The connection between fasting and seon meditation
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“Through mistaken desire, we ruin our lives. If we can reduce our appetites, we can also control our desires.”
Because we have only one life to live, we don’t know what to do.
In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the evanescence of life is portrayed as the fundamental cause of all suffering. We are unprepared for our experiences. We cannot retract mistaken choices we have made. We can encounter similar circumstances in the future, but it won’t be the same. Through effort and introspection to some extent we can forestall, but we cannot go back to before the damage was done. Time cannot be reset. Finally, Kundera comes to the peculiar conclusion that “one life is the same as no life.” If we can live but one life, it is exactly the same as having lived no life at all. If this is so, where is the truth and meaning in life?
At the Wonmyeong Seon Centre on Jeju Island, Daehyo Sunim runs a programme consisting of fasting while practicing seon meditation. For one week, participants focus on the hwadu without eating at all. When I met Daehyo Sunim on August 8th, about thirty people were practicing in the dharma hall. In the only region of the country where coconut trees grow, they sat unmoving in the intense summer heat. Some participants made time before or after work to attend. The programme was so popular that some participants extended their week’s practice to a month.
However, fasting during seon practice is not very common. What is the connection between fasting and seon meditation? Sunim explains, “One of the objectives of meditation is the cessation of desire, and fasting is a real help toward attaining this goal. Through misplaced desire our lives are ruined. Craving for food is one of the fundamental human desires. There is no one who can survive without food. We can try to cut through such a fundamental desire by fasting.” He asserts, “If we can reduce the craving for food, we can cut through all our desires.”
While dieting is prevalent, we unceasingly seek to satisfy our desire for food. For health or beauty, people isolate themselves from the outside world, spending money to fast. Programmes at ordinary fasting centres are somewhat complex. Before starting a full-scale fast, there is a preparatory fasting period. Following the fast, during a recovery period about three times that of the fast itself, one must take only liquids and gruel. Side effects are not uncommon. Many patrons are patients with gastrointestinal disorders, and it is common to experience a relapse following fasting. With their stomachs completely empty they feel extreme hunger. Confident that they can now digest anything, they recklessly eat whatever they can find and immediately become ill.
Daehyo Sunim provides fasting practitioners with salt roasted in bamboo stalks, a supplement providing minimal sustenance. It is important to drink warm water; it takes energy for the body to absorb water cooler than body temperature. Water which is around body temperature can be consumed without harm. In this way physical strength can be maintained while the feeling of extreme hunger is prevented, and thus it is possible to fast for periods of more that 30 days. He says, “Even diabetics, for whom fasting is often regarded as suicide, benefit from the programme at Wonmyeong Seon Centre.” Sunim’s knowledge and experience result in the remarkable success of this fasting treatment.
The rapid growth of the diet industry has resulted in many programmes expounding fasting as a “good method”. The most dangerous after effect is the rejection of food. Instead of reducing the desire to eat, one becomes enslaved by the desire to not eat. If one cannot break through the hwadu “why?” one struggles between desire and aversion, which are nearly identical.
He explains that, “fasting can become a turning point in our lives. There are times in life when we say “this is not right.” But even when we decide to change direction, because of our accumulated habits and lingering attachments it is not easy. We want to change but cannot. Fasting can be of help.” The resolution to live correctly arises out of the practice of fasting and meditation.
Most people think of fasting as lying there and lethargically watching their bellies sinking. However, Daehyo Sunim encourages people to combine exercise with fasting. “Participants take daily walks, vigorous enough to break into a sweat. Having gone without many meals, exercise is not easy. It can take a great effort to take a single step.” Thus, each step in taken in concentrated mindfulness.
“When fasting, you naturally become irritable. However if you keep walking, at some moment you will realize that your discontent comes not from not having eaten per se, but rather from not being able to eat.” One realizes that anger and unhappiness are products of the mind. “It is very important to understand the original source of hunger. Then our perception not only of hunger, but of all things, can change. The realization of the true nature of hunger can be actualized through the practice of Ganhwa Seon.” Daehyo Sunim presents the same hwadu to all practitioners: “What was your original face before you were born?”
“Throughout our lives we always think, “I am me”. Whether life goes well or not, we always believe “this is my life.” But what is the “original me”? The one who enjoys enviable success and good fortune? The one who suffers failure and malaise? We can’t define exactly what it is. Yet this is natural, because these things are nothing more that illusions endlessly appearing and disappearing.”
The historical Greek philosopher Heraclitos declared, “One cannot step into the same river twice.” We may reproduce something similar to what we have in this moment, but it cannot be exactly the same. For example, the recent Gulf war and the Crusades of the eleventh century have some similarities in the cultural conflicts that caused them and their many casualties, but they are certainly not the same incidents. History can be repeated but not reproduced.
The problem of the self that Daehyo Sunim is talking about is the same. “Since everything that arises will inevitably cease, in each passing moment, the “happy I” or the “unhappy I” is just this. Biologically speaking, I came to be at the moment I was conceived in my mother’s womb. Through life I have had many experiences and am left with as many memories. Ultimately, there is an equally unimaginably large number of “I”s. But again, I stress that there is no “I” that has existed from the past. Even in this moment, it disappears in the blink of an eye. Life is finite. But the teaching of “No Birth, No Death” in the Heart Sutra is a universal truth. If so, then originally, what am I? The “I” that was not born and will not die; that which was present before I received this body from my parents.” In an absolute sense, there is no “I”. It is an illusion arising from the long-standing habits of body and mind. This sheds some light on the peculiar conundrum posed by Kundera.
We suffer from our attachment to outside form, forgetting our true selves that existed before we were born to our parents. Sunim says, “Why are we so busy without knowing why, with alienation between people endemic? All of our problems arise from clinging to this “I” which does not exist.” He further advises, “Look closely at the “I” that existed before you were conceived by your parents.” This is No Birth, No Death and the Middle Way.
“Let’s take the example of a baseball game. Our player comes up to bat with two out and the bases loaded. With all eyes upon him as the audience shouts his name, he must be really nervous. If he feels that he absolutely must hit a homerun the pressure will make it difficult to swing well. However, if instead he altogether lets go of the idea of hitting a home run he will certainly strike out. It is important to be free from the thought of either hitting well or hitting poorly. He must become one with the bat and the ball. This is the true self before being born, and exemplifies the middle way”.
In the Blue Cliff Record it says, “When living, just live. When dying, just die. Then all fear and anxiety disappears.” Life itself does not give rise to temptation, nor does it complain. It is only the mind itself that agitates our tranquil lives.
Jang Youngseop, journalist