Buddhist Asceticism and Ascetic Practices – Meaning and Purpose

Learn why some people abandon the worldly pleasures in exchange for spiritual enlightenment and the philosophy behind Buddhist ascetic practices.

Asceticism has been present in eastern religions for many centuries and represents an important part of the philosophical foundations of different belief systems, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Often misunderstood, ascetic practices sometimes are seen as extreme forms of self-annihilation. However, many would be surprised to find out that behind the restrictive life that asceticism imposes, is the search for ultimate freedom.

Here is a brief explanation about the philosophy that originated asceticism in eastern traditions, its meaning and purpose.

Asceticism – Definition

According to the dictionary, asceticism is: ” the doctrine that the ascetic life releases the soul from bondages to the body and permits union to the divine”, or alternatively: ” the doctrine that through renunciation of worldly pleasures it is possible to achieve a high spiritual or intellectual state”.

Ascetic practices may include fasting, celibacy, seclusion, little sleep and vows of poverty, but Buddhist ascetics understood that extreme practices would be rather fruitless, since body and mind must be strong enough to attain the objective, so Buddhist asceticism is an exercise of moderation, as taught by Buddha himself.

Buddhist Ascetics and Moderation

When Buddha left his splendorous palace behind in order to meditate in the forest with his followers, he believed that by abstaining from food, sleep and material possessions, he would find enlightenment, as he had come to the conclusion that suffering is a result of attachment to the physical world, which are temporary and will be inevitably extinguished by time.

If one is so attached to the body, belongings and family members, that losing them causes unhappiness and despair, this means that people’s fate are in the hands of external factors, and Buddha then concluded that the only way to escape the inherent suffering caused by the loss of temporal things, was by practicing detachment from the worldly pleasures and material life.

However, after seven years meditating in the woods, living under a tree and eating only the fruits that fell on the ground, his body was so weak that he could barely sit still. When a lady passed playing a musical instrument, he overheard her saying that the chord should neither be so tight nor so loose in order to produce a harmonious sound.

This is when Buddha understood that practicing such an extreme mortification would not lead him to enlightenment, and instead, he proposed a moderated way of life in which the seeker should provide only enough food, sleep and comfort to the body, but not more than necessary – it’s the excess that brings suffering.

Buddhist Philosophy – Detachment Leads to Nirvana

The purpose of ascetic practices is to practice detachment from the physical existence in order to gain true freedom. For many, it sounds strange: how can so much strictness and so many limitations lead to freedom, as it seems to be exactly the opposite? However it is not possible to understand Buddhist asceticism without understanding the concept of nirvana.

Nirvana can be described as a state of complete detachment and inner peace that one is capable of achieving. In this state, there’s no suffering, no necessity, no dependence, only pure joy that leads to infinite compassion. The nirvana state is a result of the certainty that there’s a part of the consciousness that is eternal, immutable and has only a temporary relationship with worldly matters. But this certainty comes with training, as it’s not only an intellectual rationalization.

Becoming identified with this state of consciousness makes everything else seem unimportant. Little food, little sleep, seclusion, celibacy, are very little sacrifices when compared to the inner peace and freedom that comes with them.

According to the Buddhist knowledge, real freedom then, means not to depend on external factors, material possessions, social life, instincts, etc. So, those who reach this ideal, can be finally released from the rebirth cycle.

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