Hindu and Buddhist AsceticismAsceticism In Buddhism
According to Buddhist texts, Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563–c. 483 B.C.E.), the founder of Buddhism, was born into a royal family and raised in the lap of luxury. Upon learning of the true nature of the world outside his insulated life—a world full of suffering, sickness, old age, and death—Gautama immediately renounced his privileged life, left his family, and joined a group of ascetics in the jungle.
The time of the Buddha seems to have been one in which many different renunciatory groups in the uninhabited regions of north India experimented with various techniques—ascetic, yogic, philosophical, and meditational—to attain release from suffering and rebirth. Early Buddhist texts are replete with references to ascetics of various types. One such text depicts the typical ascetic (tapasvin) of the time as one who
goes naked, is of certain loose habits, licks his hands, respects no approach nor stop; accepts nothing expressly brought, nor expressly prepared, nor any invitations.… He takes food once a day, or once every two days, or once every seven days.… He feeds on herbs, or on the powder of rice husks, on rice-scum, on flour of oil seeds, on grasses, on cowdung, or on fruits and roots from the woods.… He wears coarse hempen cloths, discarded corpse cloths, discarded rags, or antelope hide, or bark garments. (Digha Nikaya, quoted in Bhagat, p. 151)
According to hagiographies of the life of the Buddha, Gautama hooked up with such a group and practiced and mastered the radical ascetic regimen they advocated, to such an extent that he ate virtually nothing and shriveled to nothing more than skin and bones. Finding that he had not achieved his goal through such austerities, Gautama rejected the ascetic path and pursued what he called the "middle way" between the poles of sensuality and asceticism: "There are two extremes, O monks, which he who has given up the world ought to avoid. What are these two extremes? A life given to pleasure, devoted to pleasures and lust; this is degrading, sensual, vulgar, ignoble and profitless. And a life given to mortifications; this is painful, ignoble and profitless" (Mahavagga, quoted in Bhagat, p. 161).
Buddhism in its origins is thus somewhat ambivalent about the usefulness of asceticism. On the one hand, it rejects the extreme forms of physical abnegation and self-torture that appear in the other Indian religions it grew up with. Buddhism denies that such physical asceticism alone can procure for the practitioner the highest spiritual goals. On the other hand, however, there can be no question that Buddhism requires its more serious practitioners not only to renounce worldly life but also to train diligently in self-discipline and self-control through the "eightfold path" (right views, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration). Attaining the permanent peace and happiness known as nirvana also requires the elimination of desire and aversion through ascetic self-discipline and abnegation. If one can eliminate desire, selfishness, and egotism by more moderate means, the more radical physical austerities are unnecessary: "All mortification is vain so long as selfishness leads to lust after pleasures in this world or in another world. But he in whom egotism has become extinct is free from lust; he will desire neither worldly nor heavenly pleasures, and the satisfaction of his natural wants will not defile him. He may eat and drink to satisfy the needs of life" (Mahavagga, quoted in Bhagat, p. 162).
While the Buddha rejected the extreme forms of physical asceticism recommended by others, he did allow for a number of ascetic practices called the dhutanga s. These practices are said not to be the path itself but only preparatory for the path; they help the seeker eliminate all forms of attachment. The dhutanga s include wearing only monastic robes made from discarded fabric, living only on alms begged for indiscriminately, eating only once a day, living in the forest or at the foot of a tree or in a cemetery, and sleeping only while sitting upright (and never while lying down).
The main form that asceticism took in Buddhism was monastic renunciation of the world. In stark contrast to the Hindu system of the four stages of life, in which renunciation was relegated to the end of life after the householder stage, Buddhists insisted that as soon as one recognized that this world is like a "house on fire," one should give up the worldly life and join the monastery. There, in the company of other monks or nuns, one could pursue a regulated life of study, meditation, and self-discipline similar to the monastic lifestyle pursued in other religious traditions.
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