Two news stories about ascetic practices taken to the extreme have been making the rounds lately. The first story involves an Indian sadhu who claims to have not eaten since 1940. (The linked article uses the excellent term godman to describe ascetics with powers such as these.) The second story involves the “marathon monk” Endo Mitsunaga (incorrectly referred to as a Zen—rather than Tendai—monk in the story) who completed a 1,000-day circumambulation of Japan’s sacred Mount Hiei, outside Kyoto.
While both of these practices might sound similar in that they both involve extreme practice, they are of course very different. The Tendai monk’s practice is possible and the sadhu’s isn’t, at least by ordinary understanding. Both involve fasting: The Tendai monk also undergoes a 9-day fast after a 700-day walk. (They also both involve feet: the monk’s walking and the sadhu’s tiny carbon footprint.) It’s a Buddhist cliche that Siddhartha Gotama also underwent ascetic extremes after having indulged his appetites and before finding the Middle Way—but the Middle Way shouldn’t be an excuse to not change or try and improve anything about ourselves. Living the way we do in the West is extreme. We shouldn’t kid ourselves—most of us haven’t left the palace yet, though Sharon Salzberg makes the interesting point that the sort of lacerating, punishing self-hatred so common in the West may be a contemporary form of the Buddha’s asceticism.
We eat too much. We consume more than our share. Right livelihood is about improving oneself, but of course there is a bodhisattva component to responsible living in our (increasingly?) interdependent world. These ascetic practices, as fanciful as they may seem, serve as a reminder of this.
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