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Asceticism denotes a life which is characterized by refraining 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 inner peace. This may take the form of self-mortification, rituals or harsh renunciations of pleasure. However, ascetics maintain that self-imposed constraints bring them greater freedom in various areas of their lives, such as an increased ability to think clearly and resist potentially destructive short term impulses.
The adjective “ascetic” derives from the ancient Greek term askesis (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.
Many warriors and athletes, in Greek society, applied the discipline of askesis to attain optimal bodily fitness and grace. The manner of life, the doctrine, or principles of someone who engages in askesis is referred to as asceticism.
“Worldly” vs “Otherworldly”
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 refers to 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.
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.
(McClelland, The Achieving Society, 1961)
Religious vs Secular motivation
Observation of ascetic lifestyles have appeared in both religious and secular settings. For example, ancient Hebrew sects fasted in order to become Holy, early Greeks undertook a regimen of severe physical discipline to prepare for battle, and Stoic philosophers disciplined their will against a life of sensual pleasure to achieve spiritual goals. Christian monks eschewed the comforts of the world for the solitude of the desert. Following the Reformation, the straight-spined Puritans endured the hardwood pews of freezing New England meeting halls.
Asceticism is most commonly associated with monks, yogis or priests, however any individual may choose to lead an ascetic life. Lao Zi, Gautama Buddha, Mahavir Swami, Saint Anthony, Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi and David Augustine Baker 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.
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. Scriptual 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 and practices. Other Christian followers of asceticism include individuals such as Francis of Assisi. (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.)
Catholic vs Protestant Asceticism
Medieval (Catholic) asceticism had implied a contemplative possession of the holy; Reformation asceticism represented devout action. The Catholic saw himself as a divine vessel; an “asceticism of duty.” In its own way, worldly asceticism imposed upon the Protestant layman a discipline every bit as severe as that of the Catholic monk. Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed that Calvinists lived “like monks within the world.”
Asceticism, like mysticism, was foreign to Muhammad whose piety was eminently social. However, certain sects such as sufism adhered to ascetism in some ways. The Arabic word for asceticism is zuhd.
Sufism evolved not as a mystical but as an ascetic movement, as even the name suggests; Sufi refers to a rough woollen robe of the ascetic. A natural bridge from asceticism to mysticism has often been crossed by Muslim ascetics. Through meditation on the Koran 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.)
Asceticism is utterly rejected by 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”.
This is one of the many core differences between Judaism and Christianity. Some sects of Christianity have held that the world is basically evil (original sin) and is to be avoided. In contrast Judasim holds that only by living in the world and enjoying it can the world be spiritually elevated.
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 difficult task. The closest Judasim 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. Especially by thanking God for creating something enjoyable, like a wonderful view, or tasty food. As an example sex should be enjoyed while remembering that a person is fulling the commandments of: marriage and pru-urvu (procreation), but it should 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.
God could just as easily have made food nutritious but bland and tasteless, or sex could be a forced drive (like the fictional Vulcan Pon farr, or like how many lower animals have sex), however that is not what God wanted. God wanted people to enjoy living in his world.
Sadhus, men believed to be holy, are known for the extreme forms of self-mortification 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.
- See also Tapas
The historical Gautama Buddha adopted an extreme ascetic life after leaving his father’s palace, where he once lived in extreme luxury. But later the Buddha rejected extreme asceticism as an impediment to ultimate freedom from suffering (nibbana), 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 Middle Path or Middle Way, and became one of the central organizing principles of Buddhist philosophy.
The degree of moderation suggested by this middle path varies depending on the interpretation of Buddhism at hand. Some traditions emphasize ascetic life more than others.
The basic lifestyle of an ordained Buddhist 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, medicine, 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 Buddha 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 Buddhism 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 Buddhism, 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 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 spectacular auto-cremation of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc during the 1960’s, as well as several other incidents.
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 (some, including Richard Stallman, have minimized their expenses by living in their offices).
- 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.
- Sensory deprivation
- Simple living
- Straight edge
- Vegetarianism and religion Askeze
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