by canon, can­not ex­er­cise – the meals, of­fered to them in good faith, be­come a bur­den to their bod­ies – a source of ill­ness.

It used to be gen­eral prac­tice for fam­i­lies to cook their own food and of­fer it to monks, en­abling con­trol over their own food se­lec­tion. To­day, how­ever, busy life­styles have re­duced home-cooked meals to pro­cessed, prepack­aged food, leav­ing most of the de­ci­sion-mak­ing to food ven­dors.

At many fresh mar­kets, food stalls now sell ready-to-eat meal sets in the morn­ing to ac­com­mo­date laypeo­ple in their alms­giv­ing – a re­flec­tion on peo­ple’s changed lifestyle. The meal usu­ally con­sists of cooked rice, a side dish, dessert and wa­ter – all packed into sep­a­rate plas­tic bags and con­tain­ers. Each set costs around 20-50 baht (roughly K700-1700).

One morn­ing, Chaiya, who asked to re­main anony­mous, dropped by such a food stall with his wife. He bought seven meals from the ven­dor to of­fer to pass­ing monks.

“I usu­ally buy this food based on what I my­self like to eat,” he said, ges­tur­ing to the bags of fish curry, fried rice and larb moo in his hands. “It’s easy to just buy and give away. Of course, it’s a given that we don’t re­ally have that many op­tions to choose from, es­pe­cially in terms of con­trol­ling the in­gre­di­ents or fat level. But it’ll have to do when we’re in a rush.”

It’s quite a gen­eral prac­tice to of­fer monks food based on one’s own favourites or a de­ceased’s favourites. Health is gen­er­ally not peo­ple’s num­ber-one con­cern when it comes to meal se­lec­tion for monks.

Since monks aren’t able to choose their own food, nu­tri­tion­ist Jongjit has de­vel­oped four key so­lu­tions and con­cepts – food, drink, physique and ac­tiv­ity – for monks to be cau­tious of in or­der to stay healthy. They re­quire monks to al­ter some of their habits, though in ways that won’t vi­o­late the re­li­gious code.

Some of this ad­vice in­cludes con­sum­ing an equal amount of rice and veg­eta­bles, and opt­ing for wa­ter and milk in­stead of sug­ary drinks.

The nu­tri­tion­ist also sug­gested monks watch their own weight and waist­line. Gen­er­ally, a man’s waist­line shouldn’t ex­ceed 85 cen­time­tres (33.5 inches).

“Waist­line is at the heart of tak­ing care of your health. A big tummy cor­re­lates with high level of sugar, blood pres­sure and fat.”

For ac­tiv­ity, Jongjit said morn­ing alms rounds, cir­cum­am­bu­la­tion (walk­ing me­di­a­tion), sweep­ing the tem­ple grounds, and walk­ing in gen­eral are some of the ex­er­cises monks can per­form that won’t vi­o­late their con­duct.

“I bat­tle with peo­ple’s be­liefs in do­ing this project,” said the nu­tri­tion­ist. “It seems to break cul­tural tra­di­tions and re­li­gious lim­i­ta­tions. But, re­ally, it’s not for monks to start be­ing picky about what they eat, but rather for them to watch out for what and how much they’re eat­ing. The dis­eases be­falling them are pre­ventable with a change in habit.”

Jongjit’s project has re­sulted in the de­vel­op­ment of ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als such as in­for­ma­tion book­lets, di­aries, posters and cal­en­dars – as well as an in­ven­tion of colour­ful mea­sur­ing tapes and marked sashes to keep track of one’s waist­line – which aim to en­cour­age monks to pay more at­ten­tion and keep track of their own well-be­ing.

These ma­te­ri­als have yielded a sat­is­fac­tory re­sult in in­still­ing and ad­just­ing monks into new habits. Monks who started abid­ing by the four health con­cepts, claimed Jongjit, showed a sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant de­crease in choles­terol, triglyc­eride and body-mass in­dex af­ter two months.

So far, Jongjit’s team has or­gan­ised a few work­shops in the prov­inces, at­tended by monks and lo­cal nurses to help spread the knowl­edge to their re­spec­tive com­mu­ni­ties. A set of posters and book­lets was also de­vel­oped for laypeo­ple and tem­ple cooks to ed­u­cate them on the kind of food that should be given to monks. The nu­tri­tion­ist said the team also plans to part­ner with the De­part­ment of Health and re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions to ex­pand the use of these ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als na­tion­wide.

“All these mes­sages that we’re giv­ing monks – they’re ap­pli­ca­ble to ev­ery­one,” said Jongjit. “And when monks have seen the ben­e­fits of this health­ier lifestyle, they can be­come the com­mu­nity’s role mod­els and ed­u­cate the laypeo­ple. When monks be­come stronger and health­ier, the peo­ple will, too.” – The Bangkok Post

Photo: RJ Vogt

Young monks con­duct their alms-giv­ing rounds in Shan State. Some of the food they re­ceive may be bad for their health, a Thai study sug­gsts.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Myanmar

© PressReader. All rights reserved.