The disciplines: Austerities and self-mortification

They may rightly and legitimately feast, who would have been as ready and willing to fast. – Meister Eckhart (Walshe, Vol. III, p. 38)

His disciples asked him, “Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity?
Jesus said to them, “If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.
When you go into any region and walk about in the countryside, when people take you in, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them.
After all, what goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it’s what comes out of your mouth that will defile you.” (Gospel of Thomas, Meyers, ed.)

“If you do not fast [away] from the world, you will not find the kingdom.” (Gospel of Thomas)

In these modern times, devoid of spirituality, there is a stigma attached to the ancient practices of asceticism and self-mortification, and so they aren’t often discussed. To many they may look like symptoms of suicidal depression; and in truth these practices are part of a process of spiritual self-murder. But there are two significant differences between asceticism and depression. First, a depressed person sees the ego-self as what he is, while the ascetic sees the self as impermanent–and therefore not real–and the source of suffering. The other difference is that the depressive suffers from moral pain, while the spiritual seeker is serene, even happy.

Suicidal depression can and does lead people to an awakening — Eckhart Tolle is a perfect example. And in reading about the lives of saints and sages, the theme of wishing for death or being at death’s door is universal. Furthermore, when you consider that all illnesses and accidents–everything that happens to a person in fact–comes from a person’s mind, the inescapable conclusion is that every saint and sage has held a strong wish for death. This isn’t to be wondered at: the self must die in order for one to know God.

Madame Guyon was a 17th-century saint who constantly prayed to God to give her “crosses.” She suffered from painful and sometimes life-threatening illness even after her enlightenment, or ‘sanctification.’ However she maintained a moral serenity in the belief that her suffering came from God, and that God loved her. Because of her illnesses she saw the practice of self-mortification as unnecessary and possibly a source of pride, and in A Short and Easy Method of Prayer she advised against it, arguing that we should leave it to God to inflict crosses on us.

As the word ‘self-mortification’ makes clear, these are actions that come from self-will: they generally involve fasting or a dietary restrictions, slowing the breath, going without sleep and spending long hours in prayer or meditation. We decide their character, when they start and when they end. Calamities are different, because even though they, too, are self-inflicted, they come from the unconscious mind, and so we feel that they are beyond our control. Madame Guyon taught that we should welcome all adversities because they come from God and are for our own good, and this is well for those who believe in God. But if one knows he is the cause of everything that happens to him, the laws of karma cease to operate in this sense; one no longer suffers from illnesses or accidents. Asceticism may be a way to hasten the process of purification in the absence of external adversity.

If we don’t consciously wish for adversity, why do we unconsciously will it upon ourselves? At first we bring about adversity in order to turn ourselves away from desire and towards God: this was the purpose of Lester Levenson’s business failures, ulcers and heart attacks. Once we are converted, we bring about adversity in order to purify ourselves of clinging to existence: Anita Moorjani’s cancer purified her by bringing her very brink of death. As one gnostic texts says, the purpose of suffering is punishment (to convert us) and purification.

To diminish one’s attachment to existence is the same as diminishing one’s aversion to not existing; the feeling that one is confronting is fear. This is very important to understand, because the aim of all of the disciplines is the cultivation of the mind. Actions and words are meaningless in themselves. An example of this principle is Layman P’ang. He was born a Confucian and had inherited some wealth. Upon converting to Buddhism, he loaded all of his money and possessions onto a boat and sunk them in the middle of a river. He felt his possessions were a burden which kept him in bondage, and he didn’t wish to lay his burden on others by giving them away. It was the thought of giving up, not the action of giving away that mattered.

The cultivation of the mind focuses on three categories of hindrances, or klesa: attachment, aversion and ignorance. Self-mortification deals with all three at once: in confronting the fear of death we confront the desire for existence, and at the same time we confront the delusion of the reality of the body.

Now that we understand the purpose of these disciplines–overcoming attachments, aversions and delusion–we need to decide whether the disciplines create more karma than they destroy. I think we can justly compare Lester Levenson’s experience to that of the Zen master, Hakuin.

Lester never went through any disciplines; what he did was to focus his mind on just one question at a time. When his practice of loving others produced an awakening, he set about bringing all of his subconscious feelings to consciousness and letting go of them. After three months of this intense investigation, self-examination and letting go, during which the psychic powers “fell” on him, he was cured of all of his illnesses. Hakuin, on the other hand, went through years of arduous disciplines, and even gave himself an illness he called Zen sickness. I think that Lester’s path demonstrates that if one is zealous enough in investigating, in letting go of attachments and aversions, in reducing the self to nothing, and finally going beyond it, the disciplines are unnecessary. Since Lester’s self-realization came about so fast it’s impossible to examine each thing he did separately, but later on he taught his students how to gain mastery over the body without extreme measures such as long fasts or going without sleep.

Sages and saints do not put their austerities or abilities on display so that others may imitate them, but rather, as Giri Bala said, “To show that man is spirit.” Practiced in moderation, however, fasting and practices such as slowing the breath or bathing in cold water do no harm, and may be helpful for confronting fear and letting go of it. But it’s the mind that is the object, not the body. Hence Meister Eckhart’s words, “They may rightly and legitimately feast, who would have been as ready and willing to fast.”

Broughton, Jeffrey L. The Chan Whip Anthology. New York, Oxford University Press, 2015.

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