Four Nutriments metaphor

Four Nutriments of the Buddha: The 4 “Foods” of Seductive Suffering

This week I’ve been reading The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings: Transforming Suffering into Peace and Liberation, by Thich Nhat Hanh. Early in I came across the presentation of The Four Nutriments identified by the Buddha. These are Food, Sense Impression, Volition, and Consciousness. I found this immediately interesting from an elemental perspective as they lend themselves well to elemental classification. Food as earth, Sense Impressions as air, Volition as water, and Consciousness, as always, fire. 

The Idea presented is that humans can bring ourselves suffering or happiness based on what we consume of these types of sustenance. Starting with the first of the four nutriments, the physical, if we eat food that disservices ourselves we bring suffering. This is easily understandable but also expanded by Hanh to include that if we eat food that damages the society, or the world around us, we are also bringing ourselves suffering by “eating the flesh of our children.”

The depth of this lesson shines through when we start acknowledging the other three nutriments. Hanh mentions impressions of the sense as perceived by our six-senses. He lists the Eyes, Ears, Nose, Tongue, Body and Mind as the six senses,  implying our intellectual sense as a receiver. This nutriment constitutes the information and impressions received on all of these parts. The ideas of the world swirling around us begging to hook our attention, that we might record them in our ever racing mind. The multitudes of distracting ideas in advertisements, social media, television, etc. If the first nutriment is physical food, the second nutriment includes all of the sensational and immaterial things we consume. The concepts and energetic misdirection of reality.

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The third Nutriment gets even deeper, to the core of what some might call our heart, a trait of water. This nutriment is identified as volition, our will. We could also call it our intention, though whatever it’s name, it refers to our goals, desires, or wishes for outcome. It is the desired destinations we are pushing our lives to. A common tenet across styles of Buddhism is that our suffering rises from our desires. This stresses the importance of analyzing our desires, and minimizing them, to in turn minimize suffering and make room for happiness. This nutriment is different from the first two because it isn’t exactly something we consume like food. It is more what we are bringing or chasing, some might say “manifesting” though that word is so riddled with connotation I stutter to write it anymore. It is the idea, written by Emerson, that “once we make a decision the universe conspires to make it happen.” Our will for the future is as much a food to us as the food we eat because it is the fuel for our motivation. The energy behind our inspiration.

The fourth of these Four Nutriments is Consciousness. Hanh explains this nutriment as both the individual consciousness, and communal consciousness. It is our recorded experience. The points in our life that have made us who we are. It’s important to note however, that experiences do not make us unless we allow them to. These points in time are the ones that we cling to in the present. We think about past experiences and the state of the world, political turmoil, and emotional scars. All of these things that become chapters in our experience, in time become the “food” of our consciousness. This is because we allow these things to become our characteristics, and we build our individual consciousness from them. With this the food of consciousness seems to be the most elusive, but equally the most impactful. Hanh explains that the food of consciousness is “all these events we have buried in our consciousness and we have not been able to transform.” like “Chewing the cud of our suffering and despair” because every time we ruminate on the past we are living in it, allowing ourselves to be abused or tortured again, when it is no longer happening in the present.

Four Nutriments: Consciousness

These four “foods” are a remarkable perspective at where suffering comes from in our lives, a key principle taught in the second of The Four Noble Truths. While I am only just beginning this depth of research into Buddhism, I find it refreshing and also inspiring to see the patterns of four present in many of the Buddha’s teachings. The Four Noble Truths, The Four Nutriments, and The Eightfold Path are just a few examples. Viewing these ideas through our elemental ideaology brings a new layer of meaning to each individual element.

For years I have believed and witnessed that what we consume plays a major role on what we perceive in our experience.It is rejuvenating to see these ideas put so plainly in text. I entirely support that if we understand the principles behind The Four Nutriments, we will find ourselves embracing more happiness than suffering, or at the very least, understanding better where our suffering begins, so that we can begin the process of “cessation of suffering”: the third of the Four Noble Truths. Couldn’t we all enjoy a little less suffering in our lives?


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