Whisky and Buddhism

My favorite philosopher of all time has to be the Vietnamese exile, Thich Nhat Hanh. His book The Miracle of Mindfulness is one of my all-time favorites. Religious adherents, agnostics and atheists on any walk of life would benefit from taking the time to truly appreciate Thay, as his students affectionately refer to him, and the content of his vision. I highly recommend you buy a copy of this book to support his work. This is one of Thay’s most profound passages. Many years have gone by since my original perusal of it and I still find myself among moments that can be brought back to how important this one ideal is. I don’t have permission to reprint the exact words, but I’m not sure he would mind. If anyone asks, I’ll take it down, but for now:

Eating a tangerine

I remember a number of years ago, when Jim and I were first traveling together in the United States, we sat under a tree and shared a tangerine. He began to talk about what we would be doing in the future. Whenever we thought about a project that seemed attractive or inspiring, Jim became so immersed in it that he literally forgot about what he was doing in the present. He popped a section of tangerine in his mouth before he had begun chewing again. He was hardly aware he was eating a tangerine. All I had to say was, “You ought to eat the tangerine section you’ve already taken.” Jim was startled into realizing what he was doing. It was as if he hadn’t been eating the tangerine at all. If he had been eating anything, he was “eating” his future plans.

A tangerine has sections

If you can eat just one section, you can probably eat the entire tangerine. But if you can’t eat a single section, you cannot eat the tangerine. Jim understood. He slowly put his hand down and focused on the presence of the slice already in his mouth. He chewed it thoughtfully before reaching down and taking another section.

Later, when Jim went to prison for a activities against the war, I was worried about whether he could endure the four walls of prison and sent him a very short letter: “Do you remember the tangerine we shared when we were together? Your being there is like the tangerine. Eat it and be one with it. Tomorrow it will be no more.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh

A beautiful passage, and though a glass of good single malt is hardly like a prison for most of us, you can still begin to make your life better by sipping your whisky one sip at a time. Be sure that it’s the whisky you are sipping and not some lofty ideal that takes you away from the miracle in your glass. If you can’t drink one sip then you probably can’t drink the whole glass and I think that this is an important distinction worth pondering.

The irony, here, is that Thay is a teetotaler. Though even the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama, speculated that a Buddha could be ‘wrong’ about things sometimes, it is worth mentioning that a conversation about alcohol without discussing the darker side of it is hardly a conversation at all. Without balance, it’s a sales pitch and not a discussion. Considering the multitude of problem drinkers in our world, I think drinking one sip at a time and for a different reason is a good start to keeping those of us who are still healthy enough to imbibe from developing bad habits. While understanding your own limits and proclivities is very important, being enveloped in the moment that your senses are blessing you with is the true message here. Thay is talking about enjoying life responsibly when he suggests that Jim spend more time being aware of himself and less time shoving tangerines in his mouth. That’s not to say that some people aren’t better off abstaining completely… it’s more just something to think about in the moments between sips should you ever find yourself forgetting to smell the malt in the glass.

2 thoughts on “Whisky and Buddhism

  1. Katia

    What a lovely post! Thanks for sharing the things you learned. I love it when we learn even when we think we already know something- that happens to us all. I plan to share your thoughts (and TNH’s wisdom/teaching) on mindful eating w/ my niece’s and nephew and the rest of my adult family. It will be a beautiful intersection with saying grace before meals, yet mindful eating now makes me think this is like grace/prayer/grateful-noticing WHILE eating, not just before. So thanks for that insight today. Last month I chose to eat almost 100% raw and did have more mindful eating and I also ate less and with more appreciation. Your post came at a good time for me, in my personal life and as a psychotherapist who teaches mindfulness to my clients.Namaste-hb


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