Recently, Discovery History Channel aired the show on the 7 Deadly Sins. I’ve watched a few of the series and the one on Gluttony is quite interesting. Now, it is said that the sin is the easiest to commit and the hardest to shake off.
I’ve found a few striking similarities between the teachings of the Deadly Sins and of those in the traditional Buddhism. In the 14th century, it was mentioned that those who commit gluttony will be banished to hell filled with sewage to reflect on the fact that the person never took care of the body while alive. I remember seeing pictures of the similar hell being depleted in Buddhist drawings in temples. And there were recorded history of some Catholic nuns like St Catherine who fasted and reputably carries a twig to induce vomiting. These nuns are referred as anorexics before they bore a striking similarity to the modern non religious anorexics. Even Jesus has been known to have fasted for over 40 days in the dessert.
The benefits of fasting as part of religious practice
In the Thai Forest Tradition, fasting is referred to one of the 13 ascetic practices. There’s nothing new about this as the ascetic practices were taught during the Buddha’s time, just that it is not being practiced much because of scholarly and intellectual rationalizations does not deem these practices as necessary to achieve the path of enlightenment.
If you want to pursue the spiritual path, you cannot rationalize the practice using your logical and intellectual faculties. It just does not work that way. You need to be really engaged in the practice for a period of time and see that if it works for you.
Why do seekers fast? It is because when there is gluttony, the mind is indeed clouded. The more attached to food a person is, the more difficult is for the person to seek and realize spiritual breakthrough. That is why as monks during Ajahn Mun’s days go for pindapat (almsround) and ate whatever that were offered to them. If they do not get any food during almsround, then they just fast for the day- there is no emergency storage that they kept away. And living in jungles and remote areas are chillingly cold, especially this time of the year. I know because I’ve been there- you need lots of blankets, gloves, warm wool hat, jackets just to keep yourself warm. I cannot imagine how these monks had lived during the time when they only wear one robe and carry another as part of their tudong. That is why during that time, a lot of Masters were born- it is through hardship.
When you fast, the body loses strength. It is because the body is filled up that the mind is active and wondering. If the body is weak, the mind tends to stay more at place and wonder less. But fasting is not a technique that suited everyone’s temperament- Luangta Maha Boowa had mentioned it in his books. For some, it is hours of sitting, or not sleeping, etc. But to know if it suits you or not, it is not something you try for just a few days and give up. I was told that Luang Phor Fan tried by fasting at intervals for months before realizing that the method was not suited to him- if I am not mistaken, he went for the non lying down way.
Personally, I had observed the 8 precepts (not eating after noon). Even with that, if you have eaten till the stomach's full, you would find that you would be struggling to keep the mind from wondering and falling asleep. When you are practicing in nature environment, you become more sensitive and you will realize that overeating or even eating nutritious food actually puts your mind to sleep and makes the mind more active or sleepy when you attempt to do sitting or walking meditation. I remember once I was so upset with my gluttony that I decided to stay up the entire night followed by fasting the next day just to 'teach the defilements a lesson'. After a few hours of struggling, the hunger went off and my mind became clear- just like what Luangta had written. It works, and you will be amazed at what the mind can do when put to extreme situations. But if we stay in air-conditioned place, enjoy good food and have ‘nice ambience’, it’s tough to achieve any breakthrough unless we’ve accumulated strong paramis.
But initially, I must stay that my body’s health were no good when I first started going to Thailand to practice (I spent my annual leave travelling to Thailand). What I did is that I came back and rebuilt my health through eating less carbohydrates and I exercised. Then it got easier. If your health is not so good, you need to work to improve your health.
And as any practices like fasting, you may not want to do it un-supervised. If all religious taught about fasting as a way of cleansing and purifying the mind, then, it must be somehow effective.