The Disciplines: Austerities, 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?
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)

“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

The ancient practices of asceticism and self-mortification are not 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. However, a depressed person identifies with the ego-self, and because of this he suffers from moral pain, whereas an ascetic knows that he is more than a mind and body. His mind is tranquil and he feels little physical discomfort, because sensation is uncoupled from fear, and so it isn’t experienced as either pleasant or unpleasant.

As the word ‘self-mortification’ implies, these are practices that come from self-will. They involve fasting, slowing or stopping the breath (kriya yoga), going without sleep, enduring extreme cold (tumo training), and spending long hours sitting or kneeling in meditation or prayer. What the different practices all have in common is that they imitate what sages can do effortlessly — but they also imitate the abilities of sorcerers. And because the same feats have been accomplished by people with no spiritual attainment whatsoever — free divers who hold their breathe, the natives of southern Chile who were impervious to the cold — there is nothing inherently meritorious in them. In fact, masterful musical, ballet, athletic or gymnastic feats are no less of the mind. Is there a difference between levitating and perfectly landing a triple axel? One could argue that a skater who can land a triple axel has more skill than a lung gom runner who has to wear chains because he can’t stay on the ground!

D. T. Suzuki (1971) makes an excellent point about the essential lack of difference between the unenlightened and the sage:

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 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)

A story told by Alexandra David-Neel (1931) makes the point that the goal is not to be able to do miraculous things, but to attain the wisdom that sees everything as the movement of Mind:

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”)

The monastic life in China, Japan and Tibet was severe, and it was not unusual for masters to strike and abuse their monks. But this was done out of love, not anger, in order to provoke an emotional reaction. Ksanti is the perfection of patient sufferance: its aim is to humble the ego. Masters who hit a monk were giving him the opportunity to practice ksanti by giving his ego a whack, and it was very effective. Since the student was unable to respond to the master (by becoming angry) he was forced to direct his anger against the real source of his 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 chöd (written gchod). As described by Alexandra David-Neel (1931), 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 accomplishes several things at once, 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”)

Something that is very important to understand about the disciplines is that their sole purpose is the cultivation of the mind. The epitome of this principle is Layman P’ang. He was born a Confucian and had inherited some wealth, but 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 wealth was a burden which kept him in bondage, and he didn’t wish to lay this burden on anyone else. He was following the Diamond Sutra, which teaches that the highest perfection of giving is to regard one’s possessions as nothing.

The cultivation of the mind focuses on three hindrances, or klesa: attachment, aversion and delusion. By forcing us to confront our craving for existence, our fear of death and our delusion of the reality of the body, self-mortification addresses all three at once. As an illustration, part of the chöd consists of a dance 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.” Understanding the threefold purpose of disciplines, we then need to know whether they create more karma than they destroy; that is, whether they do more harm than good. To answer this question 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, the first being, What is happiness. When he discovered that happiness was loving others, and that he was responsible for everything that had ever happened to him, he set about bringing up all of his negative feelings and letting go of them. What he in fact did was to let go of all of his memories. After three months of this intense introspection and letting go, he attained Self-realization and was instantly 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 shows that if one is zealous enough in investigating, in letting go of all memories, in reducing the self to nothing and transcending it, artificial disciplines are unnecessary. The rapidity of Lester’s Self-realization makes it impossible to examine each thing he did separately, but later on he taught his students that mastery over the body could be achieved without extreme measures by cultivating the mind. This was the teaching of the great Hindu sage Adi Shankara, who in his treatise on Self-Realization advised yogins not to torture their bodies with stressful positions, nor their noses by attempting to hold the breath. The treatise doesn’t mention fasting, either, but is solely devoted to the correct cultivations of the mind.

It is not to encourage imitation that sages go without food, water, sleep, breathing, or show their insensibility to the cold, but rather, as Giri Bala said, “To show that man is spirit.” Sages usually choose not to put their powers on display because this makes people believe that they are other-worldly beings.

Masters are also aware that extraordinary exertions produce karma, as Lin-chi makes clear:

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.

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.

We know that we can’t rid ourselves of negative feelings by pushing them away; rather, we have to bring them into our awareness and release them. Someone trying to do away with certain feelings might be better off allowing them to come up and observing them dispassionately, rather than trying not to fall asleep. Sleep is actually very useful, because it reveals deeply buried feelings we may not even be aware of. When we dream of something that carries a strong feeling we can begin releasing it the moment we wake up. When every trace of the ego is gone, the need for sleep is gone.

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

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.

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.

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