2

Buddhism is often said to prescribe a middle way - avoiding ascetism on one hand, and avoiding indulging in sense pleasures on the other.

What are some of the arguments that Buddhism offers against the efficacy of ascetism (denial of sense pleasures) to bring lasting happiness?

1
  • sounds like homework assignment tbh :)
    – Andriy Volkov
    Mar 21 at 17:22

4 Answers 4

2

That may be explained by MN 36. It describes him starving, until he thinks

Whatever brahmans or contemplatives in the past have felt painful, racking, piercing feelings due to their striving, this is the utmost. None have been greater than this. Whatever brahmans or contemplatives in the future will feel painful, racking, piercing feelings due to their striving, this is the utmost. None will be greater than this. Whatever brahmans or contemplatives in the present are feeling painful, racking, piercing feelings due to their striving, this is the utmost. None is greater than this. But with this racking practice of austerities I haven't attained any superior human state, any distinction in knowledge or vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to Awakening?'

SN 56.11 begins,

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying at Varanasi in the Game Refuge at Isipatana. There he addressed the group of five monks:

There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.

MN 26 explains the occasion when and context in which he said that,

"Then, wandering by stages, I arrived at Varanasi, at the Deer Park in Isipatana, to where the group of five monks were staying. From afar they saw me coming and, on seeing me, made a pact with one another, (saying,) 'Friends, here comes Gotama the contemplative: living luxuriously, straying from his exertion, backsliding into abundance. He doesn't deserve to be bowed down to, to be greeted by standing up, or to have his robe & bowl received. Still, a seat should be set out; if he wants to, he can sit down.' But as I approached, they were unable to keep to their pact. One, standing up to greet me, received my robe & bowl. Another spread out a seat. Another set out water for washing my feet. However, they addressed me by name and as 'friend.'

"So I said to them, 'Don't address the Tathagata by name and as "friend." The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, rightly self-awakened. Lend ear, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dhamma. Practicing as instructed, you will in no long time reach & remain in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.'

"When this was said, the group of five monks replied to me, 'By that practice, that conduct, that performance of austerities you did not attain any superior human states, any distinction in knowledge & vision worthy of a noble one. So how can you now — living luxuriously, straying from your exertion, backsliding into abundance — have attained any superior human states, any distinction in knowledge & vision worthy of a noble one?'

"When this was said, I replied to them, 'The Tathagata, monks, is not living luxuriously, has not strayed from his exertion, has not backslid into abundance. The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, rightly self-awakened. Lend ear, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dhamma. Practicing as instructed, you will in no long time reach & remain in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.'

A second time... A third time, the group of five monks said to me, 'By that practice, that conduct, that performance of austerities you did not attain any superior human states, any distinction in knowledge & vision worthy of a noble one. So how can you now — living luxuriously, straying from your exertion, backsliding into abundance — have attained any superior human states, any distinction in knowledge & vision worthy of a noble one?'

"When this was said, I replied to the group of five monks, 'Do you recall my ever having spoken in this way before?'

"'No, lord.'

"'The Tathagata, monks, is not living luxuriously, has not strayed from his exertion, has not backslid into abundance. The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, rightly self-awakened. Lend ear, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dhamma. Practicing as instructed, you will in no long time reach & remain in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.'

"And so I was able to convince them. I would teach two monks while three went for alms, and we six lived off what the three brought back from their alms round.

In summary I don't think "ascetism" in this context means, "denial of sense pleasures" -- that's still true -- what it means is more like, "starving" isn't very useful (perhaps that's in contrast with e.g. Jainism).

Instead, eating is permitted -- perhaps not as a "sense pleasure" but as a "requisite".

2

MN 12 shows that extreme asceticism did not help the Bodhisattva.

  1. "Sariputta, I recall having lived a holy life possessing four factors. I have practiced asceticism — the extreme of asceticism; I have practiced coarseness — the extreme of coarseness; I have practiced scrupulousness — the extreme of scrupulousness; I have practiced seclusion — the extreme of seclusion.

  2. "Such was my asceticism, Sariputta, that I went naked, rejecting conventions, licking my hands, not coming when asked, not stopping when asked; I did not accept food brought or food specially made or an invitation to a meal; I received nothing from a pot, from a bowl, across a threshold, across a stick, across a pestle, from two eating together, from a pregnant woman, from a woman giving suck, from a woman lying with a man, from where food was advertised to be distributed, from where a dog was waiting, from where flies were buzzing; I accepted no fish or meat, I drank no liquor, wine or fermented brew. I kept to one house, to one morsel; I kept to two houses, to two morsels;... I kept to seven houses, to seven morsels. I lived on one saucerful a day, on two saucerfuls a day... on seven saucerfuls a day; I took food once a day, once every two days... once every seven days, and so on up to once every fortnight; I dwelt pursuing the practice of taking food at stated intervals. I was an eater of greens or millet or wild rice or hide-parings or moss or ricebran or rice-scum or sesamum flour or grass or cowdung. I lived on forest roots and fruits, I fed on fallen fruits. I clothed myself in hemp, in hemp-mixed cloth, in shrouds, in refuse rags, in tree bark, in antelope hide, in strips of antelope hide, in kusa-grass fabric, in bark fabric, in wood-shavings fabric, in head-hair wool, in animal wool, in owls' wings. I was one who pulled out hair and beard, pursuing the practice of pulling out hair and beard. I was one who stood continuously, rejecting seats. I was one who squatted continuously, devoted to maintaining the squatting position. I was one who used a mattress of spikes; I made a mattress of spikes my bed. I dwelt pursuing the practice of bathing in water three times daily including the evening. Thus in such a variety of ways I dwelt pursuing the practice of tormenting and mortifying the body. Such was my asceticism.

  3. "Such was my coarseness, Sariputta, that just as the bole of a tinduka tree, accumulating over the years, cakes and flakes off, so too, dust and dirt, accumulating over the years, caked off my body and flaked off. It never occurred to me: 'Oh, let me rub this dust and dirt off with my hand, or let another rub this dust and dirt off with his hand' — it never occurred to me thus. Such was my coarseness.

  4. "Such was my scrupulousness, Sariputta, that I was always mindful in stepping forwards and stepping backwards. I was full of pity even for (the beings in) a drop of water thus: 'Let me not hurt the tiny creatures in the crevices of the ground.' Such was my scrupulousness.

  5. "Such was my seclusion, Sariputta, that I would plunge into some forest and dwell there. And when I saw a cowherd or a shepherd or someone gathering grass or sticks, or a woodsman, I would flee from grove to grove, from thicket to thicket, from hollow to hollow, from hillock to hillock. Why was that? So that they should not see me or I see them. Just as a forest-bred deer, on seeing human beings, flees from grove to grove, from thicket to thicket, from hollow to hollow, from hillock to hillock, so too, when I saw a cowherd or a shepherd... Such was my seclusion.

  6. "I would go on all fours to the cow-pens when the cattle had gone out and the cowherd had left them, and I would feed on the dung of the young suckling calves. As long as my own excrement and urine lasted, I fed on my own excrement and urine. Such was my great distortion in feeding.

  7. "I would plunge into some awe-inspiring grove and dwell there — a grove so awe-inspiring that normally it would make a man's hair stand up if he were not free from lust. When those cold wintry nights came during the 'eight-days interval of frost,' I would dwell by night in the open and by day in the grove. In the last month of the hot season I would dwell by day in the open and by night in the grove. And there came to me spontaneously this stanza never heard before:

Chilled by night and scorched by day, Alone in awe-inspiring groves, Naked, no fire to sit beside, The sage yet pursues his quest. 51. "I would make my bed in a charnel ground with the bones of the dead for a pillow. And cowherd boys came up and spat on me, urinated on me, threw dirt at me, and poked sticks into my ears. Yet I do not recall that I ever aroused an evil mind (of hate) against them. Such was my abiding in equanimity.

  1. "Sariputta, there are certain recluses and brahmans whose doctrine and view is this: 'Purification comes about through food.' They say: 'Let us live on kola-fruits,' and they eat kola-fruits, they eat kola-fruit powder, they drink kola-fruit water, and they make many kinds of kola-fruit concoctions. Now I recall having eaten a single kola-fruit a day. Sariputta, you may think that the kola-fruit was bigger at that time, yet you should not regard it so: the kola-fruit was then at most the same size as now. Through feeding on a single kola-fruit a day, my body reached a state of extreme emaciation. Because of eating so little my limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo stems. Because of eating so little my backside became like a camel's hoof. Because of eating so little the projections on my spine stood forth like corded beads. Because of eating so little my ribs jutted out as gaunt as the crazy rafters of an old roofless barn. Because of eating so little the gleam of my eyes sank far down in their sockets, looking like a gleam of water which has sunk far down in a deep well. Because of eating so little my scalp shriveled and withered as a green bitter gourd shrivels and withers in the wind and sun. Because of eating so little my belly skin adhered to my backbone; thus if I touched my belly skin I encountered my backbone, and if I touched my backbone I encountered my belly skin. Because of eating so little, if I tried to ease my body by rubbing my limbs with my hands, the hair, rotted at its roots, fell from my body as I rubbed.

53-55. "Sariputta, there are certain recluses and brahmans whose doctrine and view is this: 'Purification comes about through food.' They say: 'Let us live on beans'... 'Let us live on sesamum'... 'Let us live on rice,' and they eat rice, they eat rice powder, they drink rice water, and they make various kinds of rice concoctions. Now I recall having eaten a single rice grain a day. Sariputta, you may think that the rice grain was bigger at that time, yet you should not regard it so: the rice grain was then at most the same size as now. Through feeding on a single rice grain a day, my body reached a state of extreme emaciation. Because of eating so little... the hair, rotted at its roots, fell from my body as I rubbed.

  1. "Yet, Sariputta, by such conduct, by such practice, by such performance of austerities, I did not attain any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. Why was that? Because I did not attain that noble wisdom which when attained is noble and emancipating and leads the one who practices in accordance with it to the complete destruction of suffering.
    MN 12
1
  • I recall an argument (though I do not remember its source) which goes something like :

If we would be purified by suffering, then we should have all been liberated already. This is because, we have been in Samsara since beginingless time, and we have experienced huge amount of suffering in it. Therefore causing ourselves suffering does not purify us.

Technically, this is not on ascetism, but it is similar enough. However, I think that this argument is true and effective (1) If we have indeed been in Samsara for a long amount of time, suffering greatly (2) If the argument is presented to a person that accepts this worldview. For example, such a person would be a Hindu or a Jain debate opponent.

The other extreme is the practice of self-mortification, the attempt to gain liberation by afflicting the body. This approach may stem from a genuine aspiration for deliverance, but it works within the compass of a wrong assumption that renders the energy expended barren of results. The error is taking the body to be the cause of bondage, when the real source of trouble lies in the mind — the mind obsessed by greed, aversion, and delusion. To rid the mind of these defilements the affliction of the body is not only useless but self-defeating, for it is the impairment of a necessary instrument. Thus the Buddha describes this second extreme as "painful, ignoble, not leading to the goal."

0

Buddhism offers no arguments against the denial of sense pleasures; except in the case of unenlightened laypeople with a genetic disposition for abiding in the realm of sex & reproduction, who ideally should get married rather than be monks & nuns. About this, Christianity has a handy unambiguous verse:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with lust/passion.

1 Corinthians 7

Therefore, as found in many Buddhist suttas (such as AN 4.62 & AN 10.91), Buddhism does not discourage ordinary laypeople from moderate ethical forms of sensuality. However, these teachings for laypeople are not related to the Middle-Way.

The Middle Way is explicitly defined in SN 56.11 as avoidance of devotion to sensual pleasures (kāmasukhallikānuyogo) and avoidance of devotion to self-torment (attakilamathānuyogo). The Middle Way is also explicitly defined in SN 56.11 as for those who have left the household life of family, sex & reproduction. In other words, the Middle Way was not originally taught for the sake of ordinary laypeople.

The specific word used above is 'kilamathā', which refers to punishing oneself with pain. The word 'kilamathā' does not mean 'denial of sensual pleasures'.

In short, the word 'ascetism' is to broad for the subject of this question.

For example, in his sloppy translation of MN 12, the Venerable Thanissaro appeared to translate the following Pali words as 'ascetism':

  • tapassī = mortifier

  • dukkarakārikāya = difficult to do

Again, the above Pali words are too broad to be translated as 'ascetism'. For example, the word 'tapassī' above has its linguistic root in the word 'tapo'. The word 'tapo' is used in the following verse about the Noble Eightfold Path.

Patient endurance is the supreme austerity.

Khantī paramaṁ tapo titikkhā

Dhammapada 184

In summary, the question of this topic is based in an incorrect understanding of terminology and the Buddhist teachings. Buddhism is completely in favour of denial of sensual pleasures (except in the case of ordinary people for whom the higher Buddhist teachings are not for).

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .