On Fasting From a Buddhist's Perspective
Rev. Heng Sure, Ph.D. - http://paramita.typepad.com
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
___ ___ ___
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