Heroic Asceticism

We have discussed in these many blogs that measured asceticism is a prerequisite for mystic life, indeed it is needed to develop a singular association with the Spirit of life itself. Mircea Eliade defines asceticism in the following manner:

 …a voluntary, sustained, and at least partially systematic program of self-discipline and self-denial in which immediate, sensual, or profane gratifications are renounced in order to attain a higher spiritual state or a more thorough absorption in the sacred.

On the other hand before proceeding further, asceticism does not need to find its forms of expression in morbid and strenuous measures of self-immolation. The life of Benedict of Aniane (c.750–821) is one such severe example:

He fasted to the point that his face grew gaunt and his shriveled flesh hung from his bones. He resisted sleep until, when excessively exhausted, he rested on the bare ground only in order to gather some strength so that he could fatigue himself even more by such rest. He would spend other nights in prayer, keeping himself awake by standing barefooted on the icy pavement. He never changed clothes or bathed; inevitably, a colony of lice grew on his filthy skin, feeding on his limbs emaciated by fasts. (Jerome Kroll and Bernard Bachrach, THE MYSTIC MIND The Psychology of Medieval Mystics and Ascetics, pg. 18)

Asceticism, if properly understood and practiced, is an absolute measure which must be undertaken for the contemplative life as well. A proper degree of reason also needs to be present in this audacious enterprise. Without reason, the contemplative will never be empowered to prudently proceed on the straight path of divine union with the Unborn. This can be likened to driving a car on a darkened road at night. The light of Reason enables us to clearly see the sign posts along the way that alert us to the necessary landmarks that lead to our final destination. Reason also alerts us to get rid of any mind chatter or hazards that inhibits our journey to that union.

But if clutter is the normal waking state of the mind as well as a description of the contents of the ordinary state of consciousness, and if a mystical state represents a shift toward a wakeful state of consciousness without mental content or sensory images, that is, a state of awareness relatively empty of thoughts and images, as often expressed in both Eastern traditions and the via negativa of Western Christianity, then ridding the mind of clutter becomes a critical first step in the approach toward a mystical state. The very process of clearing or removing mental clutter involves a shift to an altered state of consciousness, since the ordinary state of mind is one filled with clutter. (ibid, pg. 51)

A certain and clear sign that one is on the high road is through one’s daily awareness of any form of mind blocks. One must never remain captive by any of them, especially those that offer pleasure but in the end only amounts to more pain and misery. In this sense the role of reason is the cornerstone of our ascetic spiritual life. It is the judge and jury over all those disorderly mind traps we need to eradicate from that life. It is also the captain of our soul in matters relating to discernment of spirits. If not discreetly applied then Mara and his minions will surely gain the upper hand thereby ruining any chance of Unborn Union. However, this ongoing work cannot be carried out by utilizing reason alone. It will require the direct intervention by spiritual agencies (e.g, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and Dharma Protectors). In the end, this direct path to unobstructed union will also require heroic effort that is a byproduct of asceticism itself.

We hear and see a lot of sign-posts these days about how “heroes work here” concerning the Covid 19 epidemic. Well, heroic efforts are also vitally necessary in the spiritual world as well. It takes a great amount of good-will to stand up to all the evil in our world. This cannot be accomplished without that inner-ascetical initiative. For we are not up against just mere human flesh, but “powers and principalities of the air” that are the motivating force behind this very dark period in the history of humanity. We need to become Light Warriors in the true Bodhisattvic sense. Yes, all of this is akin to riding on the wings of the Dream and Light Warrior of non-other than the Dharmatā Buddha, who initiates the mighty-power of Self-realization upon all ascetical ascetics who have awakened from the mad dreamland of samsara; and who know through faith and reason in the Unborn that all-about-us is nothing apart from the Mind Itself.

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2 Responses to Heroic Asceticism

  1. n. yeti says:

    This is one of your simplest and greatest messages, in my opinion. I cannot possibly add to it, but I would like to point out that renunciation is not limited. I am going to say that again. Renunciation is not limited, it has no boundaries, no uppermost extent, no final reaching of the summit, as it were. Renunciation is the dawning of an inward recognition that to overcome the world (and I mean by that sentient existence in general, and the conditions for it to continue rolling along unabated) we must first inwardly cultivate a sense of discipline and honor and frankly dignity. There is nothing dignified in groveling like an animal covered in lice. I respect the tradition that gives rise to such things, but I simply differ in perspective.

    However, it takes some degree of sophistication, I think, to recognize the perils of pleasure, by this I mean the perpetual trap that is represented by such a motivation. And it takes diligent effort to untangle ones habits as a sentient which are guided by greatest pleasure and least discomfort, certainly for a monastic, but all the more for a layperson who may not have the support of fellow renunciants or an order to fall back upon when their inner strength lacks. All great mystics and spiritual heroes seem to share a common thread, which is they are not friends of the world. And yet, neither do they turn their backs on those in need, or ever quail when their assistance is required by suffering sentients seeking help and guidance.

    By ridding ourselves, gradually if we must, suddenly if we can, of kalpas of defilement we come closer as it were to the numinous, more directly in touch with it in an ongoing kind of way. And reason is that which strengthens the resolve and reminds us of the consequences of recklessness in our minds, which is where the evils of the world take root. To conquer oneself is indeed an act of great heroism. Thank you for calling attention to it in your most excellent commentary. May the Dharma Protectors preserve you!

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