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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  • Hanrei B

    Good question indeed. I like that person’s style.
    Have had enough hangovers to know that self-inflicted asceticism isn’t really a good way to go.
    Somebody once said that moderation differs from discipline in that discipline you do for yourself, while moderation you do for other people. Might be something in that (even if I can’t say I always live up to it).

  • Stephen Slottow

    41.3%, according to current studies.

  • Robert Schenck

    It’s the right question and a good answer. The question goes right to the heart of Buddhism and its problems and successes in America. I look forward to replies.

  • Robert Schenck

    Though I suspect it was invisible to everyone but me myself, my Zen experience in 1975 had changed me to the core. From age twelve to age thirty-two, I wanted to be cool. Now I wanted to be good. Though I didn’t call it religion, I thought every day about what others call “the religious life.” Not a day went by that I did not think about it and about my effort to practice it. From 1975 until 1985 I often considered moving to The Farm in order to work with my friend John. Each time my wife and I wrestled over money and jobs I revisited the possibility. In my private heart of hearts in 1975 I had taken a vow of poverty and I imagined myself—idealized myself—someday dying as I read Gandhi had, with no possessions other than my two changes of simple clothing, my eyeglasses, my sandals, and my cup and bowl.

    My wife and I rented an apartment and then a house and for eight years we lived
    from paycheck to paycheck.


    But finally in 1985 my wife convinced me—thank god—that if only for the sake of our children and in the interest of common sense we had to buy a house. I agonized over what I considered a breach of my vow, it was indeed a bitter pill for me to swallow, but in the end I had to concede that my wife was right. Given our situation, my principle—or the way I was trying to live it—did not make sense. For two years we had paid almost as much in rent each month as we would eventually pay to buy our own home.

    Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
    But sore annoyed was he without it;
    Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
    And thought about it.

    I had never felt so low.

    So desolate.

    My experience of god was ten years old. I had freed no one, saved no one. It seemed that I had caused only pain to those I loved most—to my first two children, to my first wife, and now to my children and to Ruth. As a writer, too, I had been an abject failure. I had published nothing worth mentioning. I had a job—that was about it—and now my new supervisor had made it very clear that she did not and would not ever appreciate in my teaching any of the things I knew I did best. John had given up on the commune in Tennessee and left The Farm.

    He was headed back to San Francisco.

    “To try to get rich,” John said.

    I grieved.

    I grieved.

    I grieved.

    • doshoport

      Thank you for your cautionary words.

  • John Denko Bennett

    I’m still a clumsy student when it comes to Buddhism, but in case any of this might be helpful to someone, let me offer the following thoughts. First, one should be careful to ensure that the pursuit of asceticism isn’t borne out of guilt or self-loathing or a lack of loving-kindness toward oneself. (I’m not saying all ascetics suffer from this, but some might; a few ex-Catholics out there reading this might know what I’m talking about.) Those issues might be better addressed through reflection and forgiveness rather than mortification. Second, I think one should be careful of becoming intoxicated with ideals of spirituality that might in some way be harmful to oneself or others. (The Fifth Precept might apply here.) Finally, instead of pursuing asceticism per se, it might be more useful simply to think about our Bodhisattva Vows and the practice of Dana. If you’re are living your life in a spirit of giving and taking action daily to reduce the sufferings of others, you will inevitably find yourself making some sacrifices. They might range from switching to a less lucrative profession to giving money regularly to the Heifer Project to spending a lunch hour when you’re dog-tired listening to a co-worker pour out his heart. In all these cases, you’ll be giving up some personal comfort and enduring a little rockiness in your life. But all these sacrifices, large and small, will be in the direct service of other beings, rather than for the sake of an idealized severity. So, for many people, the best course of action might simply be this: Take action to save beings, including you, your family, your community, and others. If you find this entails sleeping on a piece of plywood, so be it. If not, get a good night’s rest, work hard, and keep giving.

    • doshoport

      Thank you. Nicely put.

  • Jeanne Desy

    Years ago something James Ford wrote allowed that he likes to read mystery novels in bed.

    • doshoport

      That’s James’ version of asceticism, I’m sure. :-)

      • Jeanne Desy

        :) Actually, it’s a fact that I, too, like mystery novels, and James’ admission has given me permission many nights to review my ideas about “being a good Zen student” and happily turn to the latest book.

    • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

      As opposed to what? Reading only sutras and sleeping on the floor? :-)

  • Alyosha

    I think no aceticism is required — as long as you remain undistracted.

  • Phil Martin

    Dang…Whoever that was sleeping on the sheet of plywood had me beat (I have some guesses…) And there I thought I was doing so well with that single futon one inch thick. I still have it. When I fold it in half, it is the right size and barely the right thickness for a zabuton. I like to keep it as a reminder of what I once thought Zen was about.

    In a group there can easily be that competition over who is more ascetic, and I grow more and more certain that is missing the mark. So one thought I have, as you say, is good for that student for asking! Back in the day, I would never have considered asking such a thing, less I appeared too much of a wimp.

    Now I’d say the correct amount fluctuates…if I’m on a kick with things like plywood for a bed, it’s time to increase the minimum a bit. If I’m attached to comfort, maybe I need to turn the dial a little bit more toward asceticism. Who was it that said, “wanting to have no desire, is still desire”?

  • alan faulkner

    Asceticism seems too close to grasping for me and becomes a finger pointing to the moon