Buddha and a Box of Donuts

I was residing at Wat Pah Nanachat (the “International Monastery” originally founded by the beloved Thai monk Ajahn Chah) outside Ubon Ratchathani, a medium-sized town in Thailand not far from the border of Cambodia. Although I wasn’t a monk at the time, my lifestyle was similarly austere. I slept on a bamboo cot placed in the middle of the jungle with nothing but a mosquito net above me, no ceiling, no walls, no electricity, just a thin blanket and a small backpack’s worth of belongings–a change of clothes, toothbrush, miniature flashlight, journal and a few pens for writing.

Mornings were marked by meditation, chanting, a light breakfast, then extensive sweeping of the many trails that coursed throughout the temple grounds and surrounding jungle. Before noon, I’d return to the main temple for what would be the final meal of the day (monks of the Theravadin tradition are prohibited from eating after 12 o’clock). It was here, during one such repast, that this anecdote of monks and donuts unfurled.

Now, I cannot adequately tell this tale without mentioning Gil, a fellow American about my age with whom I became fast friends when I arrived at the monastery. Gil was a spiritual seeker and traveler like myself, a kindred soul, smart, curious, witty. We’d spend hours each afternoon and evening chatting it up, discussing everything about Buddhism in particular, and metaphysics in general, we could together fathom. Gil’s penchant for sarcasm, mixed with a splash of cynicism, kept our conversations lively and entertaining. Like me, he found the quest for enlightenment to be somewhat, well, funny.

Like all Buddhist temples and monasteries in Thailand, Wat Pah Nanachat was primarily supported by local community members who daily brought a wide assortment of home-prepared dishes, fruits, vegetables and sweets to feed the monks. While I was there, regularly as many as twenty various dishes would be offered at each meal. When these items first arrived, they were laid upon a series of long tables positioned end-to-end outside the main temple. The monks would then gather around the food, chant a series of blessings, then return inside to wait for the food to be formally presented for consumption.

There were no tables inside the temple. The monks sat cross-legged, shoulder-to-shoulder in order of seniority, on a raised dais that ran along one of the walls; they all faced inward toward the middle of the large room where everyone else sat on the floor, the nuns being frontmost toward the main altar with the resident laypeople–like me and Gil–behind them.

Before each meal, Gil and I would curiously shuffle past the display of food to gleam a sneak peek at the day’s fare. Usually, the dishes remained consistent from one day to the next, bowls of minced meats, plates of raw or lightly stir-fried vegetables, rice and noodle dishes, local fruits. As delicious as this food was, in a simple way, it did become redundant after a while, especially to the indulgent proclivities of our youthful, American palates. Needless to say, Gil and I practically jumped out of our flip-flops when, one fateful lunchtime, our gaze lit upon the mirage-like box of glistening, glazed and colorfully frosted morsels fresh from the local 7-11. Our mouths started watering instantly. Oooooooooooooooh, donuts!


But here was our dilemma. Would we actually get the opportunity to indulge in one of these confectionary dynamos? You see, we knew the drill far too well by this point and firmly understood what we were up against. It’s not like we were at Souper Salad or Luby’s where it’d be first come first serve. No, no, no. The abbot of the temple would get first dibs on everything, then each monk in turn after him, then the nuns, then us, the resident laypeople. We quickly counted the donuts. Thirteen. Counted the monks. Eleven. Counted the nuns. Five. It was going to be close. The ruminations between us ensued.

Sitting in the temple waiting to eat, Gil and I turned this into hearty fodder for debate. Considering the utter lack of nutritional value of a donut, we reasoned that, surely, no monk would elect to choose one as part of his meal. I mean, what would be the point? Monks are dedicated to renunciation and liberation from the appetites of the senses, right? Absolutely, we agreed. Most of the monks will skip it, pass the box right along to the next person, then there will bound to be some left over for us, the less enlightened, more worldly, cravers of decadent, mortal pleasures. Well, I guess we’ll see. We watched on avidly, breath held in mounting suspense as one dish after the next was offered to the abbot until, at long last, the donuts arrived. There they are! What will he do? Will he take one? Surely he won’t take one. No way. No way…

The abbot took one and passed the rest. What?! Noooooooooooooooooo! Of all the monks there, we were certain that the abbot, most of all, would have abstained. Ha, Gil chuckled privately to me, I told you, no way the donuts make it to us. We then proceeded to helplessly witness one donut after the next disappear into the bowl of each subsequent monk and, with each one, a bit of our idealism about the transcendent nature of these spiritual heroes of ours. What a bunch of fakes, we commiserated, seeing our chances for indulging our own appetites rapidly dwindle.

Eventually, the donuts reached the eighth monk, a small-statured fellow, fairly young, who was amongst the newer members of the sangha. Like the monks before him, he also grabbed a donut from the box. However, unlike those before him, he broke it into half, placed one portion into his bowl and returned the other to the box. Gil and I smiled at each other instantly, deducing the same thing.

Ah, the diamond in the rough! This monk, so unassuming, ensconced in the back of the saffron-robed pack, displayed the true essence of the Buddhist spirit, to walk neither the path of decadence nor the path of deprivation, but the middle path. Half a donut, the perfect solution, that perfect balance between absolute restraint (zero donuts) and absolute grasping (a full donut). That monk, in one subtle, graceful rending of fried yumminess, captured the enduring essence of the Buddha’s true teachings.

Although the donuts never reached us that day, Gil and I both left the monastery together about a month or so later. On the way to the train station, we made a quick detour to attend to our previously unfulfilled yearning. We made a single purchase from that 7-11: one donut to share between us, divided equally upon “The Middle Way”.