What is the Minimum Amount of Asceticism Required?

“What is the minimum amount of asceticism required?”

That’s the question a fine young practitioner put to me at Boundless Way Zen Temple during the homeleaving workshop last month.

Reminds me of another fine young practitioner I once knew who slept on plywood, cushioned only by a thin cotton sheet. He denied any ascetic impulses – in the true spirit of asceticism – and claimed that he was comfy cozy. And then he almost always nodded out in zazen, providing a little clue that he might not be getting a sound night’s sleep.

The question, though, struck me as so sweet and straightforward – a question most people in a homeleaving workshop were probably thinking in their own way.

These days few practitioners are looking for a plywood mattress. So a refresher on the meaning of asceticism might be timely. I turn to my source for all things holy and profound, Wikipedia:

Asceticism (/əˈsɛtɪsɪzm/; from the Greek: ἄσκησις áskēsis, “exercise” or “training”) describes a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals.

Back in the early days of Zen in the West there was a lot of abstinence from worldly pleasures in the pursuit of spiritual goals, including by yours truly. In retrospect, it seems that my own ascetic period was necessary and not so productive, at least while I was in it.

I remember visiting Tassajara in 1983 and joining a group of senior practitioners (average age ~ 32) who were discussing what to do about one very serious young ascetic who went to the zendo and sat through breaks, didn’t hang out with others, and worked hard during work periods. I was struggling to see the problem when one of the monks turned to me and said, “You see, we’re always suspicious of those who take their practice more seriously than we do.”

But let’s get back to the question. “What is the minimum amount of asceticism required?”

“Required for what?” I might have asked but didn’t. I suspect that the young practitioner was asking not so much about the minimum amount of asceticism required for homeleaving but for kensho or maybe for perfect spiritual security.

“Just the right amount, at least,” I might have said.

Too much denial of worldly pleasures and our inner life begins to resemble the Ascetic Buddha above – before he stumbled onto the middle way. Too much indulgence in worldly pleasures, attributed to the middle way, and our middles become large and we join the 60% of Americans who are overweight while not restraining the senses enough to even settle into the zazen pose.

“Asceticism isn’t the point,” I also might have said. The point is to wake up and live in peace and harmony. When we throw ourselves into our practice with hair on fire we might look like ascetics but that is not the goal, just a sometimes necessary by-product.

“What is the minimum amount of asceticism required?”

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