Gandhi, a Hindu ascetic, was adamant that the spiritual well being of a person was not disconnected from one's diet. He said "The body was never meant to be treated as a refuse bin, holding all the foods that the palate demands." Do the different sects of Buddhism have recommended dietary regimens? If so, what are they?
In some of the Suttas in which the Buddha describes the gradual training leading to enlightenment there is the following stock passage:
"Now, when a disciple of the noble ones is consummate in virtue in this way, guards the doors to his sense faculties in this way, knows moderation in eating in this way, is devoted to wakefulness in this way, is endowed with seven qualities in this way, and obtains at will — without trouble or difficulty — the four jhanas that constitute heightened awareness and a pleasant abiding in the here-&-now in this way, then he is called a disciple of the noble ones who follows the practice for one in training, whose eggs are unspoiled, who is capable of breaking out, capable of awakening, capable of attaining the supreme rest from the yoke."
This is explained in other places like so:
"And how does a monk know moderation in eating? There is the case where a monk, considering it appropriately, takes his food not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on bulk, nor for beautification, but simply for the survival & continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the holy life, thinking, 'I will destroy old feelings [of hunger] & not create new feelings [from overeating]. Thus I will maintain myself, be blameless, & live in comfort.' This is how a monk knows moderation in eating."
As for Monks in the Theravada school, they only eat a single meal a day and do it before noon (although they are allowed to divide that meal into portions and have rice gruel before almsround). This kind of practice is also part of the 8 precepts that laypeople sometimes voluntarily undergo. The Buddha described the benefits of this practice here:
I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was wandering on a tour of Kasi with a large community of monks. There he addressed the monks: "I abstain from the night-time meal. As I am abstaining from the night-time meal, I sense next-to-no illness, next-to-no affliction, lightness, strength, & a comfortable abiding. Come now. You too abstain from the night-time meal. As you are abstaining from the night-time meal, you, too, will sense next-to-no illness, next-to-no affliction, lightness, strength, & a comfortable abiding."
As can be seen, it isn't so much what you eat as how you relate to eating. If you eat with the attitude of caring for your health rather than for sheer pleasure, that will support your practice. Because this teaching is aimed at monks however, it is not required for a layperson to renounce eating food for the purpose of pleasure. It is only a recommended practice for laypeople.
On the subject of eating meat, the Buddha laid down three restrictions. In the Jivaka Sutta the Buddha said:
"Jeevaka, those who say, that living things are killed on account of the recluse Gotama, and he partakes that knowing, because it was killed on account of him. They are not my words, and they blame me falsely. Jeevaka, I say that on three instances meat should not be partaken, when seen, heard or when there is a doubt. I say, that on these three instances meat should not be partaken. I say, that meat could be partaken on three instances, when not seen, not heard and when there is no doubt about it."
In this particular sutta the Buddha not only permitted meat, but rejected the idea that eating meat is inherently evil. This fits in with the Buddha's other teachings on morality that Karma goes by intention. The killing involved with meat is too far removed from the eating of it to automatically make eating meat morally wrong.
That doesn't mean that it is wrong to be a vegetarian however. If out of compassion one desires to support the welfare of animals by vegetarianism I think that is a beautiful thing. It is just something above and beyond what is morally required of a person.
As far as dietary guidelines for Enlightenment, I really like the "Three Gunas" model. I feel many people these days lack fundamental intuition for what constitutes good or bad energy when it comes to eating. The Three Gunas model provides a set of guidelines that people can follow until they develop an intuitive feel for healthy eating.
In their simplest form, the three gunas can be defined as:
Tamas, the abstract energy of stagnation, ignorance, stupor.
Rajas, the abstract energy of passion, aggression, impulsion.
Sattva, the abstract energy of purity.
In context of the diet, these translate to:
- Tamas: food that is not fresh, or has tatty/grubby/frowsy atmosphere about it.
- Rajas: Food that stimulates primitive senses with crude strong flavors.
- Sattva: Simple, ascetic food.
The first category includes food that is spoiled, burned, lifeless, but also anything that was evidently cooked without much care for the quality of ingredients, processing, or the final result. Much of cheap non-veggy food falls into this category. This food is edible but you may feel dirty as you eat it or slightly sick afterwards. You'd think no one eats like this, but in my observations quite a few people have very low standards when it comes to food freshness and quality. Consuming this food lowers and slows down one's energy on all levels: mental, physical, and emotional.
The second category first and foremost includes good meat and spicy food. It also includes high-quality fast food with its exaggerated flavors appealing to a primitive taste and conducive to indulging. This food is very pleasant to eat, and at its best, gives you a lot of energy, although more often than not you may feel too excited while eating it, and too stuffed afterwards. Consuming this food feeds emotions such as anger and lust.
The third category emphasizes plain products like milk, grains, simple bread, fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts, and non-spicy herbs -- fresh or processed by boiling/steaming. (Fried vegetables, while still pretty pure, usually borderline between Sattva and Rajas.) Consuming this type of food calms down emotions and clarifies the mind, but may make you a bit too pacified to effectively function in the modern society.
As usual, there are no strict boundaries here. As with colors of the rainbow, there are some items that are used as typical exemplary models of a given category, while some fall in between. What's important, is to get a feel for the energy behind the food, and how it affects your own energy and the state of mind.
To answer your specific question, anyone seeking Enlightenment should definitely stay away from anything remotely resembling
Tamas-food. I also recommend reducing consumption of
Rajas, but not to the level of zero. In my experience, 80% of Sattva and 20% of Rajas gives a good balance between clarity and drive. As most advices on Enlightenment, this only applies until you reach stream-entry, at which point you will be able to see and decide on your own.
Food we eat is linked to sensations we experience. So best is to choose food which doesn't give unpleasant sensations, drowsiness, etc.
Oily food leads to sleepiness. Spicy food lead to burning sensations. Meat lead to arousal.
In Buddhism unlike Hinduism there is no special dietary requirements, but having a light diet which doesn't bring up discomfort can help.
Also be mindful of sensations (taste, chewing) we experience while eating also. Something which most likely to cause attachment.
Of course it is not healthy to eat very fat meats, candies or deep fried food, but it has nothing to do with Buddhism, I am not sure about Gandhi but maybe he was refering to the amount of food (monks eat once a day) and not the quality of it.
Regarding what you should not eat, from a Theravada's perspective (Mahayana is more inclined to vegetarianism), this is the list:
You should not kill the animal.
You should not ask anyone to kill it for you. Do not eat if you suspect it was purposly killed for you.
You should not eat if you see or hear the animal being killed.
Certain meats are not allowed like human flesh, elephants etc... due to some cases in the time of the Buddha (like the lady that cut her own flesh to make a soup for a sick monk), he prohibited these types of meats, some animals used to belong to the king and should not be eaten as well.
Source: Bhante Dhammavvuddho Thero (Theravada monk) that taught me that.
I am not relying on traditional writings attributed to the Buddha, but upon knowledge of Buddhism and common sense as far as do no harm, but let me preface my comments that food by itself cannot prevent you from enlightenment. For instance the Tibetans lived in a high polar desert barely able to grow barley and raise animals to survive eating a diet heavy in meat. On the other hand, Buddhists in India often avoided meat because it so easily spoiled in their hot climate without refrigeration and could sicken the body. Neither place has an exclusive on enlightenment. If you fast forward to today, one thing one might do is consider foods that are friendly to the environment, that are not depleting forests like palm oil plantations, and do no harm to animals, eggs with range fed chickens. Tofu, soybean curd, can often replace meat and provide a high protein diet that seems to provide a keener awareness during meditation in people that are especially sensitive to a high carbohydrate diet and cycle between highs and lows in their mood and blood sugar levels. I think food is not a universally prescribed component of the path to awakening but varies according to geography, individual sensitivities to certain foods and local availability of food types. Shakyamuni was reported to have rice pudding with milk and sugar. It was what he had presented to him. Later he reportedly ate spoiled meat because it was presented to him. In that acceptance there is a strong message for us about how open we can be about food.
Any food in moderation is enough only one should have it without lobha, dosa and moha. Once in Buddha time , Anagami lady who knew the other's mind, serving the monks who worked hard for enlightenment. The monks without having their food to taste, could not work hard, perceiving that the Anagami lady served according to taste and all monks got enlightened. Again in this story, the monks might come to know the lady who served food knew their mind and tried to get rid of this defilement, better concentrate on meditation and thus got enlightened. All these count. So it depends on individual so far to get moderation and only thing is concentrate on the meditation, purifying the mind, be scare of danger of Sansara and get enlightened.