The Joys of Asceticism

Taraka, King of Demons: “So why do you consider my presence a pollution, a disease? Is it because there is that within you which is like unto myself? …If so, I mock you in your weakness, Binder.”

Sam: “It is because I am a man who occasionally aspires to things beyond the belly and the phallus.”

“Lord of Light”, by Roger Zelazny

For the Jūya-e season, I have been undertaking a little ascetic Buddhist practice nightly for the past few days. I didn’t want to go into this willy-nilly, so I spent an evening mapping out what it would look like, what was reasonable and what was overkill (or lax), wrote it down in a little journal, and then committed to it for next ten nights.

The details of that 10 day practice are not important, but it is a kind of Buddhist “home retreat” for myself, and it has been challenging, but also very pleasant.

Photo by Wouter de Jong on

Asceticism, whether it be full-time as a practicing monk or nun, or as a lay person “in retreat”, is less about punishing yourself and more about taking your life back and aspiring for something more noble. It’s a chance to reset your life and your priorities and such as well as strengthen the mind. Further, it doesn’t have to be some expensive retreat at a resort with some Tibetan Lama that you paid thousands of dollars for. I often think about this quote by a 12th century monk, and chief disciple of Honen, named Benchō (弁長, 1162 – 1238) also known Shōkō (聖光).

People maintain that the best place for a life of retirement is the Kokawa Temple or Mount Koya. But as for me, there is nothing to compare with the bed from which I rise every morning.

Japanese source

Kokawadera (粉河寺, a famous Tendai Buddhist temple) and Koyasan (高野山, a famous Shingon Buddhist temple) were both major monastic centers, and still are, but what Benchō is saying that where you practice Buddhism here is now is the best place. No need for fancy retreats, just carve out a space and a routine where you are now.

As someone who has tried and failed from time to time at various “Buddhist endeavors” I’ve also learned a few tips along the way:

  1. If you want to engage in a Buddhist practice or retreat, write it out first.
  2. Make this practice/retreat something that’s sustainable and reasonable, but also “stretches” you a little bit. You can always revise it later if it’s too easy.
  3. If you commit to something, commit (refer back to #1 above). There’s no worse feeling than giving up halfway, even if you really want to. Also, remember that the mind is naturally fickle so sooner or later, you’ll get bored or want to quit.1 This is normal, but it doesn’t have to define you either.
  4. Later, when you are finished, think about what worked and what didn’t. It’ll save you headaches later.

Good luck and happy …. monking?

1 In Japanese, they call this mikka bōzu or “3-day monk”. Let’s face it, it’s hard keeping anything up any endeavor for 3 days. 😅

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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