Asceticism consists of practices of self-discipline undertaken voluntarily in order to achieve a higher state of being. Buddhism has an interesting, rather ambivalent relation to asceticism. It is a movement that places the principle of moderation among the key doctrines of the tradition. And yet in many cultural contexts, it is the most ascetic individual who is the most revered. Moreover, there is another paradox with regard to asceticism. Those who seek to practice an ascetic path often go out of their way to locate themselves far from the secular world. And yet the further ascetics go in order to be alone, the more people try to beat a path to their door. Asceticism has long been a powerful tool in the history of South Asian religions. Buddhism arose in India at a time when a number of non-Vedic ascetic movements were gaining adherents. The Jain community is especially noteworthy as an example of a group that focused intently on asceticism. Such groups were known as śramanic traditions (derived from a Sanskrit term that means “striving”); they offered a variety of psycho-somatic disciplines by which practitioners could experience states transcending those of conditioned existence. Although the ascetic disciplines these groups practiced drew on the vocabulary of Vedic religious practice, they explored realms that had not been traced in Vedic texts. Scholars such as Johannes Bronkhorst (Bronkhorst 1993, cited under General Overviews) have argued that many ascetic ideas that rose to prominence around the time of the Buddha came from outside the Vedic fold. Accounts of the Buddha’s quest for awakening depict the bodhisattva engaging in ascetic disciplines common to many śramanic groups of his time. The most prominent form of asceticism practiced by the early Buddhist community is the Dhutangas. Theravāda contexts speak of thirteen dhutaṅga: wearing patchwork robes recycled from cast-off cloth, wearing no more than three robes, going for alms, not omitting any house while going for alms, eating at one sitting, eating only from the alms-bowl, refusing all further food, living in the forest, living under a tree, living in the open air, living in a cemetery, being satisfied with any humble dwelling, and sleeping in the sitting position (without ever lying down). Mahāyāna texts mention twelve ascetic practices (called dhutaguṇa). They are the same as the Theravada list except they omit two rules about eating and add a rule about wearing garments of felt or wool. Several of the thirteen dhutaňga are virtual emblems of the sangha in Theravāda countries. For example, at the end of Theravāda ordination ceremonies, members of the sangha are instructed in the four ascetic customs known as the four “resorts” (Pali, nissaya): begging for alms, wearing robes made from cast-off rags, dwelling at the foot of a tree, and using fermented cow urine as medicine (as opposed to more palatable medicines). These four practices, often mentioned in canonical texts, undoubtedly go back to the beginnings of Buddhism in India.
Because asceticism involves a range of behaviors that relate to many key topics in Buddhist studies, there is a wide range of sources. Freiberger 2006 and Wilson 2004 provide the reader with a sense of the broad contours of the topic, while the other sources mentioned are largely comparative studies or works dealing with asceticism as an aspect of another topic. Bronkhorst 1993 explores the two different cultural realms that contributed to the rise of asceticism in ancient India. Ashraf 2013 deals with the architecture of ascetic dwellings in a comparative manner. Cakraborti 1973 covers a vast amount of material from various ancient Indian ascetic traditions. Ishwaran 1999 does not provide a general overview of all Buddhist asceticism but is helpful on the general context of asceticism in China. Shiraishi 1996 focuses on the Dharmashastra texts (works on human conduct integral to the formation of Hindu law codes) and compares ascetic paths found there to early Buddhism ascetic practices. Wiltshire 1990 deals with royal modes of asceticism in ancient India.
Ashraf, Kazi K. The Hermit’s Hut: Architecture and Asceticism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013.
Draws heavily (but not exclusively) on Buddhist materials. Reflects on the relationship of architecture and asceticism, with emphasis on the hermit’s hut.
Bronkhorst, Johannes. The Two Sources of Indian Asceticism. Bern and New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
Examines the rise of asceticism in ancient India with attention to contributions from Vedic sources as well as extra-Vedic sources.
Cakraborti, Haripada. Asceticism in Ancient India in Brahmanical, Buddhist, Jaina and Ajivika Societies. Calcutta: Punthi Pustak, 1973.
A massive work, a portion of which is dedicated to Buddhist asceticism.
Flood, Gavin D. The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory, and Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
A thoughtful theoretical work with illustrative examples from Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
Freiberger, Oliver. “Early Buddhism, Asceticism, and the Politics of the Middle Way.” In Asceticism and Its Critics: Historical Accounts and Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Oliver Freiberger, 235–255. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Assesses the place of asceticism in early Buddhism by reference to the dhutaṅga/dhutaguṇa practices and speculates about how the doctrine of the Middle Way developed.
Ishwaran, K., ed. Ascetic Culture: Renunciation and Worldly Engagement. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1999.
This edited volume brings together a variety of papers. Not much material on Buddhism is included, but the volume does include one chapter on China and another chapter on the 19th- and 20th-century revival of Buddhism in South Asia.
Shiraishi, Ryokai. Asceticism in Buddhism and Brahmanism: A Comparative Study. Tring, UK: Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1996.
Compares Buddhist and Brahmanical modes of asceticism, with a bit more attention paid to the latter than the former.
Wilson, Liz. “Ascetic Practices.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 280–281. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.
A brief but useful overview of the topic.
Wiltshire, Martin. Ascetic Figures Before and in Early Buddhism: The Emergence of Gautama as the Buddha. Berlin and New York. Mouton de Gruyter, 1990.
Deals with the origins and nature of renunciatory asceticism in ancient India, especially that espoused by kings. Focuses on the figure of the pacceka-buddha, a sagely ascetic figure that Wiltshire considers to have been the basis for the development of Buddhism.
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