Updated: May 31
Dear Sensei: I'm thinking about learning how to fast. Do you practice fasting? This is David.
Hi David - A cool question. Fasting has a long history with humans. Some have used it for religious purposes and others as a form of protest. Some have observed periods of fasting as an act of solidarity with those don’t have enough to eat. My personal answer is both “no“ and “yes“. The “no” is related to the original understanding in Buddhism, that asceticism does not lead to awakening. This is demonstrated in the narrative of Shakyamuni Buddha. He began his spiritual journey by realizing that a life of luxury did not relieve his psychological suffering. He then pursued severe ascetic disciplines and eventually realized that this did not work either. He discovered that freedom was found in the middle way between extremes.
The “yes” is that when we approach a subject like fasting we will do so from a balanced, middle way foundation. In the Dragonfly Sangha, we look at how things work and then why things matter. Recent scientific studies seem to demonstrate that some types of fasting can be very healthy. It can help regulate our metabolism and may even aid in healing. So, fasting might be a good thing to integrate into daily life, after we’ve consulted our physician.
However, as I stated earlier, some original Buddhist traditions did not advise fasting. They advocated that ordained practitioners not eat anything after the noon meal, not for religious purposes but in order to have a healthier digestive process. Later Buddhists would advocate periodic fasting, usually during observations of the Accord (Uposatha, Fusatsu). This is a time when we examine our actions and seek reconciliation and healing. Another way that some modern Buddhists have used fasting is to bear witness to those who don’t have enough to eat. This is usually done in a retreat setting.
I personally experimented with some extreme forms of fasting when I was very young and seeking a transcendental experience. As I matured I realized that I didn’t need special peak experiences to know the Oneness of all life. Today, I usually fast intermittently to help with my metabolism and health and will keep brief periods during the full moon and our annual liturgical observations. For example, during our fire ceremony of Segaki (feeding of the hungry ghosts) or The Gate of Sweet Nectar, which begins our liturgical year, I will only drink during the day and consume no food until after the evening service. So, to summarize:
Check with your healthcare professional before trying fasting.
Don’t fast as a way to punish yourself. Unlike some religious traditions, we do not see suffering as either curative or redemptive. We understand suffering to be a neurotic reaction to the pain of existence.
Learn as much as you can about what the current science says about fasting.
Talk to others who observe brief periods of fasting as a way to clear the mind and open the heart.
I hope this is helpful and blessings on your practice.