Austerity, self-mortification and miracles

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?
Yeshua 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 abstain from the world, you will not find the kingdom.” (Gospel of Thomas)

“It was by his unremitting self-denial in all things that Jesus achieved godship; he ate and drank in a peculiar manner, without any waste. The power of continence was so great in him that his food did not decay in him, for he himself was without decay.” – Valentinus (Mead, 1900, p. 302)

If I felt a craving for food, I would have to eat. – Giri Bala

Even though I am past seventy now my vitality is ten times as great as it was when I was thirty or forty. My mind and body are strong and I never have the feeling that I absolutely must lie down to rest. Should I want to, I find no difficulty in going without sleep for two, three, or even seven days without any decline in my mental powers. I am surrounded by three to five hundred demanding students, and even though I lecture on the scriptures or on the masters’ sayings for thirty to fifty days in a row, it does not exhaust me. – Hakuin (Orategama)

During all the time of my seeking, sleep got less and less until it disappeared entirely. We need sleep for one reason only–to escape from this world we think is so real. When you’re in tune and in harmony, you never get tired. All the energy in the universe is available to you when you’re in tune. In the days that I didn’t sleep, I had far more energy than at the time I did sleep. Wanting to be like other people, I started to sleep again. At first I tried it for an hour, then two hours, and finally up to six hours. Now I keep it that way. I can sleep one hour or six; it’s all the same to me now. – Lester Levenson (2003, p. 101)

When the mind is tranquillized in its deepest abode, its bonds are cut asunder. How unfathomable! How abysmal! The mind in its absolute purity is the Void itself. How almost unconcerned it appears! Like death there is no breathing. It abides in the utmost purity of the Dharmakaya, and is no longer subject to a future becoming. – Tao-hsin (The Abandoning of the Body)

* * *

The practices of asceticism and self-mortification have existed before the recording of history, and even in the modern era there are people for whom the laws of science do not apply. Pralad Jhani, hasn’t taken food or water for 80 years, yet no scientist dares to draw the only possible conclusion. Catholic mystic and stigmatic Therese Neuman stopped taking food in 1922 until her death forty years later; nevertheless, the Church defines fasting as eating no more than three meals, with milk and alcohol permitted between meals, and Friday fasting means eating fish. Although ordinary people have likely always had an aversion to denial of the flesh, faith in God has become so rare that discussion of the subject is nonexistent.

As the word ‘self-mortification’ implies, these are practices that come from self-will. Besides fasting there is the slowing or stopping the breath (e.g. kriya yoga), going without sleep, enduring extreme cold (e.g. tumo training), and other denials of the body’s cravings. Their purpose is eliminate attachment to existence, with the ultimate goal of complete detachment from the mind and body–the liberation of the spirit from the illusory self.

The practices imitate the condition of sages and saints, who do not require food, drink, sleep or even air, and who suffer no pain. They are techniques by which the spiritually advanced challenge themselves to go further. The aim is not to suffer, but to let go of fear.

Mastery over matter and energy isn’t limited to seekers of wisdom: it has been developed by sorcerers and the gifted, people such as Daniel Dunglas Home. Moreover, because miraculous deeds have been accomplished by people without any evident interest spirituality–free divers who hold their breath, the natives of southern Chile who for thousands of years suffered no ill effects from the cold–there is nothing intrinsically meritorious in them. As D.T. Suzuki (1971) pointed out, all accomplishments are equally of the mind:

The Buddha-nature is in every one of us, in every sentient being. Only when we see it do we recognize the Bodhisattva in one of his transformations. When a Manjusri or a Samantabhadra, or an Avalokitesvara is thus brought to our own social level, we meet him or her every day and everywhere in our daily life. The meanest thing we do, the most insignificant deed we perform, is the Bodhisattva’s vikurvita, and all the wonders achieved by the Indian Mahayanists and recorded so grandly in their various sutras have also been performed by Hjui-neng and Hung-jen, Han-shan and Shi-te; more than that, performed by every Tom Dick and Harry. What is needed to become aware of this, to see how it is done, is only to open our own prajna-eye. (pp. 382-383)

Lester Levenson (1993, “Healing”) advised his students to not pay any attention to developing psychic abilities:

Getting interested in these psychic powers is a wrong approach. Being interested in the powers one might develop the powers. Then using the powers without having your understanding up to them, you will misuse them. You will use them too selfishly and they’ll boomerang and hurt you, your growth, and the powers, causing you to lose the powers. This happens to all psychic people who develop beyond their level of understanding. So I suggest that you develop your understanding until all the powers naturally open up to you, and then if you choose to use them, you’ll use them rightly and you won’t be hurt.

Someday we all go back to recognizing that we are all-powerful, that all the powers are ours, and they happen with no effort. When you try to develop these powers it’s extremely difficult because you need to use effort.

As Alexandra David-Neel (1931) says, the goal of spiritual practice is not to be able to do miraculous things, but to attain the wisdom that sees all events as Mind in motion:

It is said that the Buddha was once journeying with some of his disciples and met an emaciated Yogin, all alone in a hut in the middle of a forest. The Master stopped and inquired how long the man had been living there, practicing austerities.
“Twenty-five years,” answered the Yogin. “And what power have you acquired by such long and arduous exertion?” asked the Buddha. “I am able to cross a river by walking on the water,” proudly replied the anchorite.
“My poor fellow,” said the Buddha with commiseration, “have you really wasted so many years for such trifling result? Why, the ferry man will take you to the opposite bank for a small coin.” (“Psychic Sports”)

Monastic life

The monastic life in India, China, Japan and Tibet was severe, with food strictly limited. In Zen Buddhism it was traditional for masters to strike and abuse their monks. But the abuse was out of of love, not anger; its purpose was to provoke an emotional reaction in the monk, whose monastic life deprived him of the challenges he needed to grow. Ksanti is the perfection of patient sufferance, and its aim is to help people identify feelings arising from the ego. Masters who hit monks were giving their egos a whack, in effect saying, “What is it that feels that?” And it was effective. Unable to respond to the master, the student was obliged to turn within and figure out the what it was that caused him pain.

All of you: if it’s for the sake of the Dharma, don’t hesitate to sacrifice your bodies or give up your lives! Twenty years ago, when I was at Huang-po’s place, I asked three times what was central point of Buddhism, and three times he was good enough to hit me with his stick. It was as though he had brushed me with a sprig of mugwort. Thinking of it now, I wish I could get hit once more like that. Is there anyone who can give me such a blow? – Lin-chi

The most dramatic practice of self-mortification is found in Tibet: it is called chod (chöd). As described by Alexandra David-Neel (1931),the  chöd is an elaborate ritual of self-sacrifice in which the sorcerer’s apprentice, or naljorpa, emaciated by austerity and placed in a terrifying setting, blows a trumpet made from a human femur and summons hungry demons to feast on his body. As a practice which serves multiple purposes it has no equal.

He imagines that a feminine deity, which esoterically personifies his own will, springs from the top of his head and stands before him, sword in hand. With one stroke she cuts off the head of the naljorpa. Then, while troops of ghouls crowd round for the feast, the goddess severs his limbs, skins him and rips open his belly. The bowels fall out, the blood flows like a river, and the hideous guests bite here and there, masticate noisily, while the celebrant excites and urges them with the liturgic words of unreserved surrender:

“For ages, in the course of renewed births I have borrowed from countless living beings–at the cost of their welfare and life — food, clothing, all kinds of services to sustain my body, to keep it joyful in comfort and to defend it agaist death. Today I pay my debt, offering for destruction this body which I have held so dear. . . . Shame on me if I shrink from giving myself! Shame on you, wretched and demoniac beings, if you do not dare to prey upon it. . . .”

This act of the mystery is called the “red meal.” It is followed by the “black meal,” whose mystic signification is disclosed only to those disciples who have received an initiation of high degree.

The vision of the demoniacal banquet vanishes, to laughter and cries of the ghouls die away. Utter loneliness in a gloomy landscape succeeds the weird orgy, and the exaltation aroused in the naljorpa by his dramatic sacrifice gradually subsides.

Now he must imagine that he has become a small heap of charred human bones that emerges from a lake of black mud–the mud of misery, of moral defilement, and of harmful deeds to which he has co-operated during the course of numberless lives, whose origin is lost in the night of time. He must realize that the very idea of sacrifice is but an illusion, an offshoot of blind, groundless pride. In fact, he has nothing to give away, because he is nothing. These useless bones, symbolizing the destruction of his phantom I, may sink into the muddy lake–it will not matter. (“Dealing With Ghosts and Demons”)

The cultivation of the mind focuses on the elimination of habits of thinking which hinder us. Generally these are categorized as attachments, aversions and ignorance. The Pali scriptures contain a more detailed list of hindrances, called tendencies (anusaya). Tendencies are not developed during one lifetime but are established over ages. They are:

1. sensual desire
2. aversion
4. doubt
5. conceit
6. craving for existence
7. ignorance

This list helps one to better understand a dance performed during the chöd in which the celebrant turns successively towards the four quarters, reciting “I trample down the demon of pride, the demon of anger, the demon of craving, the demon of ignorance.”

The disciplines wouldn’t exist if they weren’t effective, but are they necessary? A better question is whether they are necessary for you. Whenever Lester Levenson talked about the things he had done—ignoring a herniate disc and a sprained or broken ankle, going from New York to Los Angeles without any money or tickets—he emphasized that he did not do them to challenge himself but to confirm what he already knew was possible. The great Hindu sage Adi Shankara, in his treatise on Self-Realization, advised yogins not to torture their bodies with stressful positions, nor their noses by attempting to hold their breath.

Mastery over the body and mind are achieved by letting go of thoughts of limitation, which is to let go of the ego. It is a mistake to simply imitate others, because the particular challenges they need to overcome are not the same as yours. Meister Eckhart had the following to say on the imitation of the saints:

Now see how your imitation should be. You should note and have paid attention to what God has chiefly enjoined you to do, for not all people are called to God by the same route. If you then find that your nearest way is not in the doing of outward works or in great endurance or deprivation—which are actually of small account unless a man is specially driven to them by God or has the power to perform them without damage to his inner life—if you find that this is not in you, then be at peace and do not take much of this upon yourself.

But you may say, ‘If this does not matter, then why did our forbears, many of them saints, do it?’ Consider this: our Lord gave them this way and also the strength to do it, so that they could follow this way, and he was pleased with them for this, in which they should profit best. For God has not bound man’s salvation to any special mode. Whatever has one mode has not another, but God has endowed all good ways with effectiveness and denied this to no good way. For one good does not conflict with another good.

Let every man keep to his own good way and include all ways in it, and take up in his way all goodness and all ways. To change one’s way makes for instability of mind as well as of way. Whatever you can get from one way you can also obtain from another if it is good and praiseworthy and mindful only of God: but not all men can follow the same path. And so it is with imitating the austerities of such saints. You should love this way, and it may well appeal to you, even though you need not follow it.

As I have often said, I consider a spiritual work more valuable than a physical one. How is that? Christ fasted for forty days. Follow him this way, by observing whatever you are most inclined to or ready for: concentrate on that and observe yourself closely. Often it is more necessary for you freely to renounce that, than if you were to give up all food. And sometimes it is harder for you to keep silence about a single word than to cease speaking altogether. And sometimes, too, it is harder for a man to endure a single word of reproach, which means nothing, than a fierce blow that he was prepared for; or it is much harder for him to be alone in a crowd than in the desert; or he finds it harder to abandon a small thing than a great, or to do a small task than one which is considered much greater. In this way a man can well follow our Lord (even) in his weakness, without feeling or needing to feel himself far removed. (Walshe 2009, Talks of Instruction, pp. 505-506)

The masters advise caution also because they know that extraordinary exertions can produce karma, as Lin-chi makes clear in the following:

Those who go off to live all alone on a solitary mountain, eating only one meal a day at dawn, sitting in meditation without lying down through the six periods–such persons are only producers of karma. Then there are those who renounce their head and eyes, marrow and brains, their domains and cities, wives and children, elephants, horses, the seven precious things–giving them all away. People who think thus are all inflicting pain on their body and mind, and in consequence will invite a painful retribution. Better to do nothing, to be simple, no more. Then even the Bodhisattvas who have completed the ten stages will be seeking the traces1 of you, Followers of the Way, and will not find them. All the devas rejoice, the spirits of the earth support your feet, and all of the Buddhas of the ten directions do not withhold their praise. And why? Because this man of the Way who is now listening to the Dharma acts in a manner which leaves no traces.(Lin-chi (Rinzai))

1. Traces: karma.

Meister Eckhart (Sermon Eight) warned against attachment to outward forms of penance:

Married folk bring forth little more than one fruit in a year. But it is other wedded folk that I have in mind now: all those who are bound with attachment to prayer, fasting, vigils, and all kinds of outward discipline and mortification. All attachment to any work that involves the loss of freedom to wait on God in the here and now, and to follow Him alone in the light wherein He would show you what to do and what not to do, every moment freely and anew, as if you had nothing else and neither would nor could do otherwise. Any such attachment or set practice which repeatedly denies you this freedom, I call a year. (Walshe, Vol. I)

I will follow a discipline only so long there is no ego involved. I have fasted and practiced breath-holding a few times, but I often feel a strong aversion to practices involving the body.

Fasting is a way of coming to a realization of the nature of desire. Hunger pangs are a physical manifestation of the craving for security. If you think about it, you have been attempting to satisfy your hunger over many, many lifetimes, but every time you ate your hunger always returned. This is because the security that your ego craves can’t be satisfied by food.

If you fast, do it gradually. Try eating only two meals a day for a while, then try one meal a day at noon. Or fast for one day the first week, then two days, then three the third week. While fasting, release your hunger pangs just as you would release any other feeling–by welcoming them and observing them with detachment. Regard the sensation of hunger as a want of security; observe and release the sensation.

Slowing the breath is another way of letting go of the body. You can begin by limiting your breaths to six per minute for about an hour; then limit them to five, then four, then three. Always maintain mental serenity: if your diaphragm begins to contract, instead of resisting it, take a breath. You will discover that you can learn to prevent the diaphragm from contracting by relaxing the muscles of the chest, the thoracic cavity. You can also follow the training program of free divers: There is an apnea application for phones called STAmina, which is like having your own kriya yoga coach. Begin by doing the CO2 sessions for a couple of weeks, then work on the O2 sessions.

One final observation on sleep is in order. Monks detest going to sleep, because they have no control over the id—it runs wild and indulges all of the shameful passions that we are trying to do away with. The Chan Whip Anthology tells of a monk who kept himself awake by stabbing himself with an awl, a pointed tool for making holes in wood or leather. Another used a wooden ball as a pillow: when his head rolled off he would wake up and meditate. Zealous monks would put away their bedding and not lie down for months on end, but in the end this only exhausted them.

Sleep is actually very useful because it reveals deeply repressed feelings we may not even be aware of. When we dream of something that brings up a feeling we can begin releasing it the instant we wake up. Also, the practice of releasing takes concentration and requires periods of rest. When every trace of the ego is gone, the need for sleep will be gone.

He said then, . . . “Cast out the servant and her son,* for he shall not inherit with the freeborn chil­dren”. All corporeal prayer and fasting and all outward ways do not belong to the inheritance. And after that all spiritual things that work in the spirit do not belong to the in­heritance. However great the desire, cast out the servant and her son, then one can gain a great and immeasurable reward from fasting and praying and spiritual works . . .  (Walshe, 2009, p. 578) (*i.e., the one who is in bondage)


* * *

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

Crane, Lawrence. Abundance Course Workbook. (Abundance-course-workbook)

David-Neel, Alexandra (1931). Magic and Mystery in Tibet. London: Penguin Books. (

Guyon, J. M. B. de la Mot (1875). A Short Method of Prayer. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle.

Levenson, Lester (2003). No Attachments, No Aversions: The Autobiography of a Master. Sherman Oaks, California: Lawrence Crane Enterprises.

Mead, George Robert Stow (1900). Fragments of a Faith Forgotten. ISBN 0-922802-22-X

Suzuki, D. T. (1971). Essays in Zen Buddhism (Third Series). New York: Samuel Weiser.

M. O’C. Walshe (1987). Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises Volume III. UK: Element Books Limited.

Walshe, Maurice O’C. (2009). The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company. (download)

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