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The word 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 spiritual attainment. In particular contexts, ascetic may also connote some kind of self-mortification / punishment of the body, and/or with a renunciation of pleasure; but this is not always the case.
Lao Zi, Gautama Buddha, Mahavir Swami, Jesus, Saint Anthony, and Saint Francis can all be considered ascetics. These people left their families, possessions, and homes to live a mendicant life, and in the eyes of their followers demonstrated great spiritual attainment , enlightenment, or God realization .
Monks, yogis, hermits and — in some religions — priests also lead ascetic lives.
Asceticism in Buddhism
The historical Buddha adopted an extreme ascetic life after leaving his father's palace, where he once lived in extreme luxury. At the moment of his enlightenment, the Buddha realized that neither luxury, nor asceticism, will lead to lasting happiness. Instead, he taught that a middle way that balances enjoyment with restraint is the most effective path to happiness and freedom.
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 ascetic bhikku lifestyle comes straight from the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali Canon Tripitaka scriptures, the monastic body of rules taught by Gautama Buddha, reflecting the way of life as lived by the Buddha and his disciples. The practitioner may adopt these rules for only a short period of time (a few months or years) or may follow them for an entire lifetime.
The Buddhist order is known as the Sangha, the community of monastics. In the Theravada school, prevalent in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, monks eat one vegetarian meal a day and fast until sunrise. Between midday and the next meal the following day, a strict life of celibacy, scripture study, chanting, meditation and occasional cleaning forms most of the duties. These practices must be conducted in a state of mindfulness and concentration, here and now, to benefit from the experience. Called the Patimokkha, 227 monastic rules govern a monk or Bhikkhu in Pali, and 311 for the Bhikkhuni nun.
In the Mahayana traditions of northern Buddhism, the rules have been lessened somewhat, and the monastics emphasize meditation more than doctrine, valuing the cultivation of liberating insight and wisdom (prajna).
Asceticism in Eastern Christianity
Asceticism is the set of disciplines practiced to work out the believer's salvation, and further the believer's repentance. Although monks and nuns are known for especially strict acts of asceticism, some asceticism is expected of every believer, for the good of that believer. Ultimately, it is thought, salvation comes only by the grace of God, but God's grace and right belief are expected to produce changes in behaviour. Changes in behaviour can also influence beliefs. Asceticism can include anything from taking part in prayers with the church, fasting, almsgiving, or even working hard not to lose one's temper or similar acts of restraint and self-control. Corporate prayers are generally prayed as a "liturgy", which literally means a "work of the people."
Indian holy men, or Sadhu's, are known for the extreme forms 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.
Asceticism in Islam
The muslim name for asceticism is zuhd.