New year, new tenuously legitimate diet rooted in spirituality. The Buddha diet is one of January’s horde. Ostensibly rooted in sensible, restrictive eating, it’s also one of the latest examples of consumer society co-opting asceticism to sell stuff. The book Buddha’s Diet is climbing bestseller lists; Buddha bowls, the once left-field food-truck lunches, are coming to Marks & Spencer (branded as nourish bowls); and the 15-strong chain of Buddha Bars has just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Nothing, it seems, is safe from this blasphemous gravy train.
“It’s hardly surprising that people are trying to sell things attached to the concept of Buddhism,” says Singhamanas, who was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist order in 2012 and now works at the London Buddhist Centre. “It’s the idea that something can give you peace, ease, energy – something mysterious, something holy but not religious.”
Semantically, it’s a logical next step on from mindfulness, which has mutated from meditative practice to a post-lunch app, and gone mass. Accountability lies with the “clever PR gurus” who have cottoned on to this, says Singhamanas. “In this economic system, all it takes is someone to apply that word to something and it suddenly seems very attractive.”
Tucked away, though, there is method here. The co-author of Buddha’s Diet, Dan Zigmond, is an ordained monk, and intermittent fasting has always been key to Buddhism. Given our propensity towards extremes “Buddha’s ‘middle way’ of moderation might have particular relevance” now, he suggests. It’s a good diet: avoid processed foods, eat more protein, dine slowly and not late. There are even cheat days when you can gorge, so forgiving is the religion.
In fairness, Buddhism has long had healthy eating nailed. The Buddha effigy – cuddly, pot-bellied – is actually a 1,000-year-old Chinese monk. “The real Buddha was quite fit,” says Zigmond. Equally, Buddha Bowls (vegetarian medleys in, yes, bowls) have authenticity, being loosely based on the practice of ōryōki – meditative eating – and the bowls are modelled on Buddha’s head.
As you might expect from a Buddhist, Singhamanas is relatively tolerant about the rebranding. “Most Buddhists are pretty easy-going – I haven’t heard anyone pontificating over M&S ,” he says, “but it might be a little misleading.”
He is more offended by the chain of Buddha Bars. Named, it is thought, because the original space was not dissimilar to a temple and the music played to customers considered to be “Zen-like”, there was a small outcry, some protests in Jakarta and blacking out of the bar’s CDs in Dubai over fears of idolatry. To Singhamanas “it’s not ethical. Buddhism promotes clarity and awareness, something the alcohol industry isn’t exactly behind.” Equally, consumerism is contradictory to the basic tenet of Buddhism: the idea of ending suffering through detachment. James Shaheen, editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, agrees: “If you’re selling something a buyer doesn’t really need, it helps to imbue it with some promise of spiritual fulfilment or peace. It works for the seller. The buyer often regrets it.”
So why now, why 2017? One could blame post-Brexit vote/pre-Trump anxiety. “Judging by the number of people coming through the doors now, I’d say people aren’t looking forward to the new year,” says Singhamanas. “With regards to politics and the environment, they are feeling apprehensive and are looking for something to ground them.” He’s sceptical as to whether a healthy snack from M&S can save us from existential crisis: “If a bowl were able to give you all that – if it were that easy – I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”