Ascetic Practices

In document The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Zen Buddhism (Page 34-37)

Ascetic practices are forms of self-denial undertaken for religious purposes. The most common forms of religious asceti-cism include fasting, celibacy, and sleep deprivation. Extreme forms of asceticism include self-mutilation (especially castra-tion), and fasting to the point of starva-tion. While Buddhist monastic life can be characterized as a modified form of ascetic practice, the tradition rejects extreme forms. This rejection can be traced to the teachings of the historical Buddha. After six years of harsh ascetic practice, which brought him to the brink of death, Siddharta Gautama concluded that the extreme path of self-denial was not helpful in attaining enlightenment.

He devised a path balancing extreme asceticism and hedonism (the quest for complete self-gratification). The Buddha called his path the middle way, the traditional name for what is now known as Buddhism.

The Zen tradition maintains many of the modified forms of ascetic practice observed by other forms of Buddhism, especially within the monastic setting.

Like other Buddhist monks and nuns, Zen monastics traditionally remain celi-bate, consume food only before the noon hour, limit their diet to exclude liquor, intoxicants, some spices and meats, and maintain a strict schedule of early rising 12

Ascetic Practices

and relatively short periods of sleep.

These practices are intended to promote concentration during meditation and to reduce attachment to worldly values. At the same time, they are designed to main-tain the physical health of the body, which the Buddha felt contributed posi-tively to the meditative life.

Nevertheless, there are a number of notable examples in the Zen literature of practitioners who displayed extraor-dinary levels of ascetic practice in their single-minded quest for enlightenment.

Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch, is said to have spent nine years facing a wall in meditation; he was so intent on attaining his goal that he lost the use of his arms and legs. Hui-k’o (487–593), the Second Patriarch, is said to have cut off his own arm in order to demonstrate to Bodhidharma his absolute dedica-tion to pursuing the Dharma. Other Zen monks, such as the Japanese monk Bankei Yôtaku, followed the Buddha’s example and practiced forms of extreme asceticism until it threatened their lives. Like the Buddha, Bankei found that the answer was not achieved through self-punishment.


(J. Ashida) An Indian holy man and seer who visited the newborn Siddharta Gautama. Ashita examined the child and found marks of greatness. He told Suddhodana, the child’s father, that his son would become either a great religious leader (buddha) or a great king (Cakravarti).


(J. Aikuô) The Indian king who ruled the Maurya empire in the third century

B.C.E. Ashoka inherited the throne circa 269 B.C.E. from his father, Bindusara, and extended the empire to encompass most of the Indian subcontinent.

According to Buddhist legend, Ashoka defeated the Kalingas in a bloody war.

After witnessing the suffering he inflicted on the Kalingas, he chose to forsake violence and devote himself to

the peaceful study and teachings of the Dharma. He became a devout Buddhist and spent the rest of his life promoting Buddhism throughout India. Ashoka had several stone pillars engraved with edicts declaring the Dharma.

Additionally, he is believed to have erected 84,000 stupas and temples throughout India, many of them mark-ing religiously significant sites from the Buddha’s life. Ashoka promoted reli-gious tolerance, denounced both hunt-ing for sport and the sacrifice of ani-mals, and commanded his administra-tors to protect the welfare of the people.

He supported the Buddhist sangha and public welfare projects such as sponsor-ing hospitals, buildsponsor-ing rest houses along major roads, and digging wells.

Ashoka is also credited with conven-ing the Third Buddhist Council, held in the Mauryan capital of Pataliputra.

Ashoka sent out emissaries to spread the teachings of Buddhism to other lands, including Egypt, Syria, and Sri Lanka. He is sometimes regarded as the second founder of Buddhism, one who embodies the qualities of the ideal lay devotee, and serves as the model for the perfect Buddhist ruler. See also lay believer.

Strong, John S. The Legend of King Ashoka: A Study and Translation of the Asokavadana. Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press, 1983.


Fierce, pugnacious supernatural beings, or demi-gods; often translated as “titan.”

According to the Hindu tradition, ashura are evil spirits who continually engage in warfare with the gods, especially Indra.

In this context, they are regarded as demons or anti-gods. The Buddhist tradition has reinterpreted the concept, transforming ashura into protective spirits who guard the Buddhist Dharma.

While they remain fond of fighting, they are no longer seen as evil.

In Buddhism, existence as an ashura is considered one of the six realms (rokudô) into which an individual may be reincarnated. The level of the ashura

13 Ashura

in the hierarchy of beings is generally regarded as a higher realm than that of human because they are supernatural in power and activity. In other contexts, the ashura are interpreted as one of the evil paths (akudô) in which one suffers punishment for past misdeeds.


Indian monk who lived during the late first and early second centuries C.E. Ashvaghosha was a poet, Buddhist philosopher, and proponent of Mahayana teachings. He is best known as the author of the Buddhacharita (Acts of the Buddha), one of the first biographies of Shakyamuni Buddha (Siddharta Gautama). He is known to have composed a number of treatises on Mahayana thought; several more are attributed to him.

The Zen school reveres Ashvaghosha as one of the twenty-eight Indian patri-archs of Zen. In the Ching-te Ch’üan-teng Lu, for example, he is included as the twelfth Indian patriarch.


(J. ga) The Hindu concept of a soul or true self within a human being.

According to Hindu philosophy, the atman is the eternal and non-physical aspect of a person, identified with the cosmic soul, or Brahman. In the classi-cal philosophiclassi-cal tradition, release (moksha) is attained by contemplating the nature of the atman and realizing its identification with Brahman.

Buddhism denies the existence of the atman, rejecting the concept that any eternal, abiding, and unchanging aspect exists (Anatman). According to tradition, the Buddha sought an atman, as the Hindu tradition suggests, but dis-covered that it did not actually exist. In Buddhism, the atman is a false sense of self to which human beings become attached. This attachment leads inevitably to suffering. Release from suffering is attained with the realization that there is no atman.


Buddhism regards attachment—the desire for things or pleasure, or obses-sion with ideas and concepts—as one of the basic afflictions (bonnô) that cause human suffering and hinder progress toward enlightenment. The tradition recognizes various kinds of attach-ments, from very coarse to very subtle.

The crudest forms of attachment are to sensual pleasures, including cravings for sex, food, and wealth. The basic Buddhist precepts, including the five precepts of lay believers and the ten precepts of novices, are designed to reduce these coarser attachments.

People also form more subtle attach-ments, however, to intangible things like ideas. One of the most persistent attachments, for example, is the human tendency to cling to a false concept of the self (atman). To overcome this sort of attachment, one must learn medita-tive techniques, which help to expose the emptiness of the concept. Advanced practitioners of Buddhism sometimes become attached to the Buddhist teach-ings themselves. In this case, the very Dharma can become a hindrance to enlightenment, since it is a means to an end and not enlightenment itself. The traditional image describing attach-ment to the teachings compares them to a raft, carrying the believer from this shore of samsara to the other shore of nirvana. Upon reaching the far shore, however, the raft becomes useless and can be abandoned. Clinging to the teachings is the same as insisting on carrying the raft on one’s back.


The bodhisattva of infinite compassion and mercy; one of the most important bodhisattvas, or beings seeking enlight-enment, in the pantheon of Mahayana Buddhism. Avalokiteshvara is revered throughout the Mahayana world by Buddhists of all schools. The exact meaning of the Sanskrit name is some-what obscure and is debated by schol-ars. It may mean “one who looks upon 14


the suffering of the world,” or “one who hears the cries of those suffering in the world.” The bodhisattva appears in sev-eral Mahayana sutras, including the Heart Sutra and the Lotus Sutra, in which one chapter is devoted to Avalokiteshvara’s special powers to res-cue those in need.

In China, Avalokiteshvara is known as Kuan-yin, “one who observes the sounds.” In Japan, the bodhisattva is called Kannon, the Japanese pronuncia-tion of the Chinese characters. Changes occurred in the presentation and description of Avalokiteshvara as devo-tion to the bodhisattva spread through-out East Asia. Although Avalokiteshvara was portrayed as masculine in Indian images and texts, female images emerged in China and Japan.

In document The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Zen Buddhism (Page 34-37)