On Fasting From a Buddhist's Perspective

Rev. Heng Sure, Ph.D. - http://paramita.typepad.com


A Jesuit priest Fr. Thomas Ryan who writes books on spirituality for Paulist Press, asked me to respond to questions about fasting in Buddhism. I answered as follows:

Q: Please identify yourself and your role at the Berkeley Buddhist monastery.

Rev. Heng Sure, Ph.D. I'm the Director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, President of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association and Senior Monastic Bhikshu of the late Chan Master Hsuan Hua. I've been a Buddhist monk in the Chinese Mahayana tradition for 29 years and received all of my training here in the United States at Gold Mountain Monastery in San Francisco and at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, in Talmage, California. I teach Buddhist-Christian Dialogue at the Graduate Theological Union.

Q: Does fasting hold a very significant place in Buddhist spiritual practice?

A: I want to emphasize that these comments do not represent the "Buddhist" approach to fasting; certainly within the large, global Buddhist family with all its diversity, there are many, many different attitudes and practices. My comments are based on one Buddhist's experiences, from the point of view of a monastic with nearly thirty years of practice as a monk, as well as two decades of pastoral service to lay communities both in Asia and in the West.

Fasting in the monastic community is considered an ascetic practice, a "dhutanga" practice. (Dhutanga means "to shake up" or "invigoration.") Dhutangas are a specific list of thirteen practices, four of which pertain to food: eating once a day, eating at one sitting, reducing the amount you eat, on alms-round, eating only the food that you receive at the first seven houses. These practices are adopted by individuals voluntarily, they are not required in the normal course of a Buddhist monastic's life of practice. The Buddha, as is well known, emphasized moderation, the Middle Way that avoids extremes, in all things. Fasting is an additional method that one can take up, with supervision, for a time.

Q: How did the Buddha's own experience influence the Buddhist approach to fasting?

A: The Buddha's spiritual awakening is directly related to fasting, but from the reverse. That is to say, only after the Buddha stopped fasting did he realize his mahabodhi, or great awakening. The founding story of the Buddhist faith relates how the Buddha was cultivating the Way in the Himalayas, having left his affluent life as a Prince of India. He sought teachers and investigated a variety of practices in his search for liberation from the suffering of old age, death and rebirth. In the course of his practices he realized that desire was the root of mortality. He determined, incorrectly, that if he stopped eating he could end desire and gain liberation from suffering. As the story goes, he ate only a grain of rice and a sesame seed per day. Over time he got so thin that he could touch his spine by pressing on his stomach. He no longer had the strength to meditate. He realized that he would die before he understood his mind; further, that desire does not end by force. At that point a young herds maid offered him a meal of milk porridge which he accepted. He regained his strength, renewed his meditation, and realized Buddhahood. So by quitting fasting, and eating in moderation, he realized the central tenet of Buddhist practice, moderation.

Q: In Buddhism, who fasts? Are there any exemptions due to age, e.g. do children fast? Do adults over a certain age not fast?

A: Fasting in the lay community in Asia is typified by the Chinese word "zhai" or "zai", which means at the same time "vegetarian" as well as "fasting." The point is that removing the meat from one's diet, twice a month on the new or full moon days, or six times a month, or more often, is often considered already a kind of fasting. The principle holds that removing indulgences from the diet, in this case, nutrients that are luxuries eaten to satisfy the desire for flavor, is already a form of fasting, and brings merit to the one who fasts.

For monastics, it's a different story. Fasting, because it is an difficult practice, is undertaken with supervision, under the guidance of a skilled mentor. Children rarely fast in any method connected with the Buddhist religion.

Q: What does a fast day "look" like, e.g. are some foods permitted but not others? Some drinks but not others? Or is it a complete abstinence from all food and all drink?

A: When a practitioner adopts a supervised fasting practice he or she eats dry bread for three days to prepare the stomach for no food. The standard fasting period is eighteen days and only a small amount of water is drunk daily. Most important is the ending of the fast, which requires small portions of thin porridge or gruel every few hours for three days, until the digestive system has come fully back to life. If this first fast is successful and beneficial to one's practice, then one can attempt a thirty-six day fast. Some fasters have extended the period gradually over years to include fasting for up to seventy-two days. This is an extreme practice that is only recommended to one who has taken all the required steps with the supervision of an experienced teacher.

Q: What kind of a place does fasting occupy in the life of the average Buddhist? How long would a normal fast be?

A: To understand how Mahayana Buddhists practice fasting, it helps to understand their daily practices regarding food. Many Buddhists are vegetarians, but not all, by any means. This comes as a surprise to many people who assume that Buddhists, being motivated by great compassion, would not eat the flesh of living beings. This issue has traditionally provoked debate among Buddhists. Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists from the Mahayana or Northern tradition are strict vegetarians. This tradition avoids the five pungent plants (onions, garlic, shallots, leeks and chives) as well as eggs, and of course, alcohol and tobacco in any form.

Avoiding dairy, and following a vegan diet is a personal option and not a requirement. Some Buddhists eat only once per day, before noon. This practice accords with an account in The Sutra In 42 Sections, a Mahayana Scripture, that relates how the Buddha ate one meal a day, before noon.

Q: To those who are not monks--and maybe even to some of those who are!--this may look extreme asceticism. presumably the emphasis on moderation finds more evident expression in the lives of non-monastics. where, for example, would fasting fit into the universe of lay buddhists who have families and jobs?

A: Fasting is not for everybody. The analogy is given of a car. Without gasoline in the tank, the car won't carry you down the road. Folks who function in the world of the marketplace need nutrition to carry on business. Certainly over-eating and under-eating both defeat the purpose of food, which is to nourish the body and keep us healthy so that we can work to benefit the world.

Q: Would the practice of fasting be different among vowed members within the tradition?

A: Laity who receive and observe the vows known as the Lay Bodhisattva Precepts stop eating at noon on six days of each month. The purpose of their limiting food intake is manifold: out of compassion for those suffering from starvation, they "give by reducing their share." Further, they respect the Buddha's practice of moderation and eat less on those days. The fasting observance is related to several liturgical practices observed on the six fasting days: they recite their precept codes, recite scriptures and increase their hours of meditation on those days.

Q: For what reasons would Buddhists fast?  Would one motivating reason tend to play a more significant role than others?

A: Some Buddhist laity feel that eating low on the food chain creates merit; eating less luxurious food creates an opportunity to serve the planet and all living beings. In this way the dining table becomes a place of practice.

Buddhist monastics who adopt the fasting practice described above do so by and large to purify their bodies and to clarify their thoughts. Fasting allows coarse thoughts to diminish, but strength also diminishes, so there is a trade-off between mental clarity and reduced ability to meditate as long. Some monastics report that the longer they fast, the more strength they have; so not everybody's experience is the same.

The Buddha's own experience showed him that fasting per se did not extinguish desire, it only subdued it. As soon as he resumed eating, his desire returned as well. It took concentration and insight to extinguish desire. The Buddha discovered that desire is rooted in the mind and can be transformed in the mind. Fasting can help that process of transforming desire to wisdom by subduing the body's coarse desires. Fasting is an aid to the Way, a supplementary practice that can lead to increased mental awareness of the connection between desire and human existence.

Moreover fasting highlights one's attachments to food and to good flavor; thus it helps the practitioner to distinguish how much of his or her craving for food is need, and therefore normal and necessary, and how much is greed, and therefore a hindrance to liberation.

Q: Is fasting related at all to almsgiving in general practice?

A: Monks from the Theravada tradition hold that it is necessary to accept without exception whatever the lay donors put in their alms bowls. If the donation includes meat, many Theravada monks will eat it, regardless. Mahayana monks and nuns feel that compassion should be the priority and it is a monk's duty to inform the laity that meat eating breaks the precept against killing. Killing obviously involves suffering in the animal killed for food; at the same time it harms the seeds of compassion in the heart of the one who kills or eats the animal's body. This principle informs the monastic's approach towards the alms that he or she accepts from laity.

Q: What significance does fasting hold for you personally?

A: I observed an eighteen day fast and was not particularly successful. My constitution tends towards pitta, or "fire" in the Indian Ayurvedic scheme and fasting makes my internal fire balance go over the top. Eating just enough, every day, of wholesome vegetarian food, seems to be the best balance for me.

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