On Going Without Food.

Recently I wrote a post about the dubious tale of Ram Bomjon, a fifteen year old boy in Nepal, who is being talked about as the ‘new Buddha’. Ram Bomjon has, according to his followers, been in meditation at the foot of a pipal tree, and has neither eaten nor taken anything to drink, for the past six months.

I confess that I do not believe this tale. I am suspicious of claims to miracles. But some visitors to this site have protested at my scepticism. Why, they have asked, should I, who call myself a Buddhist, reject the story instead of rejoicing in it?

The answer is simple. I disbelieve the story because it is ridiculous. There is simply no evidence that a human being can go for six months without food or water. But conversely, there is, ample evidence that human beings are credulous, greedy and prone to deception.

The claims that are made on behalf of Ram Bomjon are spurious. We only have the word of the committee who are involved in promoting this so-called new Buddha. There has been no independent, scientific corroboration of this supposed ‘miracle’: the fact that doctors called in to examine the boy were not permitted any closer than five metres does not inspire confidence. And the feverish rise in commercial activity around this apparent miracle should at least make one pause to ask the question of who it is who is profiting most from this.

And what, it could be asked, does this have to do with Buddhism anyway? Given that Ram Bomjon is being hailed as the ‘new Buddha’, it is worth recognising how very different this story is from the one that the Buddha told about his own experience of fasting prior to his awakening. There is a text in the Majjhima Nikaya in which the historical Buddha tells of his experience undergoing the practice of fasting. It is worth quoting a rather lengthy passage of the text.

“I thought: ‘Suppose I were to take only a little food at a time, only a handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup.’ So I took only a little food at a time, only handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup. My body became extremely emaciated. Simply from my eating so little, my limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo stems… My backside became like a camel’s hoof… My spine stood out like a string of beads… My ribs jutted out like the jutting rafters of an old, run-down barn… The gleam of my eyes appeared to be sunk deep in my eye sockets like the gleam of water deep in a well… My scalp shrivelled & withered like a green bitter gourd, shrivelled & withered in the heat & the wind… The skin of my belly became so stuck to my spine that when I thought of touching my belly, I grabbed hold of my spine as well; and when I thought of touching my spine, I grabbed hold of the skin of my belly as well… If I urinated or defecated, I fell over on my face right there… Simply from my eating so little, if I tried to ease my body by rubbing my limbs with my hands, the hair — rotted at its roots — fell from my body as I rubbed, simply from eating so little.

“People on seeing me would say, ‘Gotama the contemplative is black. Other people would say, ‘Gotama the contemplative isn’t black, he’s brown.’ Others would say, ‘Gotama the contemplative is neither black nor brown, he’s golden-skinned. So much had the clear, bright colour of my skin deteriorated, simply from eating so little.

“I thought: ‘Whatever priests or contemplatives in the past have felt painful, racking, piercing feelings due to their striving, this is the utmost. None have been greater than this. Whatever priests or contemplatives in the future will feel painful, racking, piercing feelings due to their striving, this is the utmost. None will be greater than this. Whatever priests or contemplatives in the present are feeling painful, racking, piercing feelings due to their striving, this is the utmost. None is greater than this. But with this racking practice of austerities I haven’t attained any superior human state, any distinction in knowledge or vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to Awakening?’”

(translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

There are a couple of things to notice about this passage. There is no claim that the Buddha-to-be went entirely without food; and neither is there any claim that he went without drink, or even that he drank any less than normal. Granted this is fasting – clearly very extreme fasting; but it is not the extreme claimed by those advocates of Ram Bomjon. And why, it is tempting to ask, did such extremity have such dire physical effects on the body of the Buddha-to-be, whilst the even more extreme fasting claimed by devotees of Ram Bomjon has no such medical side-effects, other than his mother noting, ‘He’s becoming rather thin’?

The second thing to notice is that the Buddha expressly rejects such fasting as having any value whatsoever. He has caused himself racking pains, piercing feelings and all manner of agonies. But he has attained nothing thereby. No knowledge or vision worthy of the noble ones. This self-torture, he is saying, is utterly useless. It is without value or virtue. And it is to be avoided at all costs.

So, to cut a long story short, if you want to liberate yourself from the snares of greed, hatred and delusion, don’t bother skipping breakfast…

First Published: Saturday November 26, 2005

 

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