In Defense of Asceticism

My teacher recently described my teaching style as “a pillowcase full of hammers.”

It’s an apt description. I tend toward a certain uncompromising standard (that I too often fall short of) in my own practice and it comes through when I’m teaching others.

However, I acknowledge that there is a rhythm to life, and one of the insights along the path is that there are periods in which it is totally possible to give 120% of your effort to the Path. There are also times when you can give only 80%. Neither of these are inherently problematic, though being able to give a consistent level of effort would be ideal. Ajahn Thanissaro notes writes:

The word jhana, or concentrated mental absorption, is related to a verb, jhayati, that means “to burn.” Pali has lots of different words for the wordburning,” and jhayatiis used to describe a steady flame, like the flame of an oil lamp. The words for “burning” used for other types of fire—like a raging bonfire, a wood fire, or a forest fire—are something else entirely. The word for a steady, constant flame: That’s jhayati, which relates to jhana. And as we practice concentration, that’s the kind of consistency and steadiness we’re trying to develop. [1]

While in this talk he is referring specifically to the type of meditation used in the Thai Forest Tradition, the image of “a small, steady flame” is an apt metaphor for the entire practice. If we consider the image of an oil lamp, it becomes clear that in order to keep the flame going, attention must be paid to the conditions surrounding it. Is there enough fuel? Does the wick need adjustment? Is it on stable ground? Tending to the Dharma, just like tending to a lamp, requires concentration, insight, and the creativity that arises from the cultivation of both. This is where, in my experience, asceticism comes in.

It’s true that the Buddha, when he was a Bodhisattva, was an extreme ascetic. Likewise, it’s true that he rejected the style of asceticism he practiced with the Group of Five in favor of the Middle Way. However, part of the discipline he established is the optional practice of the dhutangas (translated as “abandoning  states of mind”)thirteen ascetic practices which, observed individually or together, aid in the arising of skillful qualities and abandonment of unskillful qualities. [2] These are as follows:

  1. Abandoned Robes – wearing robes made of cast-off cloth.
  2. Three Robes – owning and wearing only three robes.
  3. Begging Food – only eating what one collects on alms-round.
  4. House to House – visiting every home on one’s alms route; not skipping any.
  5. One Session – only eating one meal per day.
  6. Mixing Food – combining food in one bowl rather than using multiple dishes.
  7. Late Food – Refusing any additional food once one has eaten to satiety.
  8. Forest Dwelling – Living in seclusion.
  9. Tree Dwelling – Living under a tree with no other shelter.
  10. Open Air Dwelling – Living under the open sky.
  11. Graveyard Dwelling – Living in a graveyard.
  12. Any Bed – Being satisfied with any place to sleep.
  13. Sitter’s Practice – Renouncing the lying down posture.

It may seem, at first, that these practices fly in the face of the Middle Way, and may not be practicable outside of a monastic environment. However, while these rules were laid down for monastics 2500-odd years ago in a culture dramatically different from those we find ourselves in today, it is simple enough to adapt most of them to modern lay life. For example, my understanding and practice of them is as follows:

  1. Only buying used clothing and/or clothes on clearance racks (in the former case, someone cast them off; in the latter, the store is trying to get rid of them).
  2. Minimalism: owning just enough to function as a human in society, and constantly evaluating whether I actually need the things around me.(3 and 4 are, so far as I can tell, unable to be adapted to lay life.
  1. Eating only one meal per day.
  2. Mixing the contents of the meal together. Currently, this takes the form of surviving solely on Soylent. (Note: I am not endorsing or otherwise plugging their product. I’m simply stating a fact.)
  3. Dealing with any feelings of hunger that arise without consuming more food.
  4. Living in isolation, i.e. having a calm and quiet personal life built around the intention to foster good qualities.
  5. It’s winter, and I don’t do this because it’s entirely possible where I live to die of exposure overnight right now. However, in the spring I may.
  6. See point 9.
  7. This cannot be done legally, so far as I can tell.
  8. Currently, I sleep in a corner on a hardwood floor.
  9. Unless I am feeling poorly, I do not lie down. Even sleeping I sit on a meditation cushion and go to sleep upright. (Note: I sometimes wake up in the lying down position; however, since it is primarily a question of intention I do not feel this is an issue.)

So then, why all the discomfort? As I have experienced it, these practices allow one to live more simply, to live lighter, and indeed require more attention than a “normal” daily routine. Also, it bears mentioning that I do not feel that my daily routine is particularly uncomfortable; I have nutrition to keep me healthy, a place to sleep and practice, and the possessions that allow me to function as a human in the world. The real value in all of this is that it opens up a space to reflect on the stories we tell ourselves and realize how many things we “need” are in fact things we want. The dhutanga break us out of habitual patterns and create a more fertile ground for doing things in a different, and hopefully more skillful way. They show us that maintaining that “small, steady flame” is an intentional act, and help to develop the understanding and moment-to-moment creativity to shield that flame from the rain, wind, and other factors which may cause it problems.

Is a more ascetic path good for everyone? I doubt it. Is it beneficial for some? Certainly. Too often, in our very understandable rush to the Middle, we disregard things that seem incongruous with our understanding of what exactly the Middle Way is. This post is, perhaps most of all, a long-winded way to say that even if at first some aspects of the Path don’t make sense, they’re worth trusting and exploring. Will wearing used clothes and sleeping upright make us better people, or better Buddhists? No. What these practices will do, though, is create space in the mind so that we can figure out what will.

 

6 Comments

  1. Regarding the first dhūtaguṇa, you can also simply find discarded cloth on the side of the road as the monks have. I tend to walk to and from my workplace, and one evening happened upon a white/cream-colored sheet tossed into the streets. It was the perfect size for a makeshift robe and has become an essential garb for practice during poṣadha.

    Like

  2. Hello friend,

    I suspect that we live in slightly different environs–I’ve come across discarded fabric exactly once despite going out and intentionally searching for it. I think that the heart of the practice is in being content with the things society has cast off, and being willing to take good care of them. It’s something that eventually goes beyond (far beyond) mere cloth and clothing.

    I appreciate your input and insight. Thank you for your practice.

    Liked by 1 person

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