Monks face battle of the bulge
An initiative is under way to improve the diets and health of the clergy
A network of monks in the provinces has come together to promote better health in the brotherhood, many of whom suffer a myriad of illnesses, and provide the proof in the pudding that healthy eating and Buddhism can go hand in hand.
Experts have found many monks' poor diets stems largely from eating unhealthy food offered as alms by local people along with insufficient exercise.
Health problems among monks is a nationwide issue.
Last year, in the upper Northeast alone, where there are more than 6,000 temples with about 40,000 monks, around 2,500 monks were admitted to hospitals, up from 2,200 in 2015, said assistant NHCO secretary-general Sutthipong Wasusophaphon.
He said many sick monks require long and increasingly complicated treatment procedures which can only be delivered with sophisticated medical equipment that is lacking in far-flung hospitals.
Some had to be referred to better-equipped hospitals in Bangkok. The problem of limited medical resources poses a tough challenge to the goal of radically improving health in the clergy, as set out in the Monks' Health Charter.
The charter, signed into effect by the Supreme Sangha Council in March last year, set out a number of objectives, including requiring monks to take a lead in promoting a healthy lifestyle in their localities.
However, that goal can only be met if monks are seen to be taking good care of their own health, according to Mr Sutthipong.
Addressing health issues among those in the saffron robes needs an integrative approach, said Phra Maha Ekkachai Wisutho of Wat Sri Chompoo Ongtue in Tha Bo district of Nong Khai, who is head of the programme to promote healthcare in Buddhism.
He said the scheme has been implemented with the help of volunteers and is hooked up with networks of advocates who are working to improve the diet and exercise habits of monks in Nong Khai and nearby provinces.
As part of the initiative, the Sappaya Centre was built to help educate and improve healthcare for monks in the Mekong River basin. Sappaya means to be "at ease".
Phra Maha Ekkachai explained the centre came about after high-ranking monks in Nong Khai raised concerns about the rise in chronic illnesses at their wats. They saw that the first steps towards tackling the problem had to involve education about the importance of diet and how that relates to Buddhist teachings.
The programme, which receives funding from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, is also studying the reasons for poor health among certain groups of monks and looking into ways to fix the problem.
There is a strong focus on the monks' diet. Dietary and public health experts have visited temples to give monks and temple cooks guidance about nutrition and balanced diets, and temple spokespeople and local radio stations have begun reaching out to communities to encourage the giving of healthier alms.
"The words being put out are that we must nourish the monks in the right way as a prerequisite for nurturing and sustaining Buddhism," said Phra Maha Ekkachai.
People should serve monks more dishes consisting of vegetables instead of fatty food such as deep-fried fritters and curries thick in coconut milk and cream, he said.
The senior monk added that serving monks with non-meat dishes is consistent with the fundamental Buddhist principle against taking lives.
Also essential is embracing moderation, which is another core Buddhist teaching. While monks cannot turn down alms offered them every morning by devotees, they can control how much they can eat, he said.
"The food, no matter how good it looks on the plate or how lovely it tastes to the palate, will lose all that appeal once it passes through the oesophagus," he said, adding that another lesson in Buddhist teaching is not to be swayed by outward appearances, which are impermanent.
Monks in some temples mix together savoury dishes with the sweets in their alms bowls and eat them together so they can transcend notions of taste and appreciate the intrinsic value of the food itself.
Monks generally eat two meals a day but they often overindulge, and doing chores such as sweeping the temple grounds is not vigorous enough exercise to burn off those extra calories, he said.
Phra Maha Ekkachai explained that health and well-being are also influenced by physical surroundings. The monks must keep their living quarters clean and orderly to keep them from becoming breeding grounds for diseases.
He said, so far, 20 out of about 100 temples in Tha Bo district have joined the healthcare promotion programme.
Phra Maha Ampon Thanapanyo, of Wat Jampathong in the district, said he weighed 110 kg six months ago, but after changing his eating habits and adopting a healthier diet he has shed 12kg.
His daily meals nowadays are mostly made up of vegetables. He exercises regularly opting for the Buddhism-conforming routines of body contortion or Rusee Dad Ton (a Thai version of yoga). He also takes a longer route when walking to collect morning alms.
Monks are expected to carry themselves in a calm, composed manner and some worry that energetic exercise may seem unbecoming. However, "I have to keep my weight in check," said Phra Maha Ampon, who is also part of the programme's networks of volunteers.
In Udon Thani, Phra Maha Ekkapong Ekwachiro, 27, of Wat Machimawas in Muang district, who frequently feasts on an unhealthy laab (spicy minced meat salad) dish prepared with raw meat said doctors told him he is in danger of suffering from high cholesterol.
Ordained as a novice monk when he was 12 years old, and weighing 55 kg, many years of a diet steeped in sweet, salty and fatty fare have seen him balloon to 120 kg.
"I'm also genetically susceptible to easy weight gain. I inherited the obesity gene from my mother's side of the family, I think," he said.
Concerned by the billowing waistlines of the men of the robe, Suwat Boonphasang, an 82-year-old resident of Muang district in Nong Khai who often cooks lunch at a neighbourhood temple, Wat Pho Chai, now prepares meals which are less fatty. Her menus include grilled fish and nam prik (chilli paste) dip.
"If the monks eat too much market-bought food, it might bloat them and they won't feel comfortable carrying all that fat on their bodies," she said.
Atthaporn Limpanyalert, assistant secretary-general of the National Health Security Office (NHSO), said many of the 300,000 monks and 50,000 novice monks nationwide cannot access gold card universal health insurance.
This is mainly because they are staying in the temples outside of the domiciles where they registered to receive treatment under the scheme.
The monks are being urged to transfer their registration to hospitals close to their temples while the NHSO is also working with the Supreme Sangha Council, the National Office of Buddhism and the local administrative organisations to set up a fund to provide free check-ups to help prevent or diagnose ailments before they become serious.