Many have wondered if fasting is essential to Buddhist practice. No one wants to give up eating for any extended amount of time. It is not natural to the way we are designed nor is it congruent with how society has taught us to have a relationship with food. Food is such a huge part of every culture. It is exciting, it is delicious, it is sometimes even art! Meals are used across many walks of faith and within different cultures to bring people together, build connections. Since the presence of food is something we have been taught both implicitly and explicitly, it is important for many to know whether or not this, fasting, is a requirement for practicing Buddhism before stepping into this lifestyle.
So, do Buddhists fast? Fasting is not essential to living as a monk or practicing Buddhism in general. It is, however, occasionally used during mediation across the different sects of Buddhism. There is no hard and fast rule that requires periods of fasting as a necessary element of the Buddhist tradition.
For example; Theravada Buddhists believe in attaining salvation for oneself. It is a very personal journey and therefore so is the decision to fast. While fasts may be monitored, it is not required for members by the entire sect. In fact, The Buddha himself is said to not have found this particular practice necessary. He taught something different; “middle way” the ground between complete deprivation and gluttony.
What is fasting?
Now that you understand that fasting is not a requirement but can be utilized when practicing Buddhism, you may be wondering what fasting is in the first place. It is to abstain from all consumption of all or some kinds of food or drink. Many times fasting is used as a part of a religion or spirituality. It is not limited to one form of worshipping or a singular motivation. In some cultures, fasting is a means to connect and relate to the members of their community stricken by poverty. Kind of like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Buddhist monks will sometimes partake in times of fasting to aid in their meditations.
Christians will sometimes commence times of fasting to reconnect with their god, clearing their minds of what is earthly in order to maintain a spiritual connection. Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christians have their time to observe lent for six weeks ending on Easter Sunday. The Muslim faith observes the month of Ramadan.
Fasting does not have to be limited to food in these instances. In our modern culture food is not the only distraction that can steal our focus away from what is most important. People may fast from other luxuries in their lives in order to achieve a religious or spiritual goal. These distractions may include but are not limited to screen time, whether that be via a phone, laptop or television.
It could also include a specific type of food; desserts, sugar-filled drinks, etc. Due to the nature of new age luxury, a fast can be very specific and personal. Say someone has an affinity for fine cheeses, they may seek to fast from cheese for a personal, spiritual goal.
What do the different sects believe?
Have you heard of the different sects of Buddhism? The spread of the tradition resulted in the practice manifesting itself in different ways with different beliefs.
It is important to note that while each sect has its differences in traditions and practices they do have some similarities. For example, for the sake of true fasting, they have a similarity. The decision to fast is completely individual. Any member that would like to incorporate fasting into meditation is monitored by an elder member. This monitor can suggest a length of time appropriate for the said individual but does not say whether or not someone needs to fast.
There are teachers and typically monastics are studying under someone. It is difficult to embark on such a lifestyle without guidance. That is where the teachers and elders come in. They help with many other practices, not just fasting.
We have already touched a little bit on Theravada Buddhists above. The Theravada tradition is the oldest sect of Buddhism, “Doctrine of the Elders”, and is practiced mainly in the South and Southeast regions of Asia, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The most basic belief of this tradition is the attainment of salvation for oneself. The idea is that only a very small number of individuals will achieve enlightenment. Furthermore that it takes many lifetimes to achieve this.
The Theravada tradition is also the sect that has a more direct relationship to the fasting of any form. Namely the part of the Theravada tradition to refrain from eating solid foods afternoon. From dawn until then, monastics choose their meals based in moderation. After the hour, some individuals will either refrain from consuming anything altogether or they will drink juice-like concoctions consisting of ingredients such as honey, lemon, turmeric, etc. The latter choice provides any necessary nutrients and energy to last the remainder of the day in good health.
They also typically partake in a strictly vegetarian diet in order to keep the first of the five Buddhist precepts, to undertake the training to avoid deliberately taking the life of another being.
The Mahayana tradition is a successor of the Theravada tradition most commonly practiced in the Eastern regions of Asia, such as China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan as well as in western cultures. This group of Buddhists believes that salvation is possible to be achieved by anyone, not just a select few individuals. There have been other, more select sects created within the Mahayana beliefs. These include many western traditions such as Nichiren and Zen Buddhism. Even so, the Mahayana tradition even approaches their diets in a different manner than their predecessors.
As aforementioned, the Buddha himself was not said to have believed fasting was necessary. At the time of his meditation, The Buddha became so emaciated and ill that he could no longer survive. He finally yielded himself and ate some porridge. From there, he is said to have believed that the relationship to food was much like that of other beliefs with the practice; everything in moderation.
The Mahayana tradition takes on this idea coined “middle way” as in the balance between complete deprivation and gluttony. (This is also deeply related to another common lifestyle called, asceticism.) This relationship to food and the world helps create a mental and spiritual strength that allows the soul to transcend beyond the immediate discomforts. This has translated into a diet of 2 or 3 light vegetarian meals a day.
The Vajrayana tradition, also known as Esoteric Buddhism is most commonly practiced in regions such as Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia. This sect of Buddhist believes that enlightenment can be achieved in one lifetime as opposed to their counterparts who believe that it takes many and throughout each life, one should strive to cleanse their spirits and accrue good karma.
A common practice in the Tibetan tradition is to partake in a Nyungne Ceremony. This is a two-day event that happens eight times a year. During one of the days, members or nonmembers fast for the entirety of the day. These retreats are not a requirement but they are heavily encouraged and aid in the progress of one’s time here on Earth. Much like the Mahayana tradition, practicing Vajrayana eat 2 or 3 light vegetarian meals a day.
What are the ascetic practices?
As you have gotten deeper into this fascinating world of Buddhism, you may have come across the term, asceticism. This practice has a huge part in a Buddhist lifestyle. According to Britannica Encyclopedia, asceticism is the practice of the denial of physical or psychological desires to attain a spiritual ideal or goal. Plato believed that the body should be suppressed and limited so the mind and soul would be able to achieve greater freedom and knowledge.
There are many forms of religious asceticism. Among strictly ascetic movements, celibacy is considered the first and most important commandment. A denying of one’s most sensual desires. Furthermore, abstinence, the fact or practice of restraining oneself from indulging in something, typically alcohol, and fasting is also a common practice among ascetics.
Someone who ascribes to an ascetic lifestyle may abstain from buying new shoes for a period of time. This may entail all of their shoes falling apart and the individual deciding that shoes are meaningless. Here is a semi silly example but the idea is to not seek after physical luxuries and material goods. An ascetic views everything that is a desire as a luxury.
The main goal of asceticism is not to merely deny yourself for the sake of denial, but rather, as stated in the Britannica definition, to attain a spiritual ideal or goal. For instance; an ascetic may embark on a short but extended period of fasting. Much like in the Buddhist tradition, this fasting aids in the expansion of mind and body. Ascetics may use fasting as a way to improve their fortitude and discipline. Hunger is viewed as a low desire, pain and suffering can be mastered by training the mind and body to withstand such discomfort.
Ascetics will put themselves through a physical and psychological test to grow in their discipline. This practice began as a way to train warriors. Strength is not just about physical strength and rage, but about mental fortitude and the heart of the warrior. In both practices, practitioners abstain from certain elements that are commonly seen as normal. Going above the limitations set on the body by the mind.
While the Buddhist tradition was spread across the continent of Asia long ago, it was not until the latter end of the 19th century that it spread west. Buddhism has made its way to the states slowly, but surely. One of the main channels this lifestyle has traveled is by way of Western scholars. Beginning primarily in the 18th century, Buddhist texts were translated into many European languages like German and English, and thus introduced to their scholars. From there Buddhism was primarily only featured among scholars, rarely to be practiced by anyone. Nevertheless, there were other channels that encouraged the spread of Buddhism. These include the works of philosophers, writers as well as artists. Additionally, immigrants from Asia brought with them a few Buddhist belief systems and traditions.
In America, the Buddhist tradition was not popularised until the late 20th century. More specifically, when Tibetan refugees landed on American soil, they brought with them the Vajrayana tradition. At that time more and more people became open to the idea of living to achieve a different connection to life, the earth, its inhabitants and even a different connection to one’s self. The Mahayana tradition can be thought of as the main root of American Buddhism, however, there are many types of Buddhist faiths that have been born out of it. The most popular among the American people is known as Zen Buddhism.
This tradition actually began in China during the Tang dynasty. Later adopted by the Japanese, this tradition practices meditation as its core. Unlike other monastic sects, Zen focuses not on Buddhist texts or scriptures. It is instead refining of the mind. Zen Buddhism is passed from teacher to student and is a very personal experience having nothing to do with achievement or physical tests, but rather enlightenment of how the world works.
What can Buddhists eat?
At this point you may be asking yourself, if Buddhists are not required to fast, what do Buddhists eat in the name of asceticism and/or moderation? In a previous post, I wrote about Buddhism and the relationship to veganism and vegetarianism. While veganism is not a requirement for the Buddhist tradition, it is not impossible. In the areas in which each Buddhist sect is dominant, the cuisine of the land eats meat. For example, the monks of Theravada take out bowls known as begging bowls. They carry these bowls out into the city and ask people to spare anything they can. They eat whatever is given to them, which may include meat.
Typical cuisine of the regions include:
The food eaten in Vietnam is not limited to what is about to be described in this summary. Through some light research, I have compiled this short explanation of the daily cuisine. A more extensive description can be found by the following link. According to Food By Country, plain steamed rice is served with almost every meal. Here long-grain rice is preferred over the short-grain rice common amongst other cultures. Rice is such a staple item that it is used to make other items as well. Rice noodles, rice vinegar, rice wine as well as rice paper which is used to make spring rolls.
There are several types of rice noodles that can be made in Vietnamese culture. The first type is known as Banh Pho. These are the wide white noodles used in the soup pho. This dish has grown in popularity over time in other western cultures like the United States. Another type of rice noodles are the Bun noodles also known as vermicelli. When cooked, these noodles look like long white strings. Almost like thin white yarn. The third type is like the bun noodles but thinner, Banh hoi.
In addition to rice and noodles, many animal products are staples in the Vietnamese diet. Fish and other animals found in water such as eel and squid are central to the diet. Furthermore, beef is another staple food. Along with pork and chicken. Many of the dishes served in Vietnam will consist of rice, noodles, and a smaller amount of either fish or meat. To add texture as well as flavor, raw vegetables are cut up and added to many dishes along with a set of spices common to each particular dish. To add a crunch to the texture, cucumbers and or bean sprouts are a common addition to meals.
So what would the monks eat?
Due to the fact that Buddhists in Vietnam practice the Theravada tradition, monastics follow a vegetarian lifestyle. Therefore a diet consists of eating dishes consisting of rice, noodles, and porridge.
Bangladesh is a country in Southeast Asia, surrounded largely by India on its west as well as all along the northern border and a small portion of the eastern border with Burma. It has an amazing and long coastline along the southernmost part of the country. In view of the fact that this country is located so close to India, they share many of the same foods. Many meals are curry based with a variety of spices.
According to the Travel Food Atlas, Bangladesh “[utilizes] the wide range of spices, herbs, oils, meats, potatoes, and aubergines available to craft complex, signature dishes.” Much like in many Asian cultures, rice is a staple in the diet. Almost every meal consists of rice. Seeing that the country has such an extensive, one would not be surprised that the second staple food found central to the diet is fish. Many of the main, most popular Bangladeshi dishes feature fish. The culture has many popular meat dishes as well, the most popular being biryani, a dish consisting of layered meats, rice, potatoes, and spices.
So what would the monks eat?
Buddhism in Bangladesh follows the Theravada tradition which incorporates a vegetarian diet into their lifestyle. While this is required for practicing monastics, vegetarianism is not a requirement for practitioners as a whole.
While China covers a large amount of the continent of Asia, there are regions that share dietary customs in Taiwan. Taiwan is an island off the southern coast of China. Due largely to this fact, the diet consists of a lot of fish, much like that of Bangladesh. The incorporation of rice and/ or noodles into most every meal is also congruent with China as well as the majority of Asian cuisines.
Areas of China may eat more rice than others just based on the land, if the soil is more suitable for rice farming, they will typically eat more rice. The noodles may consist of rice noodles or egg noodles. On the whole, the two countries do not eat a lot of chicken. It has not been a staple aside from the accommodations made because of tourism. The most common meats eaten in this expansion of land is beef as well as pork. However, both countries a substantial amount of seafood. Arguably Taiwan more than China because it is an Island.
As far as meal sizes go, Taiwanese tradition serves its meals family style. The dishes are made and served so that each meal can be shared amongst everyone. You either eat until you are full or until all of the food is gone. Many of the dishes served in this region are inspired by Korean dishes as well as and more commonly Japanese dishes.
A couple of other staples include many tropical fruits; mango, pineapple, watermelon, etc. Additionally, green onion is very popular and can be used and served in a variety of ways. It can be made into a delicious batter based pancake or added to recipes to add taste and or texture. One other staple is dumplings. If you are interested in reading more about Taiwanese foods, I suggest Big Little Islands’ article.
So what would the monks eat?
Shaolin Monks, or monks in the Chinese regions, eat a strict vegetarian diet. They also avoid eating foods such as onions, garlic, and ginger. While they do not eat meat, energy high foods include vegetables, grains, and beans.
Tibet is home to many practicing the Vajrayana tradition. Tibet is actually a region covering a decent portion of Southwest China and shares a border with India and Nepal. Tibet is the highest point on Earth. For that reason, the foods grown and eaten here much different than anywhere else in the world. Even that of its neighboring countries. Instead of rice, the main staple food is barley. It is able to grow in harsher climates. Natives and fans of the food call the prepared barely, tsampa, a kind of roasted barley flour. Much like the rice in other regions, the tsampa is eaten every day.
Other common foods include beef and mutton. For those of you who are not familiar, mutton is the meat of a sheep that is around 3 years old. This can have an effect on the flavor of the meat as opposed to the lamb which comes from a younger animal. It is common for Tibetans to eat the meat raw, boiled or roasted, or dried like jerky. There is a lot of salt in their diet as well as many other spices and herbs.
In addition to meat, Tibetans partake in noodles often served with a variety of vegetables and beef. They will eat and make milk curd as well as yogurt from the milk of yaks. This takes place primarily in the plateau regions of Tibet and is not exclusive to yaks. Even so, this is a big difference from the rest of Asia.
So what would the monks eat?
Monks in this region are highly regarded and thought of as the highest spiritual authority. They treat the community with compassion but also seek to set an example even through what they consume. In this region, monks are known to eat a diet mainly consisting of fruits and vegetables. They limit their intake of other categories of food, only eating what their bodies need.
What are the benefits of fasting?
It is proven that there are many benefits of fasting to physical health as well as spiritual and mental benefits. These benefits include but are not limited to:
- Reduced resistance to insulin thus increasing blood sugar control.
- An increase in weight loss by regulating the intake of calories. Intermittent fasting is proven to be the most effective in this area.
- The increased ability to burn fat and gain muscle. The naturally produced Human Growth Hormone is proven to have a greater amount of secretion which is vital to this fat-burning, muscle-building benefit.
- The normalizing of “hunger”. As you incorporate fasting, either for extended periods of time or intermittently, your body starts to realize when it is actually hungry as opposed to when it is trained to eat.
These are a few of the non-spiritual benefits to incorporating fasting into your lifestyle, whether that be intermittently, regularly, or infrequently for extended periods of time. In regards to Buddhism, there are many benefits to one’s spiritual well-being as well. These benefits include but are not limited to:
- A method for practicing self-control. We have touched on the fact that many of the Buddhist practices are a means to fortify the mind and therefore the body to withstand the discomfort of pain.
- A method for practicing self-discipline. Very much in the same vein of self-control, self-discipline is a means to move beyond the limitations of the human body and its desires.
- Experience craving in a different way. This is the goal of fasting found within the Theravada tradition. When using fasting during times of meditation, one hopes to experience a deeper understanding of what it means to truly crave.
- The potential to achieve higher spirituality. Much like the goal of utilizing fasting in meditation to reach a deeper understanding, fasting alone as a practice gives one the potential ability to achieve a higher level of spirituality.
We have covered a number of aspects of the Buddhist tradition. We have talked about the top three sects of Buddhism; Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Each one is relatively aligned with the exception of various differences. Additionally, we went into the cuisine of a few of the regions of which Buddhism is the most popular such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, Taiwan, and Tibetan.
There are many different aspects of Buddhism to consider when beginning your personal journey. For more information, you should check out your local Center for Buddhism. As you may have gathered, this tradition goes far beyond just a relationship to food. You will only know the benefits when you take the step to see how great this life really is.
If you are interested in learning about other Religions in the world, then check out this book on World’s Religions on Amazon.