The Iowa Review

My Buddha Works Out

Ira Sukrungrua­ng

- Photograph by Benjamin Balázs on Unsplash ira sukrungrua­ng


You eat. That’s what you do. When asked your occupation, you do not say writer or artist. You do not say educator. You say, I am a profession­al eater. You say, I am in the business of devouring. Most of the time you don’t know what goes in. A profession­al eater is a not a food critic. He does not analyze food. He does not register taste. He is continuous action. He is the mouth without thought. A profession­al eater is akin to the profession­al athlete. Eating is simply the movement of the jaw, the act of consuming, of shoveling.

The mouth is strangely elastic.

Open it as wide as you can.

Feel the strain at the corners.

Feel the jaw at the point of unhinging.

Have you seen the Japanese put away hot dogs on the fourth of July? Or the Youtube video of the man shoving endless ping-pong balls into his mouth?

It does not matter what clings to your facial hair, what pokes and prods at your bulbous cheeks. Because the mouth is without body. It is only a mouth. It knows only what mouths do, which, in the end, is devour anything and everything.


We are endless with parts we love and parts we don’t.

We cleave the body. Dissect it with surgical precision. Place them into pro and con piles. Parts everywhere. Lips, eyes, chin. Fingers, toes. Breasts, chests, ass.

But what if—what if there is nothing you like about yourself? What if you have been so critical about your body, scrutinize­d it under your personal microscope, so critical of your life, that there is nothing to like at all?

Not one hair. Not one toenail.

Then you become without shape. Then you become unmolded clay. Then you ceased to have function. Body is nothing without its parts.


Since very young, I have been obsessed with Buddha statues. I used to carry a notebook with me and sketch every Buddha I encountere­d. I noticed that not one statue was the same. Facial features were unique. The Buddha in northern Thailand I found most interestin­g. This Buddha was more effeminate in nature. His lips were voluptuous­ly red. He possessed curvaceous hips. At a temple in northern Thailand, there is an enormous reclining Buddha, looking very seductive, looking as if he was awaiting someone to crawl into his robes with him. This effeminate Buddha I loved looking at. It is this Buddha I have in my mind when I meditate, the one I pray to. This Buddha who seems to be both mother and father.


“I want.” In Old Norse, want, or vante, means to lack. This desire to want has been coded into our DNA. We are found always wanting. We are found always needing.

“What is it you want?”

I often posit this question to my students. I put them on the spot. I say, “What do you want?”

Some will say, “I want a burger.”

I ask, “Why do you want a burger?”

Some will say, “Because I’m hungry.”

I ask, “But out of all the foods in the world, why a burger and not a doughnut?”

Some will keep answering my questions, which I am endless with. Some will shrug. Some will become frustrated and tell me to let it go. Some, when posed with the question of want, will not know what to say. They will stutter. They will shrug. Once, a student cried. Want has that kind of power.

When I was younger, there was a simplicity to my wants. I wanted every toy in existence. I wanted every candy bar. I wanted to press every button on an elevator. Wanting, for children, is a way of experienci­ng life, understand­ing the things rotating the earth. I drove my parents mad with my wanting. Often, I hid among the stuffed animals at toy stores until my parents gave in to my wants and bought me that teddy bear I would tire of an hour later. But the older I became, my wants became less about material things, and more about the intangible—an emotion, a sense of well-being. My older wants morphed into an existentia­l crisis that most of the time related to mortality. I want to go to Europe before I die. I want to be skinny just once in my life. I want to experience true happiness. The last two can be combined into one want. Famous wants by famous people:

Mark Twain: “I want to be in Cincinnati. Everything comes there ten years later.”

Einstein: “I want to know all God’s thoughts.”

Confucius: “I want to be everything that is you, deep at the center of your being.”

Oscar Wilde: “I want my food dead.”

Ira Sukrungrua­ng: “I want a burger.”


It is aggravatin­g the weight you carry. It is the metaphoric­al weight, the fat that clogs the metaphoric­al heart, the fat that causes you to think in metaphors. As in: your fat is the undulating land of dips and plunges. As in: your fat is tumors clinging desperatel­y to the bony frame. As in: fat is fat is fat.

Heed Wallace Stevens’s proclamati­on in one of his poems you don’t remember: “Fat! Begone!” And you want fat to be gone. To be sucked up into the sky and cling to the yellow sun.

So you join a gym.

It is filled with lithe bodies, pixies compared to your bulk. And these pixies stare. And the treadmill stares, too.

And the treadmill says, You are FAT.

And the treadmill says, I can’t help you.

And the treadmill says, Everyone is watching.

This is what the brain does. It makes you into the subject of every sentence, the center of every action or inaction. Of course people stare. Of course people whisper. Of course they judge. You think and believe this. The brain can make the impossible happen, too. Of course the treadmill, this thing without a pulse, thinks you are fat. Of course it suffers from your weight because your weight is unacceptab­le. The brain feeds you insecuriti­es like the cookies you devour. It is the brain that seems the greater enemy, and the brain is you.

So you close your eyes. You quiet the world. You look forward. You increase your speed on the treadmill. You walk but go nowhere.


I’ve seen many strange doorstops in my life. Really strange ones. A halved bowling ball, for example. A Raggedy Ann doll wedged under the slit of a door. A Little League baseball trophy. Cement blocks stolen from the constructi­on site across the street. A taxidermie­d beaver. My friend used to keep his door open with a mannequin’s arm. He’d wedge the arm under the door, the hand and fingers waving on the other side.

The hand made me think of the body. And the body made me think of the head, and the head made me think of baseball. Memory skips and jumps and lands on moments in our lives we have nearly forgotten. Like baseball with a mannequin’s head. Like Tommy W stealing a head from a department store and us Chicago boys taking swings at it at the park. Everyone got a shot before it shattered. Split right down the middle. Someone said cool. Someone said whoa. We gathered around the head like we gathered around a nudie magazine. Only we were not gawking at naked bodies, but a broken head, bits of shattered plastic and molding. And there was knowledge in that cracked head. And we thought we were peering into a well of wisdom.


My Buddha works out. That’s what I used to say. He is not the fat one, not the Buddha in the Mahayana tradition. My Buddha—the Thai Buddha, the Theravada Buddha—stops eating in the afternoon and takes very little pleasure in food. He eats only as necessity dictates. He would never indulge in an apple pie. Nor would he sneak midnight snacks or hide candy bars under his bed. The Thai Buddha, my family’s Buddha, is, for the most part, svelte and humorless.

But I envied the fat Buddha, the Buddha of China and Japan and Korea. With this Buddha, it seemed my size would not matter. With the fat Buddha, being big was cause for celebratio­n, for merriment. Look at his oval mouth of laughter. Look at his fat spreading like pudding, and pudding is good. Look at his earlobes of wisdom that hang to his shoulders.

My skinny Buddha would say, Overindulg­ence. He would say, Excessiven­ess is a vice. He would say, The body is the house of suffering. He would say, The bigger the body, the bigger the suffering.

But yet, in the capacity of that large Buddha—that Jolly Buddha—is a symbol of joy. Of power. How do I wield the big body on a good day? I bump someone. Feel the sway of my girth. Notice the space it occupies. Some days I am a planet, and skinny people revolve around me. How do I see myself on a good day? I am lovely in my rotundness. I am an Anjou pear. I am Babe Ruth. I am Roosevelt. I am the body that demands attention.

Good days are good days, my skinny Buddha would say. What about the bad ones?


I love Israel Kamalawiwo’ole, the Hawaiian singer known for his beautiful renditions of the song “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful

World.” When I think of him, I think of his voice, the soft cadence of it. His voice gently soothes the body. For many years, I never even knew what he looked like, never knew that Israel died young from complicati­ons from his weight, never knew that at one point he was 757 pounds. Until people started mistaking me for him.

I am sitting with a friend in a bookstore when a lady politely interrupts our conversati­on to ask if I knew that Hawaiian singer. “You know who I’m talking about, right? The guy who is...” she stammers and then puffs out her cheeks. She can’t say the word. Over the years, I’ve learned that many can’t say it, as if the utterance of these three little letters would be a curse that would turn them into one.

I smile. I always do. “Yes,” I say. “I do know him.”

“You look just like him,” she says. “You could be twins.”

“I wish I could sing like him,” I say, still smiling. In my peripheral, my friend’s face reddens. She begins to pick at her cuticles, an indication she’s about to flip her lid, about to haul ass on this woman who doesn’t know any better. “Thank you,” I say quickly, “for your compliment.” When the woman is gone, my friend tears into her. “How rude. If she stayed a minute longer I would’ve cut her with...” She rummages through her purse and brings out a nail file. “This.”

I laugh and shrug. I tell her I’m used to it. I’ve been called Japanese, Samoan, Middle Eastern, Native American, and especially Hawaiian. In Hawaii, the locals think I’m a local, and I love it. At the market in Thailand, vendors speak English to me, trying to sell their wares at the farang price. It’s only when I open my mouth and speak do they realize with wide-eyed astonishme­nt that I am one of them.

In Southern Illinois, when I was finishing off my undergradu­ate degree, I played in a mixed doubles tennis league for a year. During that year, I was often paired with this petite Asian woman, and I thought it was our Asian mind meld that made us a special team, nearly winning all our matches with ease. We hung out after the league, but spoke only English, and our conversati­ons never left the perimeters of the tennis court. One day, my mother came to watch, and I was speaking to her in Thai in the lobby of the tennis club, bragging about how great I was, like most sons do.

The Asian woman came up to me suddenly and said, “Oh my god, you are Thai?”

She began speaking Thai. For the last year, she thought I was Indian because of my goatee, because of my girth. She couldn’t take her eyes off me, looking me up and down. In those seconds, she was reassessin­g the year we had known each other.

“Your dad is Thai?”

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