On Going Without Food.

Saturday November 26, 2005

Breakfast

It seems that my post about Ram Bomjon has generated a fair bit of discussion, so I thought it worthwhile saying a little more here. For those who are not up to speed with the story, apparently a fifteen year old boy in Nepal has been sitting in meditation at the foot of a pipal tree in Nepal, 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. Why, some visitors to this site, should I, who call myself a Buddhist, reject the story instead of rejoicing in it? The answer is simple. I disbelieve the story because that there is no evidence that a human being can go for six months without food or water. There is, however, 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 the 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 that 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, without value or virtue, 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…

Photo by Drummerboy on Morguefile

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#1 · me

27 November 2005

i won’t say that the point here is about whether this boy Ram Bomjon is fasting or not fasting. its more about whether or not we are coming to a point where we want to respect him as a new Buddha. i don’t think that there would have been a possibility of a first Buddha if the media had been after him like it is now, 2600 hundred years ago. the very purpose he is meditating (for peace that is) is worth respect i believe, whether or not he is fasting. whether he’s to be respected as the Buddha himself, that i believe only time could tell…

#2 · j. brotherlove

27 November 2005

Interesting points, Will. I agree with everything you have written about this subject.

I am very open to the “possibility” of wondrous events such as these. But something rings untrue about this story to me.

#3 · Hugh Higgins

27 November 2005

Fasting is not all that rare! There are hundreds upon hundreds of claims that people have fasted for months or years, especially in India and other places where such practices have millennia of tradition behind them. A man is now going around the world proclaiming that he has learned how to live on sunlight without eating. All this is not just “liars” as you suggest. Perhaps you are a “libeler” rather than liar because there is no a priori reason why people can’t live without food. It has been prophesied by many spiritual teachers that that will become possible.

#4 · Tom

27 November 2005

Trackback: This post is cited in Blogmandu, Roundup for Nov 21 – 27, 2005. [ http://zenunbound.com/2005/11/roundup-for-nov-21-27-2005.html ]

#5 · Will

27 November 2005

There may be hundreds and hundreds of claims that people have fasted for months or years, but claims need to be tested. There are hundreds and thousands of claims concerning alien abduction, the fact that Elvis is still alive and so on. Claims are not enough.

To my knowledge there is no substantial evidence that fasting to this extent – let alone survival on sunlight alone – is in any way possible. I’d be genuinely interested if there were any peer-reviewed papers out there that argued otherwise. And also, I imagine, would many others. But until then I remain suspicious.

All the best,

Will

#6 · Hugh Higgins

28 November 2005

I do not know about this particular case of course, but then neither do you! We have not been to Nepal to check it out.

To me, suspicion is not a spiritual quality. “Scientists” with their “peer review” are ignorant of everything in the spiritual world – yogic bliss or ananda, samadhi or yoga trance, and Buddhist Nirvana. They deliberately ignore all evidence of the paranormal, which has been abundant since the time of William James. But this is such an old argument it is pointless to pursue it. None so blind as those who refuse to see because what they might see would conflict with their deeply held belief-system.

#7 · Christopher Trottier

28 November 2005

Don’t kill a living thing. Become a breatharian.

#8 · jez

28 November 2005

Just to put something straight:I didn’t ask why you didn’t celebrate this occurence. My question was, why do you call yourself a ‘Buddhist’ if you don’t believe in certain key precepts of Buddhism. Now, if you don’t believe these precepts have anything to do with Buddhism, I can’t really argue, since I don’t have enough knowledge of Buddhism, though I repeat I was under the impression, that re-incarnation was indeed central to Buddhism. I could be wrong.

As for the ‘paranormal’, I think what you call Paranormal, Hugh, can probably be scientifically explained. I am sure meditation has positive effects, but I wouldn’t call it paranormal.

#9 · Will

28 November 2005

It is true: I have not been to Nepal to check this out. But then, given that not even doctors were allowed more than within five yards of the boy, I doubt going to Nepal would help much in this case; and given that Ram Bomjon is surrounded by screens and protected from public view at night, the evidence that this is the real McCoy – if such a thing there be – is far from compelling.

We’re probably not going to agree on our view of science, Hugh. This may be partially a matter of temperament. But – science on one side – in terms of the claims to truth, early Buddhism specificially rejects authority as an adequate source of knowledge. See the following article: http://www.westernbuddhistreview.com/vol3/Knowledge.htm

The trouble with this particular case is that the claims made are only supported by authority, and we don’t even know exactly whose authority. The counter-argument, of course, is that science proceeds by authority as well. True, but there is also experiment and reason.

Anyway, the intricacies of Buddhist epistemologies (let alone the intricacies of scientific epistemologies) are probably best left for another post. Thanks to everyone for stopping by and pitching in to the discussion.

#10 · Michelle

29 November 2005

Hugh, your claim that “To me, suspicion is not a spiritual quality. “Scientists” with their “peer review” are ignorant of everything in the spiritual world” is extraordinarily presumptuous. Obviously you know nothing about Buddhism, scientists or the Scientific Method. I happen to be a Buddhist AND a firm believer in science. I also practice yoga.

Furthermore, Jez, reincarnation is not a precept. The five precepts of Buddhism for laypeople are (1) to refrain from killing (or harming) other living beings, (2) refrain from taking that which is not readily given, (3) refrain from harming others through sexual misconduct, (4) refrain from false, idle or harsh speech, and finally, (5) refrain from consumption of intoxicants which can cloud the mind.

There is no reincarnation in Buddhism, because Buddha did not believe in an immortal soul. What you are probably thinking of is what Buddhists refer to as “rebirth”

By the way, Will, I whole-heartedly agree with you … the very fact that this child’s “followers” have been putting up a screen around him at night so that no one can see what he’s doing only adds to my skepticism.

#11 · David K

3 December 2005

As a practicing scientist, I find nothing in the dharma to contradict it, and Buddha was insistent on accepting no authority, even his! Try for yourself! Science does not proceed by authority, except that of test by experiment.

Taken in that light, I am extremely suspicious oabout newagey claims that the lsws of physics are transcended by some sort of spooky spiritual materialism! And I strongly doubt this sort of spiritual snake oil is in any way helpful in anyone’s own liberation.

#12 · Skeptic Julian

11 December 2005

As David K. comments, Gotoma did not proclaim that his was the only way to enlightenment. However, he did lead by inspiration.

What was that inspiration? Did he inspire by sitting under a tree for a few weeks? No. There were plenty of ascetics around doing extreme acts in those days.

Gotoma inspired through his wisdom on how to live.

What has Ram Bomjon said of any wisdom? What has he to teach us about anything other than how to get a whole bunch of attention?

Z-I-P

Enlightenment is not equivalent to the willpower to sit still for a long time. Sitting still without deep consideration is just a pose.

#13 · Max

20 December 2005

http://www.solarhealing.com/default.htm

Get up to date… Read about HRM phenomenon, it’s always been possible to rely only on direct (might it be spiritual) energy and it will always be.

Shuryanamaskar is a key to it, and there must be plenty of others.

Also there are already many cases observed by scientifics of yogis fasting for more than 2-3 months… just as Hira Ratan Manek did it for more than 400 days with scientific presence.

#14 · rammohan

25 December 2005

it is possible in the history of Hinuism-in india. in the epic -the literature also lot of example like this.

Anyway when the boy came out of his meditation will you please inform me the incidents in future. becase i want to share some more things rgardind like this matter.thanks
#15 · Bill Orrell

8 January 2006

The 25,000 year cycle of the Mayan calendar ends at the same time as Ram Bonjon. Is it just coincidence or is the great significance.

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