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Asceticism (; from the Greek: ἄσκησιςáskesis, "exercise" or "training") is a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from sensualpleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals. Ascetics may withdraw from the world for their practices or continue to be part of their society, but typically adopt a frugal lifestyle, characterised by the renunciation of material possessions and physical pleasures, and time spent fasting while concentrating on the practice of religion or reflection upon spiritual matters.
Asceticism is classified into two types. "Natural asceticism" consists of a lifestyle where material aspects of life are reduced to utmost simplicity and a minimum but without maiming the body or harsher austerities that make the body suffer, while "unnatural asceticism" is defined as a practice that involves body mortification and self infliction of pain such as by sleeping on a bed of nails.
Asceticism has been historically observed in many religious traditions, including Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. Contemporary mainstream Islam has lacked asceticism, except for the minority Sufism whose long tradition has included strict asceticism. The practitioners of these religions abandoned sensual pleasures and led an abstinent lifestyle, in the pursuit of redemption,salvation or spirituality. Asceticism is seen in the ancient theologies as a journey towards spiritual transformation, where the simple is sufficient, the bliss is within, the frugal is plenty.
Etymology and meaning
The adjective "ascetic" derives from the ancient Greek term askēsis, which means training or exercise. The original usage did not refer to self-denial, but to the physical training required for athletic events. Its usage later extended to rigorous practices that are used in all major religious traditions, in varying degrees to attain redemption and higher spirituality.
Asceticism has been classified into natural and unnatural forms of asceticism. "Natural asceticism" is defined as a lifestyle where material aspects of life are reduced to utmost simplicity and minimum. This may include minimal, simple clothing, sleeping on floor or caves, eating simple minimal amount of food. Natural asceticism, state Wimbush and Valantasis, does not include maiming the body or harsher austerities that make the body suffer. In contrast, "unnatural asceticism" is defined as a practice that goes further, and involves body mortification, punishing one's own flesh, and habitual self infliction of pain such as by sleeping on a bed of nails.
Self-discipline and abstinence in some form and degree are parts of religious practice within many religious and spiritual traditions. Ascetic lifestyle is associated particularly with monks, nuns, fakirs in Abrahamic religions, and bhikkhus, munis, sannyasis, yogis in Indian religions.
See also: Ascetical theology and Degrees of Orthodox monasticism
Christian authors of late antiquity such as Origen, St. Jerome,St. Ignatius,John Chrysostom, and Augustine interpreted meanings of Biblical texts within a highly asceticized religious environment. Scriptural examples of asceticism could be found in the lives of John the Baptist, Jesus, the twelve apostles and the Apostle Paul. The Dead Sea Scrolls revealed ascetic practices of the ancient Jewish sect of Essenes who took vows of abstinence to prepare for a holy war. An emphasis on an ascetic religious life was evident in both early Christian writings (see the Philokalia) and practices (see hesychasm). Other Christian practitioners of asceticism include individuals such as Simeon Stylites, Saint David of Wales and Francis of Assisi.
According to Richard Finn, much of early Christian asceticism has been traced to Judaism, but not to traditions within Greek asceticism. Some of the ascetic thoughts in Christianity nevertheless, Finn states, have roots in Greek moral thought. Virtuous living is not possible when an individual is craving bodily pleasures with desire and passion. Morality is not seen in the ancient theology as a balancing act between right and wrong, but a form of spiritual transformation, where the simple is sufficient, the bliss is within, the frugal is plenty.
The deserts of the Middle East were at one time inhabited by thousands of Christian hermits including St. Anthony the Great (aka St. Anthony of the Desert), St. Mary of Egypt, and St. Simeon Stylites. In 963 CE, an association of monasteries called Lavra was formed on Mount Athos, in Eastern Orthodox tradition. This became the most important center of orthodox Christian ascetic groups in the centuries that followed. In the modern era, Mount Athos and Meteora have remained a significant center.
Sexual abstinence such as those of the Encratites sect of Christians was only one aspect of ascetic renunciation, and both natural and unnatural asceticism have been part of Christian asceticism. The natural ascetic practices have included simple living, begging, fasting and ethical practices such as humility, compassion, patience and prayer. Evidence of extreme unnatural asceticism in Christianity appear in 2nd century texts and thereafter, in both the Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Western sister tradition, such as the practice of chaining the body to rocks, eating only grass, praying seated on a pillar in the elements for decades such as by the monk Simeon Stylites, solitary confinement inside a cell, abandoning personal hygiene and adopting lifestyle of a beast, self-inflicted pain and voluntary suffering. Such ascetic practices were linked to the Christian concepts of sin and redemption.
Evagrius Ponticus: Monastic teaching
See also: Evagrius Ponticus, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria
Evagrius Ponticus, also called Evagrius the Solitary (345-399 AD) was a highly educated monastic teacher who produced a large theological body of work, mainly ascetic, including the Gnostikos (from Ancient Greek: γνωστικός gnostikos, "learned", from γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge), also known as The Gnostic: To the One Made Worthy of Gnosis. The Gnostikos is the second volume of a trilogy containing the Praktikos, intended for young monks to achieve apatheia, i.e. " a state of calm which is the prerequisite for love and knowledge ", in order to purify their intellect and make it impassible to reveal the truth hidden in every being. The third book, Kephalaia Gnostika, was meant for meditation by advanced monks. Those writings made him part of the most recognized ascetic teachers and scriptural interpreters of his time, which include Clement of Alexandria and Origen.
The ascetic literature of early Christianity was influenced by pre-Christian Greek philosophical traditions, especially Plato and Aristotle, looking for the perfect spiritual way of life. According to Clement of Alexandria, Philosophy and Scriptures can be seen as "double expressions of one pattern of knowledge ". According to Evagrius, " body and the soul are there to help the intellect and not to hinder it ".
See also: Dervish, Faqir, and Sufism
The Arabic word for asceticism is zuhd (Zuhd in Islam). The prophet Mohammad and his followers practiced Asceticism. However, contemporary mainstream Islam has not had a tradition of asceticism, but its Sufi sects – a minority within Islam – have cherished an ascetic tradition for many centuries.Monasticism is forbidden in Islam.
Scholars in the field of Sufi studies have argued that asceticism (zuhd) served as a precursor to the later doctrinal formations of Sufis that began to emerge in the 10th century through the works of individuals such as al-Junayd, al-Qushayrī, al-Sarrāj, al-Hujwīrī, and others.
Sufism grew as a mystical, somewhat hidden tradition in the mainstream Sunni and Shia Islam, state Eric Hanson and Karen Armstrong, likely in reaction to "the growing worldiness of Ummayyad and 'Abassid societies". Acceptance of asceticism emerged in Sufism slowly because it was contrary to the sunnah, states Nile Green, and early Sufis condemned "ascetic practices as unnecessary public displays of what amounted to false piety". The ascetic Sufis were hunted and persecuted by Sunni and Shia rulers, in various centuries.
Sufism was adopted and then grew particularly in the frontier areas of Islamic states, where the asceticism of its fakirs (or dervish) appealed to a population used to the monastic traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity. Ascetic practices of Sufi fakirs have included celibacy, fasting and self-mortification. Sufi ascetics also participated in mobilizing Islamic warriors for holy war, helping travelers, dispensing blessings through their perceived magical powers, and in helping settle disputes.
Ritual ascetic practices, such as self-flagellation (Tatbir) has been practiced by Shia Muslims annually at the Mourning of Muharram.
Main article: Asceticism in Judaism
Asceticism has not been a dominant theme within Judaism, but minor to significant ascetic traditions have been a part of Jewish spirituality. The history of Jewish asceticism is traceable to 1st millennium BCE era with the references of the Nazirite (or Nazorean, Nazarene, Naziruta, Nazir), whose rules of practice are found in Book of Numbers 6:1-21. The ascetic practices included not cutting the hair, abstaining from eating meat or grapes, abstention from wine, or fasting and hermit style living conditions for a period of time. Literary evidence suggests that this tradition continued for a long time, well into the common era, and both Jewish men and women could follow the ascetic path, with examples such as the ascetic practices for fourteen years by Queen Helena of Adiabene, and by Miriam of Tadmor. After the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile and the Mosaic institution was done away with, a different form of asceticism arose when Antiochus IV Epiphanes threatened the Jewish religion in 167 BC. The Hasidaean-Essene tradition of the second Temple period is described as one of the movements within historic Jewish asceticism between 2nd century BCE and 1st century CE.
Ascetic Jewish sects existed in ancient and medieval era times, most notably the Essenes and Ebionites. According to Allan Nadler, two most significant examples of medieval Jewish asceticism have been Havoth ha-Levavoth and Hasidei Ashkenaz. Pious self-deprivation was a part of the dualism and mysticism in these ascetic groups. This voluntary separation from the world was called Perishuth, and the Jewish society widely accepted this tradition in late medieval era. Extreme forms of ascetic practices have been opposed or controversial in the Hassidic movement.
The Ashkenazi Hasidim (Hebrew: חסידי אשכנז, Chassidei Ashkenaz) were a Jewish mystical, ascetic movement in the German Rhineland whose practices are documented in the texts of the 12th and 13th centuries. Peter Meister states that this Jewish asceticism emerged in the 10th century, grew much wider with prevalence in southern Europe and the Middle East through the Jewish pietistic movement. According to Shimon Shokek, these ascetic practices were the result of an influence of medieval Christianity on Ashkenazi Hasidism. The Jewish faithful of this Hasidic tradition practiced the punishment of body, self-torture by starvation, sitting in the open in freezing snow, or in the sun with fleas in summer, all with the goal of purifying the soul and turning one's attention away from the body unto the soul.
Another significant school of Jewish asceticism appeared in the 16th-century led from Safed. These mystics engaged in radical material abstentions and self-mortification with the belief that this helps them transcend the created material world, reach and exist in the mystical spiritual world. A studied example of this group was Hayyim ben Joseph Vital, and their rules of ascetic lifestyle (Hanhagoth) are documented.
According to Shoghi Effendi, in Bahai faith, the maintenance of a high standard of moral conduct is not to be associated or confused with any form of asceticism, or of excessive and bigoted puritanism. The standard inculcated by Bahá’u’lláh seeks, under no circumstances, to deny anyone the legitimate right and privilege to derive the fullest advantage and benefit from the manifold joys, beauties, and pleasures with which the world has been so plentifully enriched by an All-Loving Creator.:44
Asceticism is found in both non-theistic and theistic traditions within Indian religions. The origins of the practice are ancient and a heritage shared by major Indian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. These probably developed from a syncretism of Vedic and Sramanic influences.
Asceticism in Indian religions includes a spectrum of diverse practices, ranging from the mild self-discipline, self-imposed poverty and simple living typical of Buddhism and Hinduism, to more severe austerities and self-mortification practices of monks in Jainism and now extinct Ajivikas in the pursuit of salvation. Some ascetics live as loner hermits relying on whatever food they can find in the forests, then sleep and meditate in caves; others travel from one holy site to another while sustaining their body by begging for food; yet others live in monasteries as monks or nuns. Some ascetics live like priests and preachers, other ascetics are armed and militant, to resist any persecution – a phenomenon that emerged after the arrival of Islam in India. Self-torture is relatively uncommon practice but one that attracts public attention. In Indian traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, self-mortification is typically criticized. However, Indian mythologies also describe numerous ascetic gods or demons who pursued harsh austerities for decades or centuries that helped each gain special powers.
The historical Siddhartha Gautama adopted an extreme ascetic life in search of enlightenment. However, before enlightenment he rejected extreme asceticism.
According to Hajime Nakamura and other scholars, some early Buddhist texts suggest that asceticism was a part of Buddhist practice in its early days. Further, in practice, records from about the start of the common era through the 19th century CE suggest that asceticism has been a part of Buddhism, both in Theravada and Mahayana traditions.
Textual evidence suggests that ascetic practices were a part of the Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka by the 3rd century BCE, and this tradition continued through the medieval era in parallel to sangha style monastic tradition.
In the Theravada tradition of Thailand, medieval texts report of ascetic monks who wander and dwell in the forest or crematory alone, do austere practices, and these came to be known as Thudong. Ascetic Buddhist monks have been and continue to be found in Myanmar, and as in Thailand, they are known to pursue their own version of Buddhism, resisting the hierarchical institutionalized sangha structure of monasteries in Buddhism.
In the Mahayana tradition, asceticism with esoteric and mystical meanings became an accepted practice, such as in the Tendai and Shingon schools of Japanese Buddhism. These Japanese practices included penance, austerities, ablutions under a waterfall, and rituals to purify oneself. Japanese records from the 12th century record stories of monks undertaking severe asceticism, while records suggest that 19th century Nichiren Buddhist monks woke up at midnight or 2:00 AM daily, and performed ascetic water purification rituals under cold waterfalls. Other practices include the extreme ascetic practices of eating only pine needles, resins, seeds and ultimately self-mummification, while alive, or Sokushinbutsu (miira) in Japan.
In Chinese Buddhism, self-mummification ascetic practices were less common but recorded in the Ch'an (Zen Buddhism) tradition there. More ancient Chinese Buddhist asceticism, somewhat similar to Sokushinbutsu are also known, such as the public self-immolation (self cremation, as shaoshen 燒身 or zifen 自焚) practice, aimed at abandoning the impermanent body.[note 1] The earliest documented ascetic Buddhist monk biography is of Fayu (法羽) in 396 CE, followed by more than fifty documented cases in the centuries that followed including that of monk Daodu (道度). This was considered as evidence of a renunciant bodhisattva, and may have been inspired by the Jataka tales wherein the Buddha in his earlier lives immolates himself to assist other living beings, or by the Bhaiṣajyaguruvaiḍūryaprabhārāja-related teachings in the Lotus Sutra. Historical records suggest that the self-immolation practices were observed by nuns in Chinese Buddhism as well.
The Chinese Buddhist asceticism practices, states James Benn, were not an adaptation or import of Indian ascetic practices, but an invention of Chinese Buddhists, based on their unique interpretations of Saddharmapuṇḍarīka or Lotus Sūtra. It may be an adoption of more ancient pre-Buddhist Chinese practices, or from Taoism. It is unclear if self-immolation was limited primarily to Chinese asceticism tradition, and strong evidence of it being a part of a large scale, comprehensive ascetic program among Chinese Buddhists is lacking.
See also: Tapas (Sanskrit), Sannyasa, and Ataptatanu
Renunciation from the worldly life, and a pursuit of spiritual life either as a part of monastic community or as a loner, has been a historic tradition of Hinduism since ancient times. The renunciation tradition is called Sannyasa, and this is not the same as asceticism – which typically connotes severe self-denial and self-mortification. Sannyasa often involved a simple life, one with minimal or no material possessions, study, meditation and ethical living. Those who undertook this lifestyle were called Sannyasi, Sadhu, Yati,Bhiksu, Pravrajita/Pravrajitā, and Parivrajaka in Hindu texts. The term with a meaning closer to asceticism in Hindu texts is Tapas, but it too spans a spectrum of meanings ranging from inner heat, to self-mortification and penance with austerities, to meditation and self-discipline.
Indeed, Vedic literature does provide irrefutable
evidence for the existence of both female celibate
students and female renouncers in ancient India.
Asceticism-like practices are hinted in the Vedas, but these hymns have been variously interpreted as referring to early Yogis and loner renouncers. One such mention is in the Kesin hymn of the Rigveda, where Keśins ("long-haired" ascetics) and Munis ("silent ones") are described. These Kesins of the Vedic era, are described as follows by Karel Werner:
The Keśin does not live a normal life of convention. His hair and beard grow longer, he spends long periods of time in absorption, musing and meditating and therefore he is called "sage" (muni). They wear clothes made of yellow rags fluttering in the wind, or perhaps more likely, they go naked, clad only in the yellow dust of the Indian soil. But their personalities are not bound to earth, for they follow the path of the mysterious wind when the gods enter them. He is someone lost in thoughts: he is miles away.
— Karel Werner (1977), "Yoga and the Ṛg Veda: An Interpretation of the Keśin Hymn"
The Vedic and Upanishadic texts of Hinduism, states Mariasusai Dhavamony, do not discuss self-inflicted pain, but do discuss self-restraint and self-control. The monastic tradition of Hinduism is evidenced in 1st millennium BCE, particularly in its Advaita Vedanta tradition. This is evidenced by the oldest Sannyasa Upanishads, because all of them have a strong Advaita Vedanta outlook. Most of the Sannyasa Upanishads present a Yoga and nondualism (Advaita) Vedanta philosophy. The 12th-century Shatyayaniya Upanishad is a significant exception, which presents qualified dualistic and Vaishnavism (Vishishtadvaita Vedanta) philosophy. These texts mention a simple, ethical lifestyle but do not mention self-torture or body mortification. For example,
These are the vows a Sannyasi must keep –
Abstention from injuring living beings, truthfulness, abstention from appropriating the property of others, abstention from sex, liberality (kindness, gentleness) are the major vows. There are five minor vows: abstention from anger, obedience towards the guru, avoidance of rashness, cleanliness, and purity in eating. He should beg (for food) without annoying others, any food he gets he must compassionately share a portion with other living beings, sprinkling the remainder with water he should eat it as if it were a medicine.
— Baudhayana Dharmasūtra, II.10.18.1-10
Similarly, the Nirvana Upanishad asserts that the Hindu ascetic should hold, according to Patrick Olivelle, that "the sky is his belief, his knowledge is of the absolute, union is his initiation, compassion alone is his pastime, bliss is his garland, the cave of solitude is his fellowship", and so on, as he proceeds in his effort to gain self-knowledge (or soul-knowledge) and its identity with the Hindu metaphysical concept of Brahman. Other behavioral characteristics of the Sannyasi include: ahimsa (non-violence), akrodha (not become angry even if you are abused by others), disarmament (no weapons), chastity, bachelorhood (no marriage), avyati (non-desirous), amati (poverty), self-restraint, truthfulness, sarvabhutahita (kindness to all creatures), asteya (non-stealing), aparigraha (non-acceptance of gifts, non-possessiveness) and shaucha (purity of body speech and mind).
The 11th century text, Yatidharmasamuccaya is a Vaishnavism text that summarizes ascetic practices in Vaishnavism tradition of Hinduism. In Hindu traditions, as with other Indian religions, both men and women have historically participated in a diverse spectrum of ascetic practices.
Main article: Jain monasticism
Asceticism in one of its most intense forms can be found in one of the oldest religions, known as Jainism. Ascetic life may include nakedness symbolizing non-possession of even clothes, fasting, body mortification, penance and other austerities, in order to burn away past karma and stop producing new karma, both of which are believed in Jainism to be essential for reaching siddha and moksha (liberation from rebirths, salvation). In Jainism, the ultimate goal of life is to achieve the liberation of soul from endless cycle of rebirths (moksha from samsara), which requires ethical living and asceticism. Most of the austerities and ascetic practices can be traced back to Vardhaman Mahavira, the twenty-fourth "fordmaker" or Tirthankara who practiced 12 years of asceticism before reaching enlightenment.
Jain texts such as Tattvartha Sutra and Uttaradhyayana Sutra discuss ascetic austerities to great lengths and formulations. Six outer and six inner practices are most common, and oft repeated in later Jain texts. According to John Cort, outer austerities include complete fasting, eating limited amounts, eating restricted items, abstaining from tasty foods, mortifying the flesh and guarding the flesh (avoiding anything that is a source of temptation). Inner austerities include expiation, confession, respecting and assisting mendicants, studying, meditation and ignoring bodily wants in order to abandon the body.
The Jain text of Kalpasutra describes Mahavira's asceticism in detail, whose life is a source of guidance on most of the ascetic practices in Jainism:
The Venerable Ascetic Mahavira for a year and a month wore clothes; after that time he walked about naked, and accepted the alms in the hollow of his hand. For more than twelve years the Venerable Ascetic Mahivira neglected his body and abandoned the care of it; he with equanimity bore, underwent, and suffered all pleasant or unpleasant occurrences arising from divine powers, men, or animals.
— Kalpa Sutra 117
Both Mahavira and his ancient Jaina followers are described in Jainism texts as practicing body mortification and being abused by animals as well as people, but never retaliating and never initiating harm or injury (ahimsa) to any other being. With such ascetic practices, he burnt off his past Karma, gained spiritual knowledge, and became a Jina. These austere practices are part of the monastic path in Jainism. The practice of body mortification is called kaya klesha in Jainism, and is found in verse 9.19 of the Tattvartha Sutra by Umaswati, the most authoritative oldest surviving Jaina philosophical text.
In Jain monastic practice, the monks and nuns take ascetic vows, after renouncing all relations and possessions. The vows include a complete commitment to nonviolence (Ahimsa). They travel from city to city, often crossing forests and deserts, and always barefoot. Jain ascetics do not stay in a single place for more than two months to prevent attachment to any place. However, during the four months of monsoon (rainy season) known as chaturmaas, they stay at a single place to avoid killing life forms that thrive during the rains. Jain monks and nuns practice complete celibacy. They do not touch or share a sitting platform with a person of the opposite sex.
Jain ascetics follow a strict vegetarian diet without root vegetables. Prof. Pushpendra K. Jain explains:
Clearly enough, to procure such vegetables and fruits, one must pull out the plant from the root, thus destroying the entire plant, and with it all the other micro organisms around the root. Fresh fruits and vegetables should be plucked only when ripe and ready to fall off, or ideally after they have fallen off the plant. In case they are plucked from the plants, only as much as required should be procured and consumed without waste.
The monks of Shvetambara sub-tradition within Jainism do not cook food, but solicit alms from householders. Digambara monks have only a single meal a day. Neither group will beg for food, but a Jain ascetic may accept a meal from a householder, provided that the latter is pure of mind and body, and offers the food of his own volition and in the prescribed manner. During such an encounter, the monk remains standing and eats only a measured amount. Fasting (i.e., abstinence from food and sometimes water) is a routine feature of Jain asceticism. Fasts last for a day or longer, up to a month. Some monks avoid (or limit) medicine and/or hospitalization out of disregard for the physical body.
Shvetambara monks and nuns wear only unstitched white robes (an upper and lower garment), and own one bowl they use for eating and collecting alms. Male Digambara sect monks do not wear any clothes, carry nothing with them except a soft broom made of shed peacock feathers (pinchi) to gently remove any insect or living creature in their way or bowl, and they eat with their hands. They sleep on the floor without blankets, and sit on wooden platforms. Other austerities include meditation in seated or standing posture near river banks in the cold wind, or meditation atop hills and mountains, especially at noon when the sun is at its fiercest. Such austerities are undertaken according to the physical and mental limits of the individual ascetic.
When death is imminent from an advanced age or terminal disease, many Jain ascetics take a final vow of Santhara or Sallekhana, a fast to peaceful and detached death, by first reducing intake of and then ultimately abandoning all medicines, food, and water. Scholars state that this ascetic practice is not a suicide, but a form of natural death, done without passion or turmoil or suddenness, and because it is done without active violence to the body.
In Inca religion of medieval South America, asceticism was practiced. The high priests of the Inca people lived an ascetic life, which included fasting, chastity and eating simple food. The Jesuit records report Christian missionaries encountering ascetic Inca hermits in the Andean mountains.
Historical evidence suggest that the monastic tradition in Taoism practiced asceticism, and the most common ascetic practices included fasting, complete sexual abstinence, self-imposed poverty, sleep deprivation, and secluding oneself in the wilderness. More extreme and unnatural ascetic Taoist practices have included public self-drowning and self-cremation. The goal of these spectrum of practices, like other religions, was to reach the divine and get past the immortal body. According to Stephen Eskildsen, asceticism continues to be a part of modern Taoism.
In Zoroastrianism, active participation in life through good thoughts, good words and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep the chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster's concept of free will. In the Avesta, the sacred scriptures of Zoroastrianism, fasting and mortification are forbidden.
Sociological and psychological views
Early 20th-century German sociologist Max Weber made a distinction between innerweltliche and ausserweltliche asceticism, which means (roughly) "inside the world" and "outside the world", respectively. Talcott Parsons translated these as "worldly" and "otherworldly"—however, some translators use "inner-worldly", and this is more in line with inner world explorations of mysticism, a common purpose of asceticism. "Inner- or Other-worldly" asceticism is practised by people who withdraw from the world to live an ascetic life (this includes monks who live communally in monasteries, as well as hermits who live alone). "Worldly" asceticism refers to people who live ascetic lives but do not withdraw from the world.
Wealth is thus bad ethically only in so far as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life, and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care.
— Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
Weber claimed this distinction originated in the
Buddha practiced severe asceticism before his enlightenment and recommended a non-ascetic middle way thereafter. In Christianity, Francis of Assisi and his followers practiced extreme acts of asceticism.
Monasticism (from Greek μοναχός, monachos, derived from μόνος, monos, "alone") or monkhood is a religious way of life in which one renounces worldly pursuits to devote oneself fully to spiritual work. Monastic life plays an important role in many Christian churches, especially in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Similar forms of religious life also exist in other faiths, most notably in Buddhism, but also in Hinduism and Jainism, although the expressions differ considerably. By contrast, in other religions monasticism is criticized and not practiced, as in Islam and Zoroastrianism, or plays a marginal role, as in Judaism.
Females pursuing a monastic life are generally called nuns, while male monastics are called monks.
Many monks and nuns live in monasteries to stay away from the secular world. The way of addressing monastics differs between the Christian traditions. As a general rule, in Roman Catholicism, monks and nuns are called brother or sister, while in Eastern Orthodoxy, they are called father or mother.
Main article: Buddhist monasticism
The Sangha or community of ordained Buddhistbhikkhus ("beggar" or "one who lives by alms".) and original bhikkhunis (nuns) was founded by Gautama Buddha during his lifetime over 2500 years ago. This communal monastic lifestyle grew out of the lifestyle of earlier sects of wandering ascetics, some of whom the Buddha had studied under. It was initially fairly eremitic or reclusive in nature. Bhikkhus and bhikkunis were expected to live with a minimum of possessions, which were to be voluntarily provided by the lay community. Lay followers also provided the daily food that bhikkhus required, and provided shelter for bhikkhus when they needed it.
After the Parinibbana (Final Passing) of the Buddha, the Buddhist monastic order developed into a primarily cenobitic or communal movement. The practice of living communally during the rainy vassa season, prescribed by the Buddha, gradually grew to encompass a settled monastic life centered on life in a community of practitioners. Most of the modern disciplinary rules followed by bhikkhus and bhikkhunis — as encoded in the Patimokkha — relate to such an existence, prescribing in great detail proper methods for living and relating in a community of bhikkhus or bhikkhunis. The number of rules observed varies with the order; Theravada bhikkhus follow around 227 rules, the Vinaya. There are a larger number of rules specified for bhikkhunis (nuns).
The Buddhist monastic order consists of the male bhikkhu assembly and the female bhikkhuni assembly. Initially consisting only of males, it grew to include females after the Buddha's stepmother, Mahaprajapati, asked for and received permission to live as an ordained practitioner.
Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are expected to fulfill a variety of roles in the Buddhist community. First and foremost, they are expected to preserve the doctrine and discipline now known as Buddhism. They are also expected to provide a living example for the laity, and to serve as a "field of merit" for lay followers—providing laymen and women with the opportunity to earn merit by giving gifts and support to the bhikkhus. In return for the support of the laity, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are expected to live an austere life focused on the study of Buddhist doctrine, the practice of meditation, and the observance of good moral character.
A bhikkhu (the term in the Pali language) or Bhikshu (in Sanskrit), first ordains as a Samanera (novice). Novices often ordain at a young age, but generally no younger than eight. Samaneras live according to the Ten Precepts, but are not responsible for living by the full set of monastic rules. Higher ordination, conferring the status of a full Bhikkhu, is given only to men who are aged 20 or older. Bhikkhunis follow a similar progression, but are required to live as Samaneras for longer periods of time- typically five years.
The disciplinary regulations for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are intended to create a life that is simple and focused, rather than one of deprivation or severe asceticism. However, celibacy is a fundamental part of this form of monastic discipline.
Main article: Christian monasticism
See also: Coptic monasticism and Eastern Christian monasticism
Monasticism in Christianity, which provides the origins of the words "monk" and "monastery", comprises several diverse forms of religious living. It began to develop early in the history of the Church, but is not mentioned in the scriptures. It has come to be regulated by religious rules (e.g. the Rule of St Basil, the Rule of St Benedict) and, in modern times, the Church law of the respective apostolic Christian churches that have forms of monastic living.
The Christian monk embraces the monastic life as a vocation for God. His goal is to attain eternal life in his presence. The rules of monastic life are codified in the "counsels of perfection".
In the beginning, in Egypt, Christians felt called to a more reclusive or eremitic form of monastic living (in the spirit of the "Desert Theology" for the purpose of spiritual renewal and return to God). Saint Anthony the Great is cited by Athanasius as one of these early "Hermit monks". Especially in the Middle East, eremitic monasticism continued to be common until the decline of Syriac Christianity in the late Middle Ages.
The need for some form of organized spiritual guidance was obvious; and around 318 Saint Pachomius started to organize his many followers in what was to become the first Christian cenobitic or communal monastery. Soon, similar institutions were established throughout the Egyptian desert as well as the rest of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Notable monasteries of the East include:
In the West, the most significant development occurred when the rules for monastic communities were written, the Rule of St Basil being credited with having been the first. The precise dating of the Rule of the Master is problematic; but it has been argued on internal grounds that it antedates the so-called Rule of Saint Benedict created by Benedict of Nursia for his monastery in Monte Cassino, Italy (c. 529), and the other Benedictine monasteries he himself had founded (cf. Order of St Benedict). It would become the most common rule throughout the Middle Ages and is still in use today. The Augustinian Rule, due to its brevity, has been adopted by various communities, chiefly the Canons Regular. Around the 12th century, the Franciscan, Carmelite, Dominican, Servite Order (see Servants of Mary) and Augustinianmendicant orders chose to live in city convents among the people instead of being secluded in monasteries. St. Augustine's Monastery, founded in 1277 in Erfurt, Germany is regarded by many historians and theologians as the "cradle of the Reformation", as it is where Martin Luther lived as a monk from 1505-1511.
Today new expressions of Christian monasticism, many of which are ecumenical, are developing in various places such as the Bose Monastic Community in Italy, the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem throughout Europe, the New Skete, the Anglo-Celtic Society of Nativitists, the Taizé Community in France, and the mainly Evangelical ProtestantNew Monasticism. It is possible that intentional communities such as the Bruderhof could be considered monastic, since they share everything, have a rhythm of life and prayer, and have a degree of separation from the world.Rod Dreher, editor of The American Conservative, said of the Bruderhof, "It would not be stretching it to call them lay monastics".
See also: Dashanami Sampradaya
In their quest to attain the spiritual goal of life, some Hindus choose the path of monasticism (Sannyasa). Monastics commit themselves to a life of simplicity, celibacy, detachment from worldly pursuits, and the contemplation of God. A Hindu monk is called a sanyāsī, sādhu, or swāmi. A nun is called a sanyāsini, sādhvi, or swāmini. Such renunciates are accorded high respect in Hindu society, because their outward renunciation of selfishness and worldliness serves as an inspiration to householders who strive for mental renunciation. Some monastics live in monasteries, while others wander from place to place, trusting in God alone to provide for their physical needs. It is considered a highly meritorious act for a lay devotee to provide sadhus with food or other necessaries. Sādhus are expected to treat all with respect and compassion, whether a person may be poor or rich, good or wicked. They are also expected to be indifferent to praise, blame, pleasure, and pain. A sādhu can typically be recognized by his ochre-colored clothing. Generally, Vaisnava monks shave their heads except for a small patch of hair on the back of the head, while Saivite monks let their hair and beard grow uncut.
A sadhu's vow of renunciation typically forbids him from:
- owning personal property apart from a bowl, a cup, two sets of clothing and medical aids such as eyeglasses;
- having any contact with, looking at, thinking of or even being in the presence of women;
- eating for pleasure;
- possessing or even touching money or valuables in any way, shape or form;
- maintaining personal relationships.
Islam forbids the practice of monasticism and is critical of its practice. In Sunni Islam, one example is Uthman bin Maz'oon; one of the companions of Muhammad. He was married to Khawlah bint Hakim, both being two of the earliest converts to Islam. There is a Sunni narration that, out of religious devotion, Uthman bin Maz'oon decided to dedicate himself to night prayers and take a vow of chastity from his wife. His wife got upset and spoke to Muhammad about this. Muhammad reminded Uthman that he himself, as the Prophet, also had a family life, and that Uthman had a responsibility to his family and should not adopt monasticism as a form of religious practice.
Muhammad told his companions to ease their burden and avoid excess. According to some Sunni hadiths, in a message to some companions who wanted to put an end to their sexual life, pray all night long or fast continuously, Muhammad said: “Do not do that! Fast on some days and eat on others. Sleep part of the night, and stand in prayer another part. For your body has rights upon you, your eyes have a right upon you, your wife has a right upon you, your guest has a right upon you.” Muhammad once exclaimed, repeating it three times: “Woe to those who exaggerate [who are too strict]!” And, on another occasion, Muhammad said: “Moderation, moderation! For only with moderation will you succeed.”
Monasticism is also mentioned in four places in the following verses of Qur'an:
Then We caused Our messengers to follow in their footsteps; and We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow, and gave him the Gospel, and placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him. But monasticism they invented - We ordained it not for them - only seeking Allah's pleasure, and they observed it not with right observance. So We give those of them who believe their reward, but many of them are evil-livers.
- —Qur'an Verse 27, Surah Al-Hadid (chapter 57)
They have taken as lords beside Allah their rabbis and their monks and the Messiah son of Mary, when they were bidden to worship only One God. There is no god save Him. Be He glorified from all that they ascribe as partner (unto Him)!
- —Qur'an Verse 31, Surah Al-Tawba (chapter 9)
O ye who believe! Lo! many of the (Jewish) rabbis and the (Christian) monks devour the wealth of mankind wantonly and debar (men) from the way of Allah. They who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in the way of Allah, unto them give tidings (O Muhammad) of a painful doom
- —Qur'an Verse 34, Surah Al-Tawba (chapter 9)
Thou wilt find the most vehement of mankind in hostility to those who believe (to be) the Jews and the idolaters. And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud.
- —Qur'an Verse 82, Surah Al-Maeda (chapter 5)
Main article: Jain monasticism
In Jainism, monasticism is encouraged and respected. Rules for monasticism are rather strict. A Jain ascetic has neither a permanent home nor any possessions, wandering barefoot from place to place except during the months of Chaturmas. The quality of life they lead is difficult because of the many constraints placed on them. They don't use a vehicle for commuting and always commute barefoot from one place to another, irrespective of the distance. They don't possess any materialistic things and also don't use the basic services like that of a phone, electricity etc. They don't prepare food and live only on what people offer them.
See also: Nazirite
Judaism does not encourage the monastic ideal of celibacy and poverty. To the contrary—all of the Torah's Commandments are a means of sanctifying the physical world. As further disseminated through the teachings of the Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov, the pursuit of permitted physical pleasures is encouraged as a means to "serve God with joy" (Deut. 28:47).
However, until the Destruction of the Second Temple, about two thousand years ago, taking Nazirite vows was a common feature of the religion. Nazirite Jews (in Hebrew: נזיר) abstained from grape products, haircuts, and contact with the dead. However, they did not withdraw from general society, and they were permitted to marry and own property; moreover, in most cases a Nazirite vow was for a specified time period and not permanent. In Modern Hebrew, the term "Nazir" is most often used to refer to non-Jewish monastics.
Unique among Jewish communities is the monasticism of the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, a practice believed to date to the 15th century.
A form of asceticism was practiced by some individuals in pre–World War IIEuropean Jewish communities. Its principal expression was prishut, the practice of a married Talmud student going into self-imposed exile from his home and family to study in the kollel of a different city or town. This practice was associated with, but not exclusive to, the Perushim.
The Essenes (in Modern but not in Ancient Hebrew[disambiguation needed]: אִסִּיִים, Isiyim; Greek: Εσσηνοι, Εσσαιοι, or Οσσαιοι; Essēnoi, Essaioi, or Ossaioi) were a Jewish sect that flourished from the 2nd century BC to AD 100 which some scholars claim seceded from the Zadokite priests. Being much fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees (the other two major sects at the time), the Essenes lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism, voluntary poverty, daily immersion (in mikvah), and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including (for some groups) marriage. Many separate but related religious groups of that era shared similar mystic, eschatological, messianic, and ascetic beliefs. These groups are collectively referred to by various scholars as the "Essenes". Josephus records that Essenes existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judaea.
The Essenes have gained fame in modern times as a result of the discovery of an extensive group of religious documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are commonly believed to be the Essenes' library—although there is no proof that the Essenes wrote them. These documents include multiple preserved copies of the Hebrew Bible which were untouched from as early as 300 years before Christ until their discovery in 1946. Some scholars, however, dispute the notion that the Essenes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.Rachel Elior, a prominent Israeli scholar, even questions the existence of the Essenes.
Other religions or movements
- Ananda Marga has both monks and nuns (i.e. celibate male and female acharyas or missionaries) as well as a smaller group of family acharyas. The monks and nuns are engaged in all kinds of direct services to society, so they have no scope for permanent retreat. They do have to follow strict celibacy, poverty and many other rules of conduct during as well as after they have completed their training.
- Bön is believed to have a rich monastic history. Bön monasteries exist today, and the monks there practice Bön-Buddhism.
- Manichaeism had two types of followers, the auditors, and the elect. The elect lived apart from the auditors to concentrate on reducing the material influences of the world. They did this through strict celibacy, poverty, teaching, and preaching. Therefore, the elect were probably at least partially monastic.
- Scientology maintains a "fraternal order" called the Sea Organization or just Sea Org. They work only for the Church of Scientology and have signed billion year contracts. Sea Org members live communally with lodging, food, clothing, and medical care provided by the Church.
- Sikhism and the Bahá’í Faith both specifically forbid the practice of monasticism. Hence there are no Sikh or Bahá’í monk conclaves or brotherhoods.
- Quanzhen School of Taoism has monks and nuns
- Way of Former Heaven sect of Zhaijiao.
- The Transcendental Meditation movement sponsors two monastic groups: the Thousand-Headed Purusha for men and the Mother Divine for women. The US residences for the groups were in Heavenly Mountain, North Carolina. There is also a Purusha program at an ashram in Uttarkashi, India. The Global Mother Divine Organization describes itself as the women's wing of the Global Country of World Peace.
- Zoroastrianism holds that active participation in life through good thoughts, good words and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep chaotic influences at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster's concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of asceticism and monasticism.
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