Buddhism regards fasting as a means to achieve and practise self-control. The Buddha advised monks not to eat solids after noon. To this day, people who observe the Eight Precepts (Ashtanayak) on full moon days also observe a fast and do not eat after noon.
These practices are not religious fads as skeptics believe but are rooted in moral and psychological insight. Fasting, according to Buddhism, is an initial stage of self-discipline on the path to acquire self-control. The role of fasting in major religions is to sacrifice a meal for one day or for a fixed period so that we can be aware of the less fortunate and give them alms.
Sages who practised self-control first began by fasting regularly and attained high levels of spirituality. They were often kicked and tortured, and their limbs tied together but the Buddhist ascetic often endured all this with peace and calmness, not anger or hatred. This is because with regular phases of fasting, these ascetics had learnt to subdue their will to a higher one and control their passions.
A Buddhist monastic community is prone to fasting as an ascetic practice or dhutanga. Dhutangas are a list of 13 practices, four of which pertain to food eaten once a day, eaten at one sitting, reducing the amount you eat, and eating only the food that you receive at the first seven houses. These practices are voluntary in a Buddhist monastic’s life.
The Buddha’s spiritual awakening is closely linked to fasting. The moment he stopped fasting, he realized his great awakening. The story of the Buddha is in itself a lesson in fasting, as he was a prince who renounced all worldly desires in search of the truth about life. He found teachers to tell him what they thought about life, and drew on his experiences with people in times of old age, death and rebirth.
His experiences made him realize that desire was the root of all evil and of human life. Food was man’s first and most basic desire. So, he decided to give up this desire and gain freedom from the tangles of worldly life and suffering. Initially, he at only one grain of rice and a sesame seed per day. He soon grew so thin that he could touch his spine by pressing his stomach. He lost all strength to meditate and realized that he would die before he learnt the great lessons of this world. He had to understand his mind. He also saw that he could no longer control his desire by force.
At that time, a young maiden offered him a bowl of porridge which he accepted. The food gave him the strength he needed to meditate and he realized Buddhahood. His experiment to quit fasting taught him to lead life in moderation. Moderation soon became the central tenet of Buddhist practice.