Emaciated Buddha figure, Spirit Rock
The ascetic Buddha
Back at the end of July, I was an assistant teacher on a nine-day retreat at Spirit Rock, together with a friend and fellow teacher-trainee, DaRa Williams. One day, as we walked from the teacher housing to the meditation hall, I happened to notice a solitary Buddha figure set among some bushes on the hillside behind our cottages. Unlike the other Buddhas at Spirit Rock, this one was tucked almost out of view. There was no path to it, no clearing around it, and no place to sit nearby, but perhaps because of that, I felt compelled to go and take a closer look.
So I scrambled up a slight hill through the dry grass and discovered that the figure was what’s known as an “ascetic Buddha.” These images depict a phase in the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, before his Awakening, when he was practising extreme austerities such as sleeping on beds of nails, and eating very little food – hence the skeletal look in the image above.
Such practices were common in India at that time, and there are graphic descriptions in the suttas of how intensely Siddhārtha Gautama took them on. For example, here’s one passage from the Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka (MN36), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
“I thought: ‘Suppose I were to take only a little food at a time, only a handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup.’ So I took only a little food at a time, only a handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup. My body became extremely emaciated. Simply from my eating so little, my limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo stems… My backside became like a camel’s hoof… My spine stood out like a string of beads… My ribs jutted out like the jutting rafters of an old, run-down barn… The gleam of my eyes appeared to be sunk deep in my eye sockets like the gleam of water deep in a well… My scalp shriveled & withered like a green bitter gourd, shriveled & withered in the heat & the wind… The skin of my belly became so stuck to my spine that when I thought of touching my belly, I grabbed hold of my spine as well; and when I thought of touching my spine, I grabbed hold of the skin of my belly as well… If I urinated or defecated, I fell over on my face right there… Simply from my eating so little, if I tried to ease my body by rubbing my limbs with my hands, the hair — rotted at its roots — fell from my body as I rubbed, simply from eating so little.”
The sculpture at Spirit Rock in the photograph above, is a depiction of the results of such ascetic practices. And it’s possible that like me, you might read these descriptions and look at these images and feel a sense of recoil, a turning away from the obvious suffering that’s being depicted. It’s perhaps no coincidence then, that this figure at Spirit Rock is tucked away out of sight, and feels slightly neglected compared to the many other Buddha figures around the landscape there. We instinctively try to avoid suffering as much as possible, and to be reminded so graphically that suffering is an unavoidable aspect of life can be disconcerting.
Until recently, I’d tried to make sense of this phase of Siddhārtha Gautama‘s life as an example of how far he was willing to go in order to free himself from dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, stress, distress, suffering). And I’d always felt a bit daunted by the extreme lengths that he went to, even though he did eventually renounce asceticism in favour of the “Middle Way” between extremes of self-mortification, on one hand, and self-indulgence, on the other.
The wisdom to understand suffering, and the compassion to alleviate it
A few days ago though, I read an interview that DaRa gave to the Spirit Rock newsletter, discussing the important role compassion plays in awakening, or freedom. A few lines from her article really jumped out at me:
” … one of the ways to know suffering in someone else is to know it yourself — to be aware of what that feels like, tastes like, smells like, looks like, sounds like. And so self-compassion actually can act as a bridge between understanding compassion, having compassion, generating compassion, and offering compassion to others. In the domain of taking care of yourself, if you are opening to the experience of knowing the suffering of others and you’re not taking care of yourself, you will harm yourself. So it’s like a protective state.” 1
After reading DaRa’s article, I wondered if perhaps Siddhārtha Gautama‘s ascetic phase was also a way of becoming deeply intimate with his own capacity to suffer, so that he could fully open to that same suffering in others. And significantly, in that process, he eventually recognised the need to take care of himself so that he could better take care of others, just as DaRa points out.
The Buddha’s Awakening
According to the legend, it’s said that Siddhārtha Gautama was at the point of death before he realised that his extreme austerity practices hadn’t got him anywhere. Fortunately for him and for us, as he lay half-dead on a river bank somewhere near Bodhgaya, a young woman found him in that woeful state and was moved to offer him a bowl of rice pudding or porridge.
I like to think that her act of compassion inspired the Buddha-to-be to practice compassion towards himself, because he accepted the woman’s food and started to eat normally again. Soon after that gift, it’s said that he regained his health, sat down under the Bodhi tree and attained full Awakening or Nibbana.
Stone Buddha figure with light beam, Spirit Rock
So right in the story of the Buddha’s own life, we can understand that wisdom and compassion are inseparable aspects of the spiritual path, the path that leads to the deepest freedom of heart and mind. And as DaRa goes on to say, what compassion brings to awakening is:
“Connection to self and connection to others. In our tradition, what has been cultivated in terms of the heart — and I think it’s changing a little bit — is metta (loving-kindness). We do metta, we learn metta, we teach metta, we live through metta. But the piece that elevates metta to the terrain of connection with each other, the universe, nature, so that we are not separate from any of it, is compassion.” 1
How to practice self-compassion
Again, there is the need to connect to our own suffering as well as others, for this compassion to be fully transformative. But most people I know – including myself at times – really struggle to develop self-compassion, then judge themselves for this perceived weakness, thus moving even further away from compassion!
For me, the starting point has been first, to try to develop compassion towards this non-compassion; then proceed from there by very gently beginning to open towards whatever is difficult and painful in “homeopathic” doses, so that we don’t overwhelm our own capacity to be with suffering.
Just that first stage of simply acknowledging that there IS some kind of distress can be very freeing. So the compassion phrases I like to use begin with the invitation to recognise suffering or pain, whether that pain is physical, emotional, or mental:
I am aware of this pain
I care about this pain
May this pain release
May I know peace
For more on cultivating compassion, here’s a short talk and guided meditation from one of my recent retreats:
And here’s the link to the full text of the interview with DaRa: