Thursday, August 12, 2010

More wrongness about Buddhism from the "Washington Post Under God"

I've come to expect it.

In Buddhism, fasting is central to the journey to Enlightenment: It was only through his life-threatening fast that the Buddha realized that "desire does not end by force." Out of this realization emerged the concept of moderation, a central principle in Buddhism. Today, Buddhists fasting practice varies widely, but many practitioners incorporate religious values into their food philosophy, including an emphasis on vegetarianism.  

To reach this momentous conclusion they stretch a bit a quote of  Heng Sure, author of the Dharma Forrest blog.  The title of the bit they hyperlink to is, "On Fasting From a Buddhist's Perspective"

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....

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....

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....

Heng sure goes on to say that monastics do sometimes keep  fasts where they do practice going without food.  But this is hardly  "central to the journey of enlightenment," but rather that ascetisim for its own sake was a dead end. It was a wrong turn.

While it is likely true that fasting, and vegetarianism are the same from the Chinese Buddhist perspective, and one's footprint on  the world should be minimized which means at least eating less meat, this is in no way the same thing as a Christian, Jewish, or Islamic fast.

One does not need to take the wrong turns of others in order to make progress.  It is better to make one's own wrong turns...and correct them too.

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