an illusion generated by the mind in each moment
Hunger is a complex phenomenon:
- "Name" and "form" (an absence of so-called food in the so-called stomach, with associated changes to the metabolism and sensory nerves)
- Consciousness of the sensations (probably a series of moments of consciousness, not a continuous consciousness)
- Feeling (how you feel about or perceive that sensation, for example, "this feels unpleasant")
- Craving ("I want the feeling and sensation to be gone, I want my craving to be satisfied")
- Attachment (deciding that "Food is the stuff which would satisfy this craving: I want food!")
Most of this is "mental", including your naming the components (hunger, stomach, food, etc.).
An analogy might be, watching a movie: the movie might be 'based on a true story' and even have 'real' actors, but by the time it's been turned into a movie there's a large illusory or mind-made component.
I think it isn't only an illusion though. Before he became enlightened the Buddha tried not eating: it's said he found that interfered with meditation, and he therefore chose the doctrine of the "middle way" (neither the extreme of asceticism nor the extreme of hedonism).
Buddhism has a lot to say to people about food (e.g. right behaviours and right attitudes to have, about food), and especially to monks.
why do we need to eat?
One theory is that human life is a good opportunity to experience dharma e.g. that things aren't permanent nor permanently satisfactory. Allegedly there are other, formless being in higher planes of existence, who don't need to "eat" as such, on the other hand it's hard or impossible for them to learn dharma.
So surely hunger is actually "real" and not just in my mind - because it will lead to me dying unnecessarily unless I react to it?
Consider the opposite side of that story too, though: people over-eat because they think they're hungry. Or they crave for the repetition of any number of other experiences.
The word "real" comes from the Latin word for "thing". I think that hunger has a real component, but also many mental components.
"My death" (i.e. "me" and "dying") are both concepts, too.
it doesn't matter how I imagine a situation is going in my mind
On the other hand it does matter: because most people aren't trying to kill you; if you go around thinking "this person may want to kill me" that has consequences (for example in how you behave, how you see yourself, and how people react).
why is it that an unmedicated schizophrenic would be physically unable to meditate
My experience is that an unmedicated schizophrenic may well be able to meditate; but they may have trouble communicating with other people, and/or other people have trouble communicating with them; and various social activities (wanting and keeping a job for example) may be difficult.
It depends on the person, and the situation, who's with them and how they react; depends on the medication too.
It's complicated, and psychiatric medications are simplistic, sometimes effective, sometimes not, often with undesirable physical side-effects but sometimes (depending) better than nothing.
So I don't agree with the teacher if they said "mentally ill people stopping all medication, because it was only a placebo" -- some medications aren't "only a placebo" and some patients benefit from them.
I also don't agree with your statement: it may be true that some people can't or don't meditate, it just isn't always true, in my experience.
I feel like I'm missing some vocabulary that would help me explain better
Two useful bits of vocabulary are "middle way" and "two truths".
"Middle way" has a specific historical meaning,
There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.
That historic meaning is especially relevant to food. I think "middle way" might also be used more generally, to mean avoiding other extremes: for example, "the world is just an illusion" is one extreme, and "thoughts are real" is maybe another extreme, and we're supposed to learn to avoid both these extremes, and to see each view in a proper context. There's a kind of nihilism that's explicitly defines as a "wrong view":
And what is wrong view?
'There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no contemplatives or brahmans who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.'
This is wrong view.
There's a lot written about "two truths" and I think that different schools of Buddhism may have said different things about it. I think that an example of "two truths" might be that, "I exist and I am Chris" is a so-called conventional truth, whereas "there is no thing which can be called Chris, Chris is a name applied to an assemblage of parts" is a so-called ultimate truth ... and they are both true, they are both truths (but perhaps also both untruths if they're merely concepts).
Then there's a non-duality doctrine (perhaps from later schools of Buddhism) which says that these two truths (conventional and ultimate) are one.
Another concept that may be worth remembering is that of "attachment to a view". A "view" is something fairly fixed or permanent (see e.g. the answers to this question). And having a fixed view, being attached to a specific view, may be unwise. Again it's a balancing act, i.e. Buddhism does define a set of views as "right" (i.e. "right view"), but also warns e.g. here or here or even here not to grasp at, not to argue about, not to be imprisoned by dogma.
why does it result in good karma when you feed starving people
A couple of reasons, one is that compassion and so on are meant to be the right way to behave socially:
These four attitudes are said to be excellent or sublime because they are the right or ideal way of conduct towards living beings (sattesu samma patipatti). They provide, in fact, the answer to all situations arising from social contact. They are the great removers of tension, the great peace-makers in social conflict, and the great healers of wounds suffered in the struggle of existence. They level social barriers, build harmonious communities, awaken slumbering magnanimity long forgotten, revive joy and hope long abandoned, and promote human brotherhood against the forces of egotism.
The Brahma-viharas are incompatible with a hating state of mind, and in that they are akin to Brahma, the divine but transient ruler of the higher heavens in the traditional Buddhist picture of the universe.
Another reason is, I think, that we may tend to be selfish, to have thoughts like, "this is my hunger, this is my food, I am more important than they are" ... and that kind of egoism is a cause of suffering. See also Dana.
Within a lay context (i.e. if you're not a monk who has nothing) perhaps you're supposed to find some balance (i.e. non-extreme) in your giving too.
But then isnt the child receiving negative karma for causing ME to go hungry, even though it was my choice?
No: the giving is your choice, your intention, your karma.
And why bother at all if only karma is real - the child's hunger isn't "real", so why end it?)
I like this Zen story:
- Nothing Exists
Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.
Desiring to show his attainment, he said: "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received."
Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.
"If nothing exists," inquired Dokuon, "where did this anger come from?"
I think the point of the doctrines of emptiness and non-self is to avoid unwise attachment (e.g. "this is me! this is mine!"), which would cause suffering (e.g. "this is changing, this is being lost, so woe is me!").
And anger (and probably hurt pride) and so on is a prime example of an afflictive emotion (see e.g. "unwholesome factors" listed on this page; or "poisons" listed on this page).
There are other examples of Zen stories which I think are intended to inform us how we ought to be behave -- this one, for example, is relevant to feeding a hungry child:
- Is That So?
The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbours as one living a
A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near
him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was
This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was,
but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.
In great anger the parent went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had
lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good
care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbours and everything
else he needed.
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her
parents the truth - the real father of the child was a young man who
worked in the fishmarket.
The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask
forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back.
Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: "Is that