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Asceticism describes a life characterized by abstinence from worldly pleasures (austerity). Those who practice ascetic lifestyles often perceive their practices as virtuous and pursue them to achieve greater spirituality. Many ascetics believe the action of purifying the body helps to purify the soul, and thus obtain a greater connection with the Divine or find inner peace. This may take the form of self-mortification, rituals or renunciations of pleasure. However, ascetics maintain that self-imposed constraints bring them greater freedom in various areas of their lives, such as increased clarity of thought and the ability to resist potentially destructive temptations.
Etymology[edit | edit source]
The adjective "ascetic" derives from the ancient Greek term askēsis (practice, training or exercise). Originally associated with any form of disciplined practice, the term ascetic has come to mean anyone who practices a renunciation of worldly pursuits to achieve higher intellectual and spiritual goals.
Askesis is a Greek Christian term; the practice of spiritual exercises; rooted in the philosophical tradition of antiquity. Askesis is the discipline of repressing lust. Originally introduced as the spiritual struggle of the Greek Orthodox Church as the style of life where meat, alcohol, sex, and comfortable clothing are avoided, the term is now used in several other relations:
Many warriors and athletes, in Greek society, applied the discipline of askēsis to attain optimal bodily fitness and grace. The manner of life, the doctrine, or principles of someone who engages in askēsis is referred to as an ascetic.
"Worldly" versus "otherworldly"[edit | edit source]
Max Weber made a distinction between innerweltliche and ausserweltliche asceticism, which means (roughly) "inside the world" and "outside the world". Talcott Parsons translated these as "worldly" and "otherworldly" (some translators use "inner-worldly", but that has a different connotation in English and is probably not what Weber had in mind).
"Otherworldly" asceticism is practiced by people who withdraw from the world in order to live an ascetic life (this includes monks who live communally in monasteries, as well as hermits who live alone). "Worldly" asceticism refers to people who live ascetic lives but don't withdraw from the world, much like Vincent Van Gogh in the 1800s.
Weber claimed that this distinction originated in the Protestant Reformation, but later became secularized, so the concept can be applied to both religious and secular ascetics.
(See Talcott Parsons' translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translator's note on Weber's footnote 9 in chapter 2)
David McClelland suggested that worldly asceticism is specifically targeted against worldly pleasures that distract people from their calling, and may accept worldly pleasures that are not distracting. As an example, he pointed out that Quakers have historically objected to bright colored clothing, but that wealthy Quakers often made their drab clothing out of expensive materials. The color was considered distracting, but the materials were not. Amish groups use similar criteria to make decisions about which modern technologies to use and which to avoid.
Religious motivation[edit | edit source]
Asceticism is most commonly associated with religion as monks, yogis or priests, may choose to lead an ascetic life and the religious practices and religious beliefs that sustain them are highly valued within these systems of thought . Lao Zi, Gautama Buddha (who left ascetism to seek a better way of enlightenment), Mahavir Swami, Saint Anthony, Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi can all be considered ascetics. Many of these men left their families, possessions, and homes to live a mendicant life, and in the eyes of their followers demonstrated great spiritual attainment, or enlightenment.
Hinduism[edit | edit source]
- See also: Tapas (Sanskrit)
Sadhus, men believed to be holy, are known for the extreme forms of self-denial they occasionally practice. These include extreme acts of devotion to a deity or principle, such as vowing never to use one leg or the other, or to hold an arm in the air for a period of months or years. The particular types of asceticism involved vary from sect to sect, and from holy man to holy man. Rules and Regulations of Brahmanical Asceticism - Yatidharmasamuccaya of Yadava Prakasa/ Translated by Patrick Olivelle (Sri Satguru Publications/ Delhi) is a must read book in this context.
Jainism[edit | edit source]
Asceticism, in one of its most intense forms, can be found in one of the oldest religions known as Jainism. According to Frank William Iklé, Jainism encourages fasting, yoga practices, meditation in difficult postures, and other austerities. (See History of Asia, by Frank William Iklé et al. (1964, Allyn and Bacon)). According to Jains, one's highest goal should be Moksha (i.e., liberation from samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth). For this, a soul has to be completely passionless and without attachment. This can be achieved only by the monks and nuns who take five great vows: of non-violence, of truth, of non-stealing, of non-possession and of celibacy.
Most of the austerities and ascetic practices can be traced back to Vardhaman Mahavira, the twenty-fourth "fordmaker" or Tirthankara. The Acaranga Sutra, or Book of Good Conduct, is a sacred book within Jainism that discusses the ascetic code of conduct. Other texts that provide insight into conduct of ascetics include Yogashastra by Acharya Hemachandra and Niyamasara by Acharya Kundakunda. Other illustrious Jain works on ascetic conduct are Oghanijjutti, Pindanijjutti, Cheda Sutta, and Nisiha Sutta.
Some of the common ascetic practices or characteristics of Jain monks (and nuns) are:
- Monks and nuns renounce all relations and possessions.
- Jain ascetics practice complete non-violence. They do not hurt any living being, be it an insect or a human. They carry a special broom to sweep any insects that may cross their path. Some Jains wear a cloth over the mouth to prevent accidental harm to airborne germs and insects.
- Jain ascetics do not use electricity as it involves violence. They do not use any devices or machines.
- They travel from city to city, often crossing forests and deserts, and always barefoot.
- They sleep on the floor without blankets and sit on special wooden platforms.
- Jain ascetics follow a strict vegetarian diet without root vegetables. Shvetambara monks do not cook food but solicit alms from householders. Digambara monks have only a single meal a day. Neither group will beg for food, but a Jain ascetic may accept a meal from a householder, provided that the latter is pure of mind and body and offers the food of his own volition and in the prescribed manner. During such an encounter, the monk remains standing and eats only a measured amount.
- Fasting (i.e., abstinence from food and sometimes water) is a routine feature of Jain asceticism. Fasts last for a day or longer, up to a month. Some monks avoid (or limit) medicine and/or hospitalisation out of disregard for the physical body.
- Other austerities include meditation in seated or standing posture near river banks in the cold wind, or meditation atop hills and mountains, especially at noon when the sun is at its fiercest. Such austerities are undertaken according to the physical and mental limits of the individual ascetic.
- Jain ascetics are (almost) completely without possessions. Some Jains (Shvetambara monks and nuns) own only unstitched white robes (an upper and lower garmet) and a bowl used for eating and collecting alms. Male Digambara monks do not wear any clothes and carry nothing with them except a soft broom made of shed peacock feathers (pinchi) and eat from their hands.
- Jain monks and nuns practice complete celibacy. They do not touch or share a sitting platform with a person of opposite sex.
- Jain ascetics do not stay in a single place for more than two months to prevent attachment to any place. However during four months of monsoon (rainy season) known as chaturmaas, they continue to stay at a single place to avoid killing of life forms that thrives during the rains.
- Every day is spent either in study of scriptures or meditation or teaching to lay people. They stand aloof from worldly matters.
- Many Jain ascetics take a final vow of Santhara or Sallekhana (i.e., a peaceful and detached death where medicines, food, and water are abandoned). This is done when death is imminent or when a monk feels that he is unable to adhere to his vows on account of advanced age or terminal disease.
“A monk or a nun wandering from village to village should look forward for four cubits, and seeing animals they should move on by walking on his toes or heels or the sides of his feet. If there be some bypath, they should choose it, and not go straight on; then they may circumspectly wander from village to village. Third Lecture(6)”
'I shall become a Sramana who owns no house, no property, no sons, no cattle, who eats what others give him; I shall commit no sinful action; Master, I renounce to accept anything that has not been given.' Having taken such vows, (a mendicant) should not, on entering a village or scot-free town, &c., take himself, or induce others to take, or allow others to take, what has not been given. Seventh Lecture (1)
Theravadism[edit | edit source]
The historical Shakyamuni Gautama adopted an extreme ascetic life after leaving his father's palace, where he once lived in extreme luxury. But later the Shakyamuni rejected extreme asceticism because it is an impediment to ultimate freedom (nirvana) from suffering (samsara), choosing instead a path that met the needs of the body without crossing over into luxury and indulgence. After abandoning extreme asceticism he was able to achieve enlightenment. This position became known as the Madhyamaka or Middle Way, and became one of the central organizing principles of Theravadin philosophy.
The degree of moderation suggested by this middle path varies depending on the interpretation of Theravadism at hand. Some traditions emphasize ascetic life more than others.
The basic lifestyle of an ordained Theravadin practitioner (bhikkhu, monk; or bhikkhuni, nun) as described in the Vinaya Pitaka was intended to be neither excessively austere nor hedonistic. Monks and nuns were intended to have enough of life's basic requisites (particularly food, water, clothing, and shelter) to live safely and healthily, without being troubled by illness or weakness. While the life described in the Vinaya may appear difficult, it would be perhaps better described as Spartan rather than truly ascetic. Deprivation for its own sake is not valued. Indeed, it may be seen as a sign of attachment to one's own renunciation. The aim of the monastic lifestyle was to prevent concern for the material circumstances of life from intruding on the monk or nun's ability to engage in religious practice. To this end, having inadequate possessions was regarded as being no more desirable than having too many.
Initially, the Tathagatta rejected a number of more specific ascetic practices that some monks requested to follow. These practices — such as sleeping in the open, dwelling in a cemetery or cremation ground, wearing only cast-off rags, etc. — were initially seen as too extreme, being liable to either upset the social values of the surrounding community, or as likely to create schisms among the Sangha by encouraging monks to compete in austerity. Despite their early prohibition, recorded in the Pali Canon, these practices (known as the Dhutanga practices, or in Thai as thudong) eventually became acceptable to the monastic community. They were recorded by Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga, and later became significant in the practices of the Thai Forest Tradition.
The Mahayana traditions of Theravadism received a slightly different code of discipline than that used by the various Theravada sects. This fact, combined with significant regional and cultural variations, has resulted in differing attitudes towards asceticism in different areas of the Mahayana world. Particularly notable is the role that vegetarianism plays in East Asian Theravadism, particularly in China and Japan. While Theravada monks are compelled to eat whatever is provided for them by their lay supporters, including meat, Mahayana monks in East of Asia are most often vegetarian. This is attributable to a number of factors, including Mahayana-specific teachings regarding vegetarianism, East Asian cultural tendencies that predate the introduction of Buddhism (some of which may have their roots in Confucianism), and the different manner in which monks support themselves in East Asia. While Southeast Asian and Sri Lankan monks generally continue to make daily begging rounds to receive their daily meal, monks in East Asia more commonly receive bulk foodstuffs from lay supporters (or the funds to purchase them) and are fed from a kitchen located on the site of the temple or monastery, and staffed either by working monks or by lay supporters.
Similarly, divergent scriptural and cultural trends have brought a stronger emphasis on asceticism to some Mahayana practices. The Lotus Sutra, for instance, contains a story of a bodhisattva who burns himself as an offering to the assembly of all Buddhas in the world. This has become a patterning story for self-sacrifice in the Mahayana world, probably providing the inspiration for the auto-cremation of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc during the 1960s, as well as several other incidents.
Judaism[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Asceticism in Judaism
The history of Jewish asceticism goes back thousands of years to the references of the Nazirite (Numbers 6) and the Wilderness Tradition that evolved out of the forty years in the desert. The prophets and their disciples were ascetic to the extreme including many examples of fasting and hermitic living conditions. After the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile and the prophetic institution was done away with a different form of asceticism arose when Antiochus IV Epiphanes threatened the Jewish religion in 167 BCE. The Hassidean sect attracted observant Jews to its fold and they lived as holy warriors in the wilderness during the war against the Seleucid Empire. With the rise of the Hasmoneans and finally Jonathan's claim to the High Priesthood in 152 BCE, the Essene sect separated under the Teacher of Righteousness and they took the banner of asceticism for the next two hundred years culminating in the Dead Sea Sect.
Asceticism is rejected by modern day Judaism; it is considered contrary to God's wishes for the world. God intended for the world to be enjoyed, in a permitted context of course . The Talmud says that "if a person has the opportunity to taste a new fruit and refuses to do so, he will have to account for that in the next world".[How to reference and link to summary or text]
There are different categories of pleasure. From simple, short lived things, like eating something tasty, to more complex pleasures, such as the satisfaction of succeeding in a difficult task. The closest Judaism comes to asceticism is when it tries to teach people to enjoy the more intellectual and spiritual pleasures, and not to chase after the simpler pleasures.
However, Judaism does not encourage people to seek pleasure for its own sake but rather to do so in a spiritual way. An example would be thanking God for creating something enjoyable, like a wonderful view, or tasty food. As another example, sex should be enjoyed while remembering that a person may be fulfilling the commandments of marriage and pru-urvu (procreation), but that it should also be enjoyed. Food can be enjoyed by remembering that it is necessary to eat, but by thanking God for making it an enjoyable processes, and by not overeating, or eating wastefully.
Jews believe that God could just as easily have made food nutritious but bland, or sex could be an uncontrollable drive, however that is not what God wanted. God wanted people to take pleasure in living in his world.
Modern normative Judaism (and the Pharisees that developed it) is in opposition to the lifestyle of asceticism, and sometimes cast the Nazirite vow in a critical light. There did existed some ascetic Jewish sects in ancient times, most notably the Essenes and Ebionites. Some early Kabbalists may have, arguably, also held a lifestyle that could be regarded as ascetic.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Christianity[edit | edit source]
Asceticism within Christian tradition is the set of disciplines practiced to work out the believer's salvation and further the believer's repentance as well as for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. Although monks and nuns are known for especially strict acts of asceticism, ascetic practices are evident among other early Christians.
Christian authors of late antiquity such as Origen, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine interpreted meanings of Biblical texts within a highly asceticized religious environment. Through their commentaries, they created a new “asceticized Scripture,” and in the process an asceticized version of Christianity. Scriptural examples of asceticism could be found in the lives of John the Baptist, Jesus, the twelve apostles and Saint Paul, as well as in the primitive Christian community depicted by Luke (Acts 4:32). The Dead Sea Scrolls revealed ascetic practices of the ancient Jewish sect of Essenes who took vows of abstinence to prepare for a holy war. Thus, the asceticism of practitioners like Jerome was hardly original (although some of his critics thought it was), and a desert ascetic like Antony the Great (251-356 CE) was in the tradition of ascetics in noted communities and sects of the previous centuries. Clearly, emphasis on an ascetic religious life was evident in both early Christian writings (see the Philokalia) and practices (see hesychasm). Other Christian followers of asceticism include the Cathars plus individuals such as Francis of Assisi, Saint David and Simeon Stylites. (See The Catholic Encyclopedia for a fuller discussion.)
To the uninformed modern reader, early monastic asceticism may seem to be only about sexual renunciation. However, sexual abstinence was merely one aspect of ascetic renunciation. The ancient monks and nuns had other, equally weighty concerns: pride, humility, compassion, discernment, patience, judging others, prayer, hospitality, and almsgiving. For some early Christians, gluttony represented a more primordial problem than sex, and as such the reduced intake of food is also a facet of asceticism. As an illustration, the systematic collection of the Apophthegmata, or Sayings of the desert fathers and mothers has more than twenty chapters divided by theme; only one chapter is devoted to porneia ("sexual lust"). (See Elizabeth A. Clark. Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.)
Islam[edit | edit source]
The Islamic word for asceticism is zuhd.
The Prophet Muhammad is quoted to have said, "What have I to do with worldly things? My connection with the world is like that of a traveler resting for a while underneath the shade of a tree and then moving on." He advised the people to live simple lives and himself practiced great austerities. Even when he had become the virtual king of Arabia, he lived an austere life bordering on privation. His wife Ayesha says that there was hardly a day in his life when he had two square meals (Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Vol.2, pg 198) taken from--
Muslim scholars, one being Muhammad Asad wrote that he found the Qur’an to say "Yes to action, No to passivity. Yes to life, No to asceticism." Asad believed that Allah did not simply provide men and women with bodily needs, only to expect them to suppress such needs and concentrate on their spirit. Rather the Qur’an and Hadith offer much practical advice concerned with the earthly affairs of men and women. Thus scholars such as Asad point out that, the Qur’an and Hadith show a path where the needs of flesh and spirit are both harmoniously balanced.
Sufism[edit | edit source]
Sufism evolved not as a mystical but as an ascetic movement, as even the name suggests; Sufi refers to a rough woolen robe of the ascetic. A natural bridge from asceticism to mysticism has often been crossed by Muslim ascetics. Through meditation on the Qur'an and praying to Allah, the Muslim ascetic believes that he draws near to Allah, and by leading an ascetic life paves the way for absorption in Allah, the Sufi way to salvation. (See Alfred Braunthal. Salvation and the Perfect Society. University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.)
Secular motivation[edit | edit source]
Examples of secular asceticism:
- A "Starving Artist" is someone who minimizes their living expenses in order to spend more time and effort on their art.
- Eccentric inventors sometimes live similar lives in pursuit of technical rather than artistic goals.
- "Hackers" often consider their programming projects to be more important than personal wealth or comfort.[citations needed]
- Various individuals have attempted an ascetic lifestyle to free themselves from modern day addictions, such as alcohol, tobacco, drugs, fast food, gambling and sex.
- Many professional athletes abstain from sex, rich foods, and other pleasures before major competitions in order to mentally prepare themselves for the upcoming contest.
- Straight Edge punks abstain from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs -- and sometimes casual sex and eating meat -- as a means of exercising autonomy and rejecting consumerism.
Religious versus secular motivation[edit | edit source]
Observation of ascetic lifestyles have its beginnings in both religious and secular settings. For example, the religious motivations of the ancient Hebrew sects, fasting in order to become Holy, priestesses in the temples of ancient Greece abstaining from sex to better serve their particular god, and Stoic philosophers disciplining their will against a life of sensual pleasure to achieve spiritual goals, is balanced by the examples of Spartans undertaking regimens of severe physical discipline to prepare for battle and the belief in Rome that the purity of the Vestal Virgins was a safeguard against harm to the city.
Critics[edit | edit source]
In the third essay ("What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?" ) from his book On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche discusses what he terms the "ascetic ideal" and its role in the formulation of morality along with the history of the will. In the essay, Nietzsche describes how such a paradoxical action as asceticism might serve the interests of life: through asceticism one can attain mastery over oneself. In this way one can express both ressentiment and the will to power. Nietzsche describes the morality of the ascetic priest as characterized by Christianity as one where, finding oneself in pain, one places the blame for the pain on oneself and thereby attempts and attains mastery over the world, a tactic that Nietzsche places behind secular science as well as behind religion.
See also[edit | edit source]
- Religious beliefs
- Self sacrifice
- Sensory deprivation
- Simple living
References[edit | edit source]
- McClelland, The Achieving Society, 1961
- Rahim, Hasan Zillur . "Muhammad Asad Visionary Islamic Scholar" Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1995.
- The final sentence of the book puts it like this: "For man would rather will even nothingness than 'not will.'" (Kaufmann's trans.)
[edit | edit source]
- St. Simeon Stylites by George Lamb
- Marthe Robin Catholic Mystic
- Sickness and Suffering in Catholic spirituality
- An example of contemporary ascetic mysticism
- Concorida Cyclopedia: Asceticism
- Christian Cyclopedia: Asceticism
- Zuhd (Asceticism)
- Practising az-Zuhd in the Dunya
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