May 7, 2023
Michael Haggiag

13. The Ascetic


Jizo explains the Middle Way to Dylan.

Batu, Indonesia - CIRCA Apr 2020 A golden wall carving in Dhammadipa Arama Temple, in Batu, East Java; depicting emaciated Prince Siddhattha or Siddhartha Buddha doing extreme meditation.

 I’m beginning to get it about the Buddha. He is a trailblazer. He’s trying hard to be an ascetic now so he figures that his body must be the problem. Maybe he’s too weak. If only he can toughen up so things like hunger and thirst won’t touch him anymore, then he won’t have anything more to fear.

His five friends join him in the forest. They live on nuts and berries. They eat less and less food. They meditate under the steaming hot sun or sleep on thorns or walk around naked even when the weather turns cold. They go out of their way to put themselves in situations that most people would find really, really uncomfortable, and they don’t run away from anything. Jizo says that he would rather not go into too much detail about everything they tried because some of it is pretty disgusting. 

I remember seeing a documentary about the S.A.S.  They were a special force being trained to fight in the jungle. They survived by eating insects and other horrible stuff.  They had to fight an enemy they couldn’t see but who were out there somewhere. Jizo says Buddhists also train to fight an enemy they can’t see. But this enemy is somewhere inside. I suppose that’s the main difference.

As usual Siddhartha pushes himself harder than anyone else. He nearly starves himself to death. Jizo showed us this amazing picture of a starving Buddha. Actually, he isn’t the Buddha yet but that’s what the picture calls him. It shows a life-size statue of a man who seems all skin and bones. His face is just a skull with deep holes around his eyes and you can see his whole rib cage. Later the Buddha tells his disciples that when he touched his stomach, he could feel his backbone.                                            

There have always been ascetics in India and even today you see them wandering around, but after Siddhartha awakens and becomes the Buddha, he warns us not to punish our bodies like this. He calls his teaching The Middle Way because it’s a path between the two extremes of pleasure and pain that he personally experienced, first as a prince and then as an ascetic.

Siddhartha is now thirty-five. For six whole years he’s done everything he can to find the answer to suffering, but he’s hit a brick wall. He knows he’s about to die, but what’s the point? He wants to be enlightened, not to commit suicide! Then a scene from his childhood rises up in his mind. It’s spring and the ploughing season and there’s a seed planting ceremony. Siddhartha is alone under the shade of an apple tree. He’s watching his dad, the king, drive his animal over the land. Just by sitting there he enters a place where he’s perfectly at peace with life and the world around him. Siddhartha remembers how supremely happy he was at that moment and thinks to himself “Well, what’s wrong with that? This contentment has nothing to do with selfish desires.” Like an archer, he tries to figure out how he first managed to hit the bull’s eye so many years ago. This vision provides the clue. He can’t meditate properly while he’s starving. Obviously, body and mind can’t be separated. If he damages his body, he’s going to damage his mind.  Siddhartha decides to start eating again.

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