The Ascetic Twist
Many religions are ascetic, or at least have an ascetic sub-group that is considered more pious than typical believers. For example, Christian monks take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Buddhist monks take similar vows. We might think that these people have achieved a deeper understanding of the principles of the religion, and we might look to them for advice. But this is questionable.
It is a fact that many of the ancient prophets went through a period in which they isolated themselves from society and denounced the pleasures of the flesh, during which they formulated a new way of looking at things that turned out to be useful. But this does not mean that we can practice the religion in isolation, or that we might achieve a deeper appreciation of it if we try to free ourselves of worldly bonds.
As an analogy, a great inventor might lock herself in her basement for a couple of years to design a new car. But this does not mean that we can only appreciate the invention if we lock ourselves in our basements and study the design. The car was meant to be driven, and can only be fully appreciated on the open road. If it doesn't perform well, it wasn't designed well. Likewise, a religion that encourages us to disengage from society, or from worldly needs, will not perform well for the majority of people practicing it.
So why do so many people (especially Buddhists) believe that asceticism is the path to enlightenment?
First, we can discount the legitimacy of the belief in saying that most people in this world are poor, and a religion that glorifies poverty will be popular indeed. And while our compassion might make us hesitate before questioning beliefs that provide the only consolation possible to those not favored by chance, there is little other sense in which such beliefs benefit them, and it's even possible that they would be better served by beliefs that enabled them to engage more productively with the world. It has been said that 25% of the poverty in this world is not due to a lack of opportunities, but due to a lack of capitalizing on opportunities. So, comfort at what expense? If these beliefs make these people desperately poor, they need an alternative. Therefore, we believe that everyone must strive to see the world as it really is, and to avoid believing things just because they are comforting. The objective is not to leave this world, having renounced all worldly desires, but rather, to take what little we need and be satisfied with that, whereupon we are free to know God.
Second, the "practice" of ascetic ideals is not always what it appears to be. In Catholic culture, anything pleasurable is sinful, but this doesn't stop Catholics from being hedonists — it just necessitates 15 minutes in confession on Saturday before taking communion on Sunday. In other words, teaching that pleasure is sin is just the Church's way of keeping the congregation in the Church's debt. The net effect on the congregation's morality is zero, or even negative (if they think that it doesn't matter what they do, so long as they confess it).
There is actually quite a tradition in the Catholic Church of forgiving sins if one professes loyalty to the Church. In the Middle Ages, the Church even sold "indulgences." So a man could get away with coveting his neighbor's wife if he gave the Church some money. In modern times, we think of the Church as a religious institution, and wonder why anyone would think that God would forgive a sin for a little money. But back then, committing a sin and not paying the price could result in excommunication, which meant not going to heaven, but also meant not being able to do business with people still loyal to the Church. So buying an indulgence was more like paying a fine for breaking a law. This, of course, is just another variant of the gate-keeper scam, but far more blatant.
But what if we sincerely try to live a stoic life? Do we get closer to God?
In reality, an ascetic is not freed from worldly bonds, floating above it all, in an enhanced state of awareness. Rather, an ascetic ignores her needs, but this doesn't make them go away — it just hides them, where they still distort her view of the world, but in ways that she cannot recognize, because she won't admit that she has those desires, much less that they are distorting her view of reality. For example, if she has sexual desires that she refuses to acknowledge, and she is shopping for a new car, she might decide on a car just because she found the salesman to be particularly attractive. When signing the papers, she might not actually remember which car she's buying. (Such things happen.) At the end of the day, she bought the wrong car, she's still alone, and the salesman has a big laugh. Satan's work was done.
Asceticism can also lead to gluttony, which is just as bad. For example, if we are in denial about being hungry, and we continue to ignore it, we get more and more hungry. Then, if we unexpectedly get a whiff of some food, we're liable to gorge ourselves on it, even if the food is bad for us. It's healthier to acknowledge hunger, and to eat a little something on a regular basis, and to be satisfied with just a little, rather than trying to starve ourselves until we hurt ourselves with impulsiveness.
In essence, we agree the Taoist belief that asceticism is as dangerous as gluttony, and further contend that the one extreme leads to the other. Well-practiced asceticism is not the denial of desires, but the acknowledgment and satisfaction of them, without greed or gluttony.
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