Saturday, April 26, 2014

The (Unofficial) Forest Fast at Pucak Mangu

     Greetings from Bali, land of a zillion empty thrones.
     Recently my friend venerable Vijaya suggested that we fast for three days or so in a forest. That sounded like a good idea, so I said OK. Then he said that he knew of an old Hindu temple on a mountain where we could do the fast. That sounded good too, so I said OK again. His nephew Khema agreed to drive us there, and our trusty attendant Nyoman also volunteered to come along. 
     But there were a few things ven. Vijaya didn't tell me. For example, he didn't mention that this place, called Pucak Mangu, was at the very top of a 1900-meter (more than 6200 feet) mountain. We wound up starting our hike the day after our fast began, so we essentially climbed a mountain while fasting, more than 24 hours after our last caloric intake. And of course almost the whole path was uphill. Sometimes steep uphill. We took our time, but by the time we were near the top I was beginning to experience symptoms of mild hypoglycemia, such as energy level approaching zero, and dizziness. It got to the point where I would take about 30 steps (steps not only in the sense of forward leg swings but in the sense of stairs going up) and then stop, trying to catch my breath. 30 more steps and stop, puffing and blowing. Nyoman, who wasn't fasting, offered to carry my bowl, but my male ego didn't like the idea, especially since he was laughing at me sometimes, and I continued carrying it myself. It was only a two-hour hike, two and a half hours tops, but by the time we got to the top I was thoroughly exhausted, and crashed in a little rest shelter for pilgrims there.
     Pucak Mangu itself is a typical Balinese "temple," meaning really a cluster of smallish shrines, with no actual temple building that can be entered. In Burma it's bell-shaped pagodas everywhere, in Bali, shrine clusters. Although the predominant religion in Bali is technically called Hinduism, a professor specializing in Balinese religion told me recently that it is called "Hindu" mainly for political reasons but is probably about 60% Buddhism below the surface, with some of the rest being non-Indian indigenous culture. And the Hinduism itself is based more upon ancient Brahmanism than upon modern Indian Hinduism, which explains the relative absence of elaborate stone temples and garish images of gods. The main shrines are just empty rabbit hutches on stilts with multi-tiered roofs, with the practically mandatory padmasana, an empty throne mounted on a pedestal, which ven. Vijaya says is more Buddhist than Hindu. In addition to this there was a little pavilion with a thatched roof and a cement floor, and further off another little padmasana and two little rest shelters. It wasn't what I was expecting at all; I had something more in mind like a small version of Angkor Wat, or the place where the ape king lived in Jungle Book. But things rarely turn out the way we expect them to. 
     We were at the top of a ridge more than on a peak, the average width being maybe 20 meters, maybe less. Clouds were all around us, sometimes sweeping over the ridge like blowing smoke. It was very windy, and almost as soon as we reached the top I switched from drenching in sweat to feeling chilled.
     One thing that ven. Vijaya did tell me in advance was that Pucak Mangu is cold. But he is Indonesian; and my experience with Burmese people has been that they consider anything below 80°F (26°C) to be "cold." So I figured it would be easily manageable. Besides, we were practically equatorial! How cold could it be in Bali? But we were well over a mile high, and the wind was blowing strong up there. I quickly retrieved the robe I had put on a signpost to dry (it was soaked with sweat), and crashed on the rest platform again. I found out that with all the mist, the only way to dry it out was to wear it anyway.
     Within an hour of our reaching the top, while I was still lying semi-comatose (an exaggeration) on the platform, Balinese guys dressed mostly in white, with Balinese turban/headbands on, started showing up. Before long there were about 45 of them, including some women (also mostly dressed in white, with pretty sashes, and the younger ones all dolled up) and children. Our solitary fasting seemed to be going awry very quickly, and ven. Vijaya made himself scarce and lay down under a tree somewhere. Khema and Nyoman moved off a ways to give the crowd of pilgrims room, but I figured I had squatting rights, even though I was lying down, and remained semi-comatose on the rest platform. People milled all around the horizontal monk as though I were part of the furnishings. When all the newcomers had arrived, they performed a kind of religious ceremony that inspired me actually to stand up so I could see it better. For the most part it consisted of everyone sitting in front of the cluster of shrines, the main padmasana being the center of attention, and chanting, occasionally stopping to put what appeared to be flower petals in their own hair. At the end the priest's or celebrant's assistant walked around and sprinkled everyone with water that had been intoned over by the priest during the ceremony, and everyone was free to help themselves to what appeared to be some plain boiled rice, similarly intoned over. They rubbed the water on their hair and face, sipping some first, and ate the rice. Then they packed up and went back down the mountain. Afterwards I wondered what benefit they derived from this ritual. Aside from a few minutes' meditation, it seemed that the main spiritual or psychological benefit they received was simply the belief that they derived benefit. That professor I mentioned earlier also said that they experience much emotional bonding through such ceremonies, and that it makes them happy, which was obviously true. Ah well, if it makes them happy, why not.
     Before the group went away, three greyish monkeys with mustaches and strange-looking mohawk crests showed up, plus a black hen, apparently a domesticated one turned loose there. They apparently were well aware that groups of people dressed in white means lots of food is likely to be be had. Virtually all of the food offerings made to whatever deity they were making offerings to (and ven. Vijaya says that most of them don't know who they're worshipping) is eaten by monkeys, with a few scattered rice grains left for the chicken. The monkeys start helping themselves before the people even leave, so the worshippers must realize that either the god(s) receive the food in a spiritual, as opposed to material, sense, or else they accept it in the form of scroungy greyish monkeys. It was entertaining to see a monkey lounging on the padmasana throne eating fruit or Balinese junk food that had been reverently placed under a kind of stone lingam. I like monkeys. I resonate with monkeys. They are like my brothers.
     We had arrived at the summit around mid afternoon, and we were tired, and it was windy and cold, so we retired to our respective sleeping places around dark. I had chosen the little pavilion with the cement floor. After meditating till I didn't want to any more, I set up as warm of a horizontal situation as I could: due to the coldness of the cement, I spread out a sleeping cloth, and then folded my sitting cloth over the torso area of that, then I folded my upper robe to cover me from shoulders to knees, and then spread my double robe over my whole body, leaving one little air hole. Neither ven. Vijaya nor I had brought any blankets, let alone a sleeping bag; according to the Pali texts, the Buddha considered three robes to be sufficient for a monk even in freezing weather (monks in the Buddha's time were tough). But with the wind chill factor, the fasting factor, the mist factor, the altitude factor, and the exhaustion factor, I figure we reached the practical equivalent of freezing. Ven. Vijaya said that his thermometer clock read 11°C (52°F) as the lowest temperature reached at night, but it seemed to reach that level almost as soon as it got dark and to stay steady till daybreak. I spent the night right at the verge of shivering, but with no worries. If I had to roll over, which happens when one sleeps on a cement bed, by the time I had the covers rearranged with a new little air hole I would be shivering again, and would continue shivering for about 15 minutes. Existence had become just about the opposite of life in a cave in upper Burma during the hot season: at that extreme, if I had to go outside the cave to pee during the day, I'd sweat for 15 minutes after coming back inside. Anyway, I survived, but worried about ven. Vijaya, whose robes were thinner than mine, and whose ancestors probably had not evolved to survive ice ages. But the next morning I found all three of my companions still alive, though not eager for another night of it. Ven. Vijaya had sat up throughout most of the night, finding sitting to be warmer than lying down.
     Khema and Nyoman had definitely had enough, and went back down the mountain around noon the second day, intending to wait for us monks at the bottom. I suggested that we stay on the mountain for another night, but I think this was partly for male ego reasons, and would not have been unhappy to be outvoted. Part of me actually wanted to be outvoted. But the two laymen's departure at noon rendered my being outvoted impossible. Besides, I was senior monk. Ven. Vijaya calls me "chief," and sometimes if he's feeling funny even "my lord." So we stayed for another night on top.
     The second day was clear, so I was optimistic that the second night would be warmer, considering that the sun was shining all day. Also I found that the view is spectacular up there when there are no obscuring clouds. We could see for many miles, even as far as the hills of eastern Java. And the dawn was a gorgeous orange. Truly magnificent, with the great volcano Agung looming in silhouette. Another advantage of staying up there, in my book anyway, was that shortly after Kh. and Ny. left, a troop of maybe 12 or 15 monkeys showed up, looking for more offerings to the gods. Ven. Vijaya remembered that the pilgrims of the previous day had left behind an offering of half a dozen coconuts that the monkeys couldn't open, so after asking me if monkeys eat coconut (I said "probably"), we started smashing them open to feed these representatives of the gods. As is usual with monkeys, the big ones bullied the little ones and tried to get all the food, so it was a challenge to distribute coconut fragments to everyone. I dearly love feeding monkeys. Maybe the karma from feeding my little brothers helps higher beings to feed me. The black chicken came back too.
     Of course there wasn't much else to do but meditate, so we meditated a lot. Vijaya commented that that's why people become enlightened on mountaintops: there's nothing else to do but meditate. But I've found that while fasting my meditation is not good. My mind becomes shallow, with odd, random thoughts coming up, and not connecting in sequence, much like what goes through my mind as I'm falling asleep. I can be thinking about something and suddenly forget totally what I had just been thinking about. Also music plays in my head a lot, with the main theme of Pucak Mangu being "The Hop," by Radio Citizen. So concentration was pretty much shipwrecked. Still, as I say, there wasn't much else to do.
     The first night the wind had died down around dark and hadn't really picked up again till dawn, so that's what I expected for the second night also. But the sun went down and the wind didn't stop. If anything it started blowing even stronger. I was becoming impatient, largely of course because the wind felt damn cold, and so by around 8:00pm I was disgusted and cursing "Mr. Weather" like I did sometimes during the blazing hot droughts of upper Myanmar. But then I would catch myself, realizing that my frustration was caused by a stupid desire (the desire for wind to stop blowing). The desire didn't completely stop, however, so my meditation that night consisted heavily of watching and detaching from a stupid, persistent desire, and an insistence that weather do what I wanted it to do. 
     I prepared the bed as I did the night before, hoping that I hadn't worn out all the comfortable (=bearable enough to sleep through) positions the first night on the cement. I carefully arranged the little air hole and shivered. After a while I somehow managed to fall asleep for maybe an hour, and woke to the sound of a rushing river. I was confused, and tried to think…There's no river up here. Is it raining? No. What is it? Then I realized: It's the constant roar of wind! Again and again I considered going over to ven. Vijaya and proposing that we huddle together through the night to share body heat, but never fully made up my mind. Sometimes I wondered if he would die that night. Once I even wondered if I would die that night. For a long time I couldn't stop shivering. I hadn't taken any nutriment in 2½ days, and humbug on breatharians. Sometimes I remembered the cheerful and very plump servant girl (I suppose there's a more polite, politically correct word for servant girls, but I don't know what it is) back in Sanur, and would have seriously considered committing a sanghādisesa offense by snuggling with her all night if she had been there; she seemed very warm. Also I remembered there's a guy in Java who makes cloth for the US Army, and who offered to make me a robe made with cloth which would keep a person warm down to −25°. I thought about a lot of things, but then would promptly forget what I had just been thinking about. Only Radio Citizen was consistent. Plus the cold wind. 
     Finally, somehow, after midnight perhaps, I became almost comfortable, sort of, and got some sleep. Still I would shiver for awhile after rolling over, but I got used to that. I sat up with my back to the wind and meditated, kind of. I was very happy to see another gorgeous orange dawn. I was also happy to see that ven. Vijaya was still alive after spending a second night mostly sitting up. We didn't waste time, and packed up and started back down the mountain. 
     I was relatively weak from the fasting, plus the strain on the system from the climb two days previously, but was cheerful as we set out. I thanked the place, and the gods, and the monkeys, and the black chicken, and we hit the trail. But by the time we were a quarter of the way down, my batteries started running dead again. The trip down was at least as difficult as the trip up had been. I would walk a hundred meters or less and then stop, panting for breath. Level ground was about all I could manage without difficulty. My legs were very wobbly, and I could hardly walk at times. I stopped for breath and rest about as many times on the way down as I had on the way up. Finally ven. Vijaya, who was faring much better than I was at this point, offered to carry my knapsack (containing mostly my big double robe, a water bottle, and a book that I didn't read), and, figuring we'd get down quicker that way and eat something before noon, I gave it to him. The only mishap other than my exhaustion/hypoglycemia was that twice I stepped barefoot in monkey poop. We were happy to see the car waiting at the bottom. I rinsed the crap off my foot and crashed in the front seat, and stayed crashed all the way back to Sanur. The mountain climbing and the cold had proved to be much more challenging than a mere three day fast.
     I usually give a short Dhamma talk to the people who offer food in the morning in Sanur. (Thus I give more Dhamma talks in Bali than I ever gave in Burma or the USA.) I gave a very short one before we started eating that morning. I told them they were getting big merit by feeding semi-starving monks, and also told them they could enjoy some muditā (i.e., happiness at another person's happiness), one of the four brahmavihāras, while we were eating. Then we broke the fast. Then I crashed onto a futon much softer than cement, and much warmer too.
     As I've already mentioned, fasting is not very conducive to deep meditation for me. Nevertheless, it has obvious advantages for a Dharma practitioner, completely setting aside any physical health benefits. For example, it is a good practice in austerity—a kind of ascetic practice. It helps to teach us how to be comfortable with discomfort. This is an extremely important aspect of Dharma, especially for extraverted Western Vipassana practitioners. I was told that recently one of the biggest luminaries in Western Vipassana came to Bali, and he and some other people were discussing the idea of setting up the "perfect" meditation center. This famous meditation instructor (and actually naming him might be tantamount to blaspheming the Holy Spirit to Western Vipassana meditators) gave the opinion that the "perfect" meditation center would be the Four Seasons—a "five-plus" star luxury resort! This approach to Dharma practice in the West, conforming/degrading it to fit a luxury resort atmosphere in order to satisfy pampered, fastidious complainers who can't ever really be satisfied, keeps Western Dharma from ever really coming to grips with the fact that our happiness and unhappiness are not caused by outward circumstance, but are caused by our own attitude. One should not forget that the Middle Way taught by the Buddha himself involved wandering around homeless, having no money, wearing rags, sleeping under trees, and begging for one's food in the street. Thus the Middle Way is light-years away from a place in which people are insisting that the food be just so, and complaining that the cream isn't certified organic, or that the bread isn't gluten-free, or that the room has a funny smell, or that the towels are too rough, or that the pillows are too small, or that the sound of a generator outside the window is intolerable, or that….
     Another advantage of fasting is that one gets practice at fundamental self-control. This is especially obvious when two of one's companions are still eating, or when one is handling food oneself in order to feed it to god-monkeys. Another advantage for me is that it causes my libido temporarily to become dormant. While fasting I can look at a beautiful girl and feel nothing, other than the acknowledgement that she is indeed a beautiful girl. It is at times like this that I realize that, almost all the time, lust is a kind of background hum, like the hum of a refrigerator that one usually doesn't quite notice. Another advantage is that it gives me something to write about this week.
     The moral of this long story, the main one anyway I suppose, is this: fasting is good Dharma practice, but if you're going to do it, don't climb up and down mountains while doing it. Take it easy, if at all possible.



  1. 3 day fasts bring as much merit as 60 days unbroken celibacy --trust me Sir...I have made it to 3.5 days and did a 20 km during one of those fasts..fasting temporariliy sucks the life out of sexual desire--now if only that could be permananet!! Sigh!! But Sir please donot give up water....then you are playin with your life...if you do want to give up water...donot extend it more than 2.5-3 days...I would very soon undertake a 7 day water fast (that means I will drink plain water though)...this is one of your best posts Sir

    1. The longest I have ever fasted was 5 days, twice. Once was for spiritual purposes, but once (I was a layman then) was a hunger strike until a young woman allowed me to kiss her.

    2. Oh, and good luck with your fast. May you get what you need from it.