Buddhist Sabbath and Fasting

A while back, I was reading what one book called “Honen’s Catechism”. Honen, the 12th century Buddhist monk who started the Pure Land sect in Japan, once received a letter from a follower asking 145 questions about Pure Land doctrine. In Japanese, this letter, together with Honen’s response, is called the hyakuyonjūgo kajō mondō (百四十五箇条問答), which can be partially found online here. One question caught my attention in particular:

Question: Is there any merit in fasting from noon to dawn and ought one do it?

Answer [from Honen]: There is merit in such fasting especially on the six days of fasting appointed for each month. But in case there is some matter of great importance, or one is ill, it is not necessary to do it, but only repeat the nembutsu, and one will thereby get free from the transmigratory round [of rebirth] and attain Ōjō [rebirth in the Pure Land].

This tradition of fasting on certain days dates all the way back to the time of the Buddha, in the form of Uposatha, which is essentially the Buddhist Sabbath. Like the more familiar Jewish Sabbath, the Buddhist Sabbath is intended as a day of rest for lay people and of extra practice. Fasting from noon until dawn is one of the original eight precepts that were observed during Uposatha by devout lay-Buddhists.1 However, for a long time, I didn’t know how this was observed in East Asia, so I never understood what Honen meant. However, in one of my books on the Lotus Sutra, I found footnote that explained the six days as the roku sainichi (六斎日), and that are traditionally observed (based on the lunar calendar, now the Western calendar) on these days:

  • The 8th of the month.
  • The 14th of the month.
  • The 15th of the month.
  • The 23rd of the month.
  • The 29th of the month.2
  • The 30th of the month.

It’s not clear how widely observed these six days are in modern Japan, but I suspect that some of the more devout Buddhists still observe them, especially in the older Buddhists sects like Tendai and Shingon, but I can’t confirm that. In any case, the Buddhist Sabbath, Uposatha, has always been a voluntary act. One can choose to observe it or not; the days are strictly a convention and tradition.3 Like exercise, no one has to do it, but it’s often good for you if you do.

What I find interesting is how the ancient tradition from the time of the Buddha has evolved and adapted to local traditions, and how people across generations still keep the tradition alive. :)

Namu Amida Butsu

1 – It should be stressed that the Eight Precepts were intended for lay-people who wanted time away from regular life, in semi-monastic practice. So the Eight Precepts are not intended for day to day life, but special observances. Most Buddhist teachers agree that for day to day life, it’s better in the long-run to focus on the five precepts and perfect those, which is a life-long challenge as it is. :)

2 – Since the Western Calendar is now commonplace in Japan, what if you wanted to observe fasting on the 29th and 30th of February? I suppose it’s a matter of personal choice: either move it up earlier, or just observe it on the 1st and 2rd of March. Wholesome intention is what matters here.

3 – Sometimes Buddhist sects in Japan will observe “sabbath-like” observances for other holidays particular to their own sect as well. This is often done during Buddhist funerals as well.