Nutriments Spread

The Buddha taught that we have four nutriments–the literal and metaphorical food that feeds our existence and keeps it going. Ultimately, one who has attained nirvana is said to have “exhausted” all nutriments, have no food to give future existences. From my perspective, since I don’t think I’ll become enlightened anytime soon, this all seems rather abstract. I had heard of the teaching of the nutriments before, but it went in one ear and out the other. But recently I started reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. He breaks down the four nutriments in a really relatable way and makes it something that I can work with at an everyday level.

The Four Nutriments

1. Edible Food. “What we eat or drink can bring about mental or physical suffering.” (p 32) And this is not only what we eat, but how we eat it. Are we appreciative of our food and understand the work, suffering, and sacrifice it took to make it to our mouths, or do we just shovel it in? (I’m pretty guilty of the latter.) Do we use food for things that have nothing to do with food, like eating out of boredom or stress?

2. Sense Impressions. This relates not only to what we see, smell, taste, touch, hear, and think (Buddhism considers mind to be the sixth sense) as we walk down the street or go about our lives, but also what kind of media we consume.

3. Volition/intention/will. What we fundamentally believe about life, and believe to be our goal in life, will determine how we act and where we place our attention. Sometimes these beliefs are so deeply believed that we don’t even notice them as beliefs even though they motivate everything we do. Examples of non-helpful volitions would be, “My dad is to blame for all the problems in my life” or “once I own my own home, I’ll finally be happy” or “life is always going to be hard and unfair.” I know one volition that drove my actions for many years was, “My purpose is to be a professor of literature.” Letting go of volitions can be very freeing.

4. Consciousness. Consciousness is the ultimate repository for all the other nutriments and the place from which we act in response to them. “Every day our thoughts, words, and actions flow into the sea of our consciousness and create our body, mind, and world. [. . .] Our consciousness is eating all the time, day and night, and what it consumed becomes the substance of our life. We have to be very careful which nutriments we ingest.” (p. 36)

When I read this today, the thought popped into my head: this would make a great tarot spread! I mean, it seems esoteric, but Thich Nhat Hanh has a point: we are what we eat, literally and metaphorically. Over the past few years, I have come to understand this more clearly through my own experience. He advises: “Use your Buddha eyes to look at each nutriment you are about to ingest. If you see that it is toxic, refuse to look at it, listen to it, taste it, or touch it.” (p. 34)

Ultimately, what we choose to consume determines so much about our lives. Paying attention to how we feed ourselves is useful for well-being on a daily level, even if we have no plans to exhaust all nutriments any time soon!

I think it’s important to look at what we consume and really experience it, but I also think tarot can be a supplemental set of Buddha eyes. So I thought, OK, let’s make this a spread.

Nutriments Spread

I think this is probably best for general inquiries rather than specific questions. It’s a snapshot of where the seeker is right now, a quick glance at how their consumption directs their life path. For that reason, I think it’s also a good idea to use a signifier/significator if you are in the habit of using one. I laid these cards on top of the signifier in a little cross going counterclockwise and starting at the bottom. Since this is a where-am-I-at-in-my-life kind of spread, you might also want to consider reading without reversals. When I did this spread, I had reversals in the deck but all the cards came out upright.

Position 1: What is my food nutriment? Yes, this is asking the tarot a literal question about what you eat. If tarot is a holistic system, why not? I think this is not just about what we eat, but about how we prepare and eat it. What are our attitudes toward food? Are they wrapped up in other stuff?

Position 2: What are the sense impressions I take in? I think this also about our attitude toward those sense impressions. What do we consume? Why do we consume it?

Position 3: What is my volition? What drives me? What is the direction of my life, based on beliefs I hold?

Position 4: How do I receive and express the other nutriments? What is the nature of my consciousness?

I did a reading with spread for myself, and got some interesting answers. Like my other Dharma spread with the Four Noble Truths, I was surprised by how clearly this spoke.

Four nutriments spread with the amazing Linestrider Tarot Deck.
Four nutriments spread with the amazingly beautiful Linestrider Tarot Deck.

Position 1: What is my food nutriment? Eight of Pentacles. OK, so I admit that I was a bit stumped by this one at first and will continue to think about it. It makes sense that this is a pentacles card, and thus has the earth element. I don’t really know what kind of answer I was expecting, but this intrigues me. I do put a fair amount of thought into my diet. Being vegan, I have to think a lot about where my food comes from and what it contains. I can also see myself chipping away toward perfection when it comes to cooking and enjoying food. So I guess the whole diligent work/apprenticeship aspect of this card makes sense.

Position 2: What are the sense impressions I take in? The Hermit. Turning away from the world and toward oneself for spiritual pursuits. Man, I have been so feeling this lately. I’ve really stopped watching TV and movies, looking at certain kinds of sites on the internet, and reading fiction. While I do consume lots of certain kinds of media (Instagram is my downfall) I’ve just lost the desire to get caught up in a bunch of stories, whether real or false, good or bad. Instead, I’m turning toward things that I hope will nourish me, such as books about Buddhism, tarot, and drawing. I also spend a lot of time at home, so my daily round of sense impressions can be limited sometimes. Over the past few days, I’ve been contemplating writing a post on my other blog about this very topic. Honestly, I feel a little silly getting this card, although I have to admit that it flashed in my mind as I was choosing which card to take out of the pile, so I wasn’t totally surprised when I turned it over. It just seems like this is the card I wanted to get–so is it where I’m really at, or where I aspire to be?

Position 3: What is my volition? The High Priestess. This is another doozy! The High Priestess–also a card of inwardness, spiritual awakening, and quiet. The High Priestess also happens to be my birth/essence card. After I found this out a few months ago, a lot of things about my personality finally started to make sense–the mysteriousness of the High Priestess is in line with feedback I get from other people and with my Meyers-Briggs personality type. So…my volition in this case is my essential personality, the one I came out of the womb with in this lifetime and have been modifying ever since. To me, this is comforting and it puts me on my guard. The High Priestess aspires to higher truths, but on the other hand, if I just keep going through life without changing or challenging my personality, am I setting myself up to be deluded?

Position 4: How do I receive and express the other nutriments? Page of Swords. This is a card of intellect like other swords cards. The Page of Wands is logical and articulate and love to have opinions. Yuuup. I tend to run most things through the slot machine of the intellect–this is a habit. It’s also something I do compulsively and often without purpose–hence the Page rather than, say, the King of Swords: that intellect isn’t often put to its best use. I like the Page of Swords just fine, but I also need to know when to back off.

I was really not expecting the spread to speak that clearly. I mean, it spoke embarrassingly clearly. This is pretty much stuff I already knew, but I am glad to know that tarot and my Buddha eyes are seeing the same thing!


  1. Barry Comer says:

    I’m not sure my one trained texting thumb can handle a huge reply. However, I am very aware of your mindfulness and how deliberate you appear.

    Second, number 3 seems to be most elusive yet, hugely important moment to moment and forever.

    It evades yet is omnipresent to he point of invisibility.


    1. Emily says:

      Thanks, Barry! Thank you for reading so mindfully and deliberately! Yes, the volitions are really difficult to see, like they are just in your peripheral vision, and then you turn and they are gone.


  2. Once again, thank you Emily!! I am thoroughly enjoying learning more about Buddhism through your tarot experiences. I’ve always been intrigued by Buddhism but never found such easily readable and understandable expressions of it so for that I am very thankful 🙂 x


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