An Indo-hellenistic Understanding of Contemplative Asceticism: Eric S Fallick

By Eric S Fallick

Among the spiritual and philosophic systems and traditions of the world, there are six Greek and Indian systems that share a common basic worldview and goal and means thereto. These are Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Orphism, Pythagoreanism, and Platonism. All these take as their basis and accept the fact of the repeated cycle of birth and death, of reincarnation, of becoming (Sanskrit: samsara, Greek: genesis).

They all consider that this cycle of endless reincarnation is misery and error and needs to be transcended and escaped from by great effort in renunciation and asceticism, that the goal is release from this becoming, and that renunciation and asceticism are indispensably and essentially the means to accomplish this. All take this path to require celibacy (brahmacharya), non-harming (ahimsa) and vegetarianism/veganism, teetotalling, voluntary monastic poverty or only minimum essential material possessions, abstinence from all worldly desires and attachments and pursuits, meditation and contemplation, and study.

Of course, there are great differences between and within these systems regarding metaphysics, specific meditation practices, the nature of the goal, what is to be studied, additional elements, etc., but all share the common perspectives and practices and underlying worldview mentioned above, which allows them to be grouped together as "Indo-hellenistic" and have a common affinity and basis for communication."

We find ourselves separated from the Absolute, the One, the Good and trapped in the cycle of repeated birth and death in individuated sensate existence in space-time, in samsara, in becoming, with all its attendant and intrinsic misery and pain. Under these circumstances, the only at all sane and joyful thing to do is to strive single-mindedly and exclusively, as much as possible, to attain release from the cycle of reincarnation, to attain moksha, and reunion with the Absolute, to re-become the One. How is this to be done? There is only one way, that of thorough renunciation of the world and exclusive devotion to asceticism and contemplation, as incomprehensible and incredible and uncongenial as this may be to the deluded worldlings of this modern kali yuga where the whole idea of true renunciation and contemplative asceticism has almost been completely lost and so few are left who really understand and are willing to follow the path.

What does this renunciation and practice entail?

There are some essential and indispensable minimum requirements. Celibacy or brahmacharya, literally and completely and in its fullest and broadest sense, is a first requirement and dividing line from the worldly life. Essential also is vegetarianism, or preferably, veganism. This includes not only not eating any animals or anything derived from animals, but also non-harming or ahimsa in all respects, including not wearing leather, not using any animal products, not killing insects and, in general, not harming or killing any sentient beings at all, human or animal, in any way as much as possible. Also necessary is complete teetotalism or abstinence from alcohol or any other intoxicants or intoxicating non-medicinal drugs of any sort. Complete honesty in one’s speech and dealings is, of course, necessary, as contrary as it actually runs to the ways of the world. One also should not earn one’s living or gain necessary worldly survival items by any means that harm other beings physically, morally, or spiritually. Being completely devoted to spiritual practice, one should avoid attending worldly entertainment, watching television, movies, and the like. One should also avoid attending worldly social events, engaging in idle worldly talk, and so on, as much as possible in one’s individual circumstances.

In general, the principle is to be totally and exclusively devoted to and engaged in spiritual practice and study, beyond what is minimally necessary to maintain this psycho-physical existence until we can be rid of it in final liberation, and to avoid all worldly things, activities, and engagements. The individual needs to work out the exact details of what to do in each situation and in their own particular circumstances with understanding, sincerity, and discernment and in accordance with the essential principle of renunciation and the desire to be solely devoted to attaining release and reunion. An extensive or exhaustive list of individual detailed rules is unnecessary and ineffective and only leads to legalism and self-deception and obsessive-compulsiveness.
Established and continually further establishing oneself in full renunciation as the practice progresses, doing the best one can and always working for the renunciant ideal in accordance with the necessities of one’s circumstances and minimum psycho-physical survival, study and meditative reading are also important and valuable parts of the path. As a Platonist, I, of course, consider the Dialogues of Plato and the Enneads of Plotinus — and, allegorically understood, the Odyssey of Homer—as the principal texts for reading and study, but much can also be learned from the different texts of different systems.
In general, I think that wide study and working knowledge of the different ascetic, renunciant, monastic, contemplative, and mystical spiritual systems of the world is quite helpful and useful, especially in the circumstances of the present time. Practitioners of other contemplative ascetic systems will naturally take the texts of their own system as their basic and most essential reading, but will, hopefully, supplement that with some reading in other systems as seems appropriate. To be able to read the essential texts of one’s own system in their original language, though a non-trivial endeavour to say the least, is also helpful as translations cannot be relied upon and are always missing something.

With renunciation and knowledge, one can devote oneself to the actual practice of formal sitting in contemplation. This is the central practice and focus of the contemplative ascetic and the core and thrust of the effort towards the Absolute and getting out of samsara and is how the contemplative ascetic spends the greater part of one’s time apart from all the necessary activities for psycho-physical survival. As a Platonist, I, of course, practise and counsel Platonist contemplation practice, and have described this in detail elsewhere, but the practitioners of other systems will, of course, practise contemplation or meditation according to their own systems. It is important that they have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the practice of contemplation in their own systems and of their own texts on contemplation. All the details of and an extensive description of or detailed instructions for the actual contemplation or meditation practice, for the sadhana or yoga per se, can’t be gone into here, but it is important that the practitioner be quite knowledgeable and discerning about the contemplative practice of one’s system.

Hopefully, a reasonably clear picture has been given of the proper renunciant and contemplative ascetic life and what it entails. It is the life that is engaged with and involved with the world and worldly activities of any and every sort only to the minimum extent absolutely necessary to maintain the psycho-physical organism—and that always done only strictly in accord with the principles of morality, honesty, and non-harming — and totally and solely and sincerely devoted exclusively in intention and concern and, as much as possible, in deed to spiritual, ascetic, and contemplative practice to attain liberation from becoming and re-union with the Absolute.

Something, however, more may be said about its practical implementation in the circumstances of the present day. People, as another symptom of samsara and the delusion associated with it, tend to see renunciation and contemplative asceticism in terms of institutions, institutionalised monasticism, rituals, initiations, titles, uniforms, merit badges, and the like. This is, of course, particularly and obviously and necessarily the case in terms of organised coenobitical monasticism. Eremitical monasticism has always tended less in this direction, has usually been the original less structured form from which coenobitical monasticism has eventually evolved and has often later even been associated with a rejection of institutionalised forms and an attempt to return to original ideals, but the same tendencies tend to come in people’s perceptions here also.

In the atomised, anonymous, urban, modern world, if one has sufficient devotion, determination, resolve, sincerity, understanding and discernment, it is possible to practise devotedly and fully as an eremitical renunciant and contemplative ascetic alone and incognito and without support in the midst of a city.

In traditional societies, there has usually been at least some sort of niche or place and respect for renunciants and eremitical renunciants, but this is largely gone in the modern world. Platonism, while being one of the purest, most austere, most rigorous, and most otherworldly of renunciant and ascetic systems, has never had an institutionalised monastic structure and has never become an institutionalised religion for the many. Thus, each Platonist contemplative ascetic and renunciant has always had to work out the particular and practical circumstances and logistical arrangements of one’s eremitical renunciant contemplative ascetic life and practice on one’s own, or with whatever few fellow travellers one might in some cases be fortunate enough to find, on a sort of ad hoc basis, following and in strict adherence to the renunciant principles such as outlined above with care and discernment relying on one’s own developed understanding in one’s particular time and place and circumstances. One has often or generally had to do this without any of the financial, material, logistical, moral, social, psychological, or emotional support or props of the monastic institutions, coenobitical or eremitical, and institutionalised systems. Thus, this may provide a particularly apt model for implementing eremitical contemplative asceticism and renunciation in the adverse and unsupported time, place, and circumstances of the present day.

In the atomised, anonymous, urban, modern world, if one has sufficient devotion, determination, resolve, sincerity, understanding and discernment, it is possible to practise devotedly and fully as an eremitical renunciant and contemplative ascetic alone and incognito and without support in the midst of a city. One can try to find a job or work of right livelihood to just earn the necessary minimum subsistence level income with a minimum of distraction. One can try to find simple minimum housing to rent even if it means sharing with worldlings while not doing anything they do and living only one’s contemplative renunciant life. One can obtain and prepare simple food in a manner requiring a minimum amount of time and attention, considering only maintenance of the body and health, not taste. One can be purely celibate or maintain brahmacharya surrounded by pornographic and sex-obsessed society and culture. One can be vegan and non-harming surrounded by interspecies cannibals and killers. One can be a teetotaller with drinkers, smokers, and so forth all around. One can abstain completely from entertainment, including the ubiquitous electronic entertainment among those, who know little else.
And so forth—one can be solely concerned with transcending this world and with the higher supra-sensory realities among worldlings, who know nothing beyond the senses and the fleeting phantoms of this world. It is, of course, very difficult to do this, especially without any kind of support at all and especially in the procrustean modern society that has no place or respect for renunciants and presents all sorts of obstacles and difficulties to and discrimination against any who don’t fit into the norms of society. It presents all sorts of logistical headaches and great emotional and psychological hardship and loneliness— as the true renunciant life always does— but it is, at present, perhaps the most feasible and spiritually effective and viable option for pursuing the true wholly dedicated contemplative ascetic way and release from becoming, and this is all that really matters.

As an Ancient Greek saying goes, ‘noble and beautiful things are difficult’. Again, the principle, whatever the particular details of practical implementation for a given individual in a given time and place, is to totally renounce this world and the things of the senses as much as possible outwardly and inwardly in all respects and solely and exclusively as much as possible devote oneself in every way, in intention, desire and deed, to striving for reunion with the Absolute and release from samsara. One must turn both the love and eye of the soul completely around from this world of the senses and becoming to the One or the Good and bring all one’s life and actions and attitudes around in accord with this to the exact opposite of that of the worldlings and the world around one. This must be done even while all the time attending to the burdensome necessities of maintaining the psycho-physical organism until we can be rid of it and even if one is without any support at all— financial, physical, logistical, moral, spiritual, emotional, social, institutional, or psychological— in the quest. There simply is no other possible way to go and the thought of just wallowing in samsara in this and future births like all the worldlings around one cannot be entertained even for an instant.