One of the most useful concepts that I’ve found in the Pali Canon is the four nutriments. I had read some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on the four nutriments, which like all of his teachings are pretty mellow. Thus I was fairly shocked to discover the Pali Canon’s approach. This is what happens when you wander around accesstoinsight.org unsupervised.
Here’s a Sutta that gives the full treatment of the four nutriments:
So, physical hunger is like eating one’s own child, craving of sensation is like a flayed cow constantly chewed on by other creatures, craving of volitional activity is like being dragged into a pit of glowing embers, and craving of sense-consciousness is like being shot with 300 spears a day.
The four nutriments are clearly an important teaching. In the Discourse on Right View, the four nutriments are second in the list after sila (ethics) and before the four noble truths. What then, is this teaching teaching us?
One thing I have learned from it is that large chunks of my behavior and personality are driven by forces that aren’t merely impersonal, they are Frightening and Terrible. This was a startling realization when it sunk in. Nothing helps you to stop identifying with your personality more than realizing that it’s composed of blind, unthinking, unfeeling, hideous forces that would be evil if there was even a semblance of awareness in them. There isn’t though, they are zombie forces that constantly push you to act without realizing what you’re doing. They Are Not You.
There’s more I want to say about the four nutriments at some later date, it’s a teaching that continues to provide insight into to a great many other Buddhist topics.