Mortification of the flesh, with some thoughts on Buddhist logic and the consumption of cake

Sunday July 11, 2010


If it’s been quiet around here lately, that’s partly because of my temporary relocation to China, where I am doing some research for a forthcoming novel. This has knocked almost everything else for six, what with organising everything for my departure, and then getting my head round life in a different part of the world and (oh, dear!) a different language.

Anyway, today I noticed that thinkBuddha is close to its fifth birthday, which is just over a couple of weeks away. If I have internet access at that time, I’ll have some modest festivities online. Without cake, of course, because a virtual cake is no cake at all. And talking about cake, or the absence of cake, brings me nicely to today’s topic.

Early today I wandered up the road from where I’m staying in Beijing to the Wanshou Temple (万寿寺) – the temple of longevity – which dates from the sixteenth century, and which was apparently much favoured by the Empress Dowager Cixi. Sunday was probably not the day to visit, as it was bustling with tour groups; but it’s a lovely place nonetheless – Empress Dowagers, I imagine, would settle for nothing less – with a good, if small, display of Buddhist art. The labelling in English was a little eccentric – although not as eccentric as it would be if I tried to label anything in Chinese – and it’s easy to take cheap pot-shots at these kind of things; but I was intrigued rather more philosophically by the caption on an image of the Buddha Shakyamuni. It said a Buddha was someone who has “woken up after practising mortification.” This got me thinking about the place of mortification in Buddhism. Because even if, as is well known, the Buddha explicitly rejected both mortification and excess, nevertheless the story of his austerities has a kind of dramatic role that is a bit odd. So even in the texts where the Buddha says, in short, that mortification is useless for developing any kind of insight into things, at the same time he says that when it came to mortification he was the top banana (by virtue of eating none, no doubt). And this carries on throughout the various Buddhist traditions, with the Buddha being admired for his austerities, whilst at the same time this mortification is doctrinally dismissed as being of no use. On the one hand the Buddha is claimed to be pretty damn great because he could mortify himself to the n th degree; on the other hand it is claimed that there is no value to this. There’s something a bit suspect here, methinks. The strong implication is that this mortification is, in fact, something to do with his eventual awakening; but this is at the same time rejected.

Of course, one could come to a kind of uneasy psychological resolution of the apparent paradox. Once could say that this story (if it is true) shows the Buddha’s determination, determination that, properly channelled, would be of benefit to him. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it is hard not to think that there is something here that is close to having your cake and eating it. Or, given the circumstances, of not having your cake and eating it. Or – hey, who can pass up the chance of indulging in a spot of Buddhist logic when it arises? – of both having your cake and eating it and also not having your cake and eating it. Or, to complete the tetralemma, of neither having your cake and eating it nor not having your cake and eating it.

Hard work, logic. I’m going for a slice of cake. They go great Portuguese custard tarts (葡式蛋挞) here in Beijing.

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#1 · David Chapman

12 July 2010

“On the one hand the Buddha is claimed to be pretty damn great because he could mortify himself to the nth degree; on the other hand it is claimed that there is no value to this. There’s something a bit suspect here, methinks.”

I’ve read the suggestion (it may have been in Samuel’s Origin of Yoga and Tantra but I’m not sure) that this was propaganda in the competition between early Buddhism and the pre-Buddhist shramana lineages from which it evolved. Some/many/all of those lineage were big into mortification. The point of this part of the Buddhist origin myth is that the Buddha tried the other leading brands, completely mastered them, was better at them than anyone else, and found that they still didn’t work. Since he was so good at them, if they didn’t work for him, they certainly won’t work for you either. (You can’t live for a on a single grain of rice per day, can you?) So you should buy our brand instead.

“Now I can claim to have lived on a single bean a day- on a single sesamum seed a day-or a single grain of rice a day; and the result was still the same. Never did this practice or these courses or these dire austerities bring me to the ennobling gifts of super-human knowledge and insight. And why? Because none of them lead to that noble understanding which, when won, leads on to Deliverance and guides him who lives up to it onward to the utter extinction of all ill.”

#2 · Robert Ellis

16 July 2010

Hello Will,

Glad you’re enjoying China. These thoughts about mortification in Buddhism certainly fit ones I’ve had myself. It’s not only the celebration of the Buddha’s self-mortification that contradicts the Middle Way in Buddhism, but phenomena such as the marathon monks of Mount Hiei in Japan, or the Chinese monks burning candles on their heads for bodhisattva initiation.

My explanation for this would be that, alongside the formal teaching of the Middle Way, Buddhism actually has a very strong tradition of leaning towards eternalism, which could even be seen as stronger than the Middle Way tradition. This is also shown by the tendency to favour eternalism as a second-best option over nihilism: a tendency which, I would argue, contradicts and undermines the Middle Way, which has to be evenly balanced if it is to be comprehensible as a strategy.
For lots more on this see www.moralobjectivity… (Sorry, I seem to be using your blog comments to advertise my own website rather a lot – but this is only because you keep raising issues that I’ve discussed on it!).

Best wishes,

#3 · Anreal Perception

27 July 2010

It is interesting how ‘the buddha’ is always used to refer to Sakyamuni, the first buddha, and the context of the second buddha, Padmasambhava is never considered much outside of Tibetan Buddhism.

When looking at these kind of things, it becomes clear that the ‘first’ found it imperative to teach the basics, hence, the “lesser vehicle” with all its strict rules, yet at the same time he was catering for people of higher capacities by always including the emphasis that strict discipline is not ‘necessarily’ the only way to go …
Clearly it was also important for him to ‘adhere’ to these rules himself, as an example, much like what the Dalai Lama’s do (even though many of them have been known to practice Dzogchen, often in secret and sometimes at their own peril). I’m certain chastising monks for rubbing up on trees became quite tiring eventually, but that is just my own personal speculation. The teacher adapts the teaching according to the capacities of his students … no?

Enter Padmasambhava, a wild-ass tantrika who put little emphasis on the Hinayana vows, more on the Tantric vows (which in those days was considered pretty taboo)and yet at the same time always pointing out to the state of behavior ‘without rules’. Surely then it becomes clear that he took it another step further emphasizing the path of the yogi, outside of the strict monastic institution.

Today we think we live in a civilized world, and yet our world is constantly on the brink of barbarism. Imagine what it must have been like teaching people in the 8th century, or the 11th? Surely rules of behavior had its importance, but only as a way to deal with those who cannot control themselves?

Methinks the time has clearly come for a third Buddha, one who focuses mainly on the path without conduct …

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