Sutra Club: Food Sutta
Welcome to this week's Sutra Club. We're discussing SN46.51, the Ahara Sutta. The nest of links below are offered in the hope they will be useful, but there is no required reading for participation in this thread! In the comments, feel free to ignore the rest of this post if it doesn't speak to you.
I learned of this sutta through Thanissaro Bhikku's book Wings to Awakening, which has had an enormous positive impact on my meditation practice over the last ten months or so. My comments on the Food Sutta will be mostly owing to Thanissaro's perspective, though I am responsible for any inadequacies.
After the Mindfulness of Breathing and Four Foundations of Mindfulness suttas, this is the sutta in which I have found the most practical advice. Close study and experimentation with the advice in this sutta can pay huge dividends.
The Food Sutta gives advice about ways to stabilize, sharpen and gladden the mind for concentration and insight practice. It organizes this advice around the five hindrances (sensual desire, ill will, sloth/torpor, anxiety/restlessness, doubt/uncertainty), and the seven factors of awakening (mindfulness, analysis of qualities, persistence, concentration, rapture, serenity and equanimity), giving a little gloss on how to enhance and degrade each of these qualities.
The sutta speaks of "feeding" and "starving" the hindrances and and factors of awakening. As Thanissaro points out in his essay on the Food Sutta, this is not an idle metaphor:
The image of feeding and starving here is directly related to the insight into conditionality that formed the essential message of the Buddha's Awakening. In fact, when he introduced the topic of conditionality to young novices, he illustrated it with the act of feeding: All beings, he said, subsist on food. If their existence depends on eating, then it ends when they are deprived of food. Applying this analogy to the problem of suffering leads to the conclusion that if suffering depends on conditions, it can be brought to an end by starving it of its conditions.
This essay also gives a useful summary of the Food Sutta's recommendations for dealing with the five hindrances:
- Sensual desire is fed by inappropriate attention to the theme of beauty and starved by appropriate attention to the theme of unattractiveness. In other words, to starve sensual desire you turn your attention from the beautiful aspects of the desired object and focus instead on its unattractive side.
- Ill will is fed by inappropriate attention to the theme of irritation and starved by appropriate attention to the mental release through good will, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. In other words, you turn your attention from the irritating features that spark ill will and focus instead on how much more freedom the mind experiences when it can cultivate these sublime attitudes as its inner home.
- Sloth and torpor are fed by inappropriate attention to feelings of boredom, drowsiness, and sluggishness. It's starved by appropriate attention to any present potential for energy or effort.
- Restlessness and anxiety are fed by inappropriate attention to any lack of stillness in the mind, and starved by appropriate attention to any mental stillness that is present. In other words, both potentials can be present at any time. It's simply a matter of how to ferret out, appreciate, and encourage the moments or areas of stillness.
- Uncertainty is fed by inappropriate attention to topics that are abstract and conjectural, and starved by appropriate attention to skillful and unskillful qualities in the mind. In other words, instead of focusing on issues that can't be resolved by observing the present, you focus on an issue that can: which mental qualities result in harm for the mind, and which ones don't.
In short, each hindrance is starved by shifting both the focus and the quality of your attention.
I've been finding the recommendation of stillness for restlessness and anxiety particularly helpful. The meditation described starting at minute 22 of this talk has some useful advice about opening to stillness/space in different aspects of experience.
The recommendations of the Food Sutta for developing the factors of awakening are a little vague in places, so here are some links to clarifying commentary in the sutta's and Wings to Awakening.
Definition of the factors of awakening. In particular, paragraph  shows that rapture means the rapture of the first three jhanas. This means that one of the "mental qualities that act as a foothold for rapture as a factor for Awakening" is concentration itself. See also SN 45.8: "rapture & pleasure born of concentration." Delight is another foothold for rapture:
He should then direct his mind to any inspiring theme. As his mind is directed to any inspiring theme, delight arises within him. In one who feels delight, rapture arises.
SN 52.1 indicates that mindfulness is a food for equanimity as a factor for awakening. The passage immediately after that is relevant, too.
MN 62 describes how to consider the five elements as food for equanimity. The passage immediately after is relevant too.
SN 46.53 describes which factors of awakening should be developed when.
SN 12.23 lists some prerequisites for the development of each factor of awakening.