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Asceticism and Practice - To When Does One Draw The Line?

ajani_mgoajani_mgo Veteran
edited September 2006 in Philosophy
I have been watching and thinking about Buddhist asceticism nowadays, and I start to wonder where on the Middle Path they stand?

I am not against the asceticism practices I cite, I just require an answer for them - those asceticism I really spite are those that clearly do not have a clear meaning and are the worst forms of human denial.

There are monks in Japan who would soak themselves in cold water naked, something most of us consider dehumanizing and being a terrible experience. Yet as the monks meditate, and even as scientists attempt to rationalize their explainations for it, their body temperature doesn't fall, and in fact some times even rises. For this, I believe that we cannot reasonably say that they are "suffering" as is.

The nature of suffering in Buddhism is usually mental, as even Buddhas themselves may not be fred from that of the physical. When the Buddha first turned the Wheel, and formulated the Middle Path, he advocated a clear balance between the merry-makers who cared not about spiritual liberation, and the ascetics who could be said to be committing suicide via their methods of excessive starving, pain-inducing etc. etc.

Yet as is the nature of faith today as it was in the past, all forms of the physical torment one may feel will very strangely be justified and ignored by the mind of the faithful or the fanatical religious. All forms of pain, injustice, discomfort, unexpected events etc. etc. of life always seem to be alleviated as long as spiritual opium is there to use, or if htere is meaning given to the suffering.

The first failure of this opiate, usually results from disillusionment from what one is doing, and consequent refusal to use this opiate again.

The Buddha would have continued leading his subjectively-"happy" life of an ascetic if he had chosen to continue his self-denial methods. However, once his disillusionment crept in strong enough, he totally had a loss of faith, instead of turning back to his methods once more as opium.

If I were to raise a parallel of the Buddha with something more accessible to us of today, it would have to be the Christians who would pray upon something unpleasant. The power of faith is truly astonishing, as I have witnessed both from a first-person and third-person view many times in many forms, and those who continue to cling onto God often find themselves back in His Hands, before blaming themselves for doubting Him initially. Such often becomes a cyclic meaning of being faithful for the sake of being faithful, an unconditional placement of faith in spiritual liberation.

In many aspects of life, such faith would be good, as I often wish for all to utilize their faith in some parts of life rather than the others. After liberation, I suppose the Buddha saw the flaw in using such faith in spiritual affairs, having been through such loss of faith thrice in his life, twice being from his yogic masters' guidance, and coincidentally with very good timing of the Kalamas' question to him, he spoke of such other ways of approaching spirituality rather than through blind faith in the Kalama Sutra.

Going back to the topic, for those whose disillusionment forbids them from reaching onto Him again will in contrary, lose their faith forever, as did the Buddha.

The Hindu brahmins themselves in their asceticism would not really have felt much disillusionment in what they were doing wasn't it, as they did so by faith? They would not have classified their methods as being OFF the Middle Path if they had their version. In fact, this WAS The Path, not the Middle Path.

Modern Japanese ascetics cannot exactly be said to not follow the Middle Path, for they do in fact. The esoteric Sakya schools of today also teach methods of making the worst extremities painless and in fact, very spiritually-enriching with all due respect to the Buddha's Middle Path. Yet the fact that they put themselves up to such physical "torture", even as they do not feel it, seems like a dangerous treading on the meaning of Buddhism.

Well, one thing for sure is that most of us here would not just be running into the forests and start ascetic practices any day soon - to us Buddhism is the everyday moment, without the need for the unusual practice.

But knowing that such other interpretations of the Dharma exist, on where exactly do we draw the line, on what is ascetism, and what is practice? Is practice concerned with all that is mental only, or is there anything physically-demeaning that cannot be considered practice? :rockon:

Comments

  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited September 2006
    Ah, the famous Middle Way! So often an excuse for doing nothing!!!

    In the myth-story, Gotama hears a musician tuning his instrument and realises that, too tight it will play too sharp, too loose and it will be flat. That particular string needs to be at right tension to resonate at the right frequency to produce the right note. The next string will need a slightly different tension, relating to the ones next to it, and so on. The Middle Way is the way between extremes for each human being, based on a pattern set out in the Fourth Noble Truth and lived out differently according to each life.

    Like Ulysses, sailing between the clashing rocks or a tightrope walker crossing a chasm, the Middle Way is not the safe way: it is often the most dangerous.

    In this, I see a way of understanding asceticism which may offend our personal sense of what the Middle Way demands. It may appear extreme but such extremeness may, to the individual concerned, be their own point of equilibrium. Which is a pretty scary thought.
  • ajani_mgoajani_mgo Veteran
    edited September 2006
    Would the Buddha consider any form of "spiritual purification" through "physical suffering" out of the Dharma, as I now reflect upon several practises held in wide regard throughout the world.

    Life itself, if full of obstacles, as it becomes a spiritual journey itself as we (or maybe not I, since I haven't seen alot yet) walk down, seems to pose a contradiction to that fact.
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited September 2006
    ajani_mgo wrote:
    Would the Buddha consider any form of "spiritual purification" through "physical suffering" out of the Dharma, as I now reflect upon several practises held in wide regard throughout the world.

    Life itself, if full of obstacles, as it becomes a spiritual journey itself as we (or maybe not I, since I haven't seen alot yet) walk down, seems to pose a contradiction to that fact.

    Depends how you read it, A.
  • ajani_mgoajani_mgo Veteran
    edited September 2006
    Could attitude be the key?
  • not1not2not1not2 Veteran
    edited September 2006
    "I thought: 'Suppose that I, clenching my teeth and pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth, were to beat down, constrain, & crush my mind with my awareness.' So, clenching my teeth and pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth, I beat down, constrained, & crushed by mind with my awareness. Just as a strong man, seizing a weaker man by the head or the throat or the shoulders, would beat him down, constrain, & crush him, in the same way I beat down, constrained, & crushed my mind with my awareness. As I did so, sweat poured from my armpits. And although tireless persistence was aroused in me, and unmuddled mindfulness established, my body was aroused & uncalm because of the painful exertion. But the painful feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.

    "I thought: 'Suppose I were to become absorbed in the trance of non-breathing.' So I stopped the in-breaths & out-breaths in my nose & mouth. As I did so, there was a loud roaring of winds coming out my earholes, just like the loud roar of winds coming out of a smith's bellows... So I stopped the in-breaths & out-breaths in my nose & mouth & ears. As I did so, extreme forces sliced through my head, just as if a strong man were slicing my head open with a sharp sword... Extreme pains arose in my head, just as if a strong man were tightening a turban made of tough leather straps around my head... Extreme forces carved up my stomach cavity, just as if a butcher or his apprentice were to carve up the stomach cavity of an ox... There was an extreme burning in my body, just as if two strong men, grabbing a weaker man by the arms, were to roast & broil him over a pit of hot embers. And although tireless persistence was aroused in me, and unmuddled mindfulness established, my body was aroused & uncalm because of the painful exertion. But the painful feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.

    "Devas, on seeing me, said, 'Gotama the contemplative is dead.' Other devas said, 'He isn't dead, he's dying.' Others said, 'He's neither dead nor dying, he's an arahant, for this is the way arahants live.'

    "I thought: 'Suppose I were to practice going altogether without food.' Then devas came to me and said, 'Dear sir, please don't practice going altogether without food. If you go altogether without food, we'll infuse divine nourishment in through your pores, and you will survive on that.' I thought, 'If I were to claim to be completely fasting while these devas are infusing divine nourishment in through my pores, I would be lying.' So I dismissed them, saying, 'Enough.'

    "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 shriveled & withered like a green bitter gourd, shriveled & 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 color 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?'"

    — MN 36

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/buddha.html
  • not1not2not1not2 Veteran
    edited September 2006
    He abandons his austerities
    "I thought: 'I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?' Then, following on that memory, came the realization: 'That is the path to Awakening.' I thought: 'So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?' I thought: 'I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities, but it is not easy to achieve that pleasure with a body so extremely emaciated. Suppose I were to take some solid food: some rice & porridge.' So I took some solid food: some rice & porridge. Now five monks had been attending on me, thinking, 'If Gotama, our contemplative, achieves some higher state, he will tell us.' But when they saw me taking some solid food — some rice & porridge — they were disgusted and left me, thinking, 'Gotama the contemplative is living luxuriously. He has abandoned his exertion and is backsliding into abundance.'

    "So when I had taken solid food and regained strength, then — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain. With the stilling of directed thought & evaluation, I entered & remained in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain. With the fading of rapture I remained in equanimity, mindful & alert, and physically sensitive of pleasure. I entered & remained in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, 'Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasurable abiding.' But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain. With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — I entered & remained in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain."


    — MN 36
  • not1not2not1not2 Veteran
    edited September 2006
    He finds the Middle Way
    "There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.

    "And what is the middle way realized by the Tathagata that — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding? Precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is the middle way realized by the Tathagata that — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding."

    — SN 56.11

    _/\_
    metta
  • buddhafootbuddhafoot Veteran
    edited September 2006
    Ah, the famous Middle Way! So often an excuse for doing nothing!!!

    In the myth-story, Gotama hears a musician tuning his instrument and realises that, too tight it will play too sharp, too loose and it will be flat. That particular string needs to be at right tension to resonate at the right frequency to produce the right note.


    I was just gonna point that ala The Little Buddha...

    -bf
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