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While preparing for a lesson last week I read about the Hiei Monks of Japan. Ever since reading about them, I've been tremendously bothered and can't seem to think about much else. These men practice perhaps the world's most extreme form of religious asceticism (the most extreme that I've ever read about, anyway). There's a good general description on Wikipedia here: Kaih?gy? - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia , and a more detailed account here: Foreign Correspondent - 14/09/2004: Japan - Marathon Monks . Here's a blurb about one of the parts that's bothering me:
In the One-Thousand-Day Marathon...“the wall” is a literal confrontation with death known as doiri.....you go into a nine-day retreat...without food or water or sleep (it's been reduced from the original ten days because a few too many monks before you died during the last day). You sit in a full lotus posture and chant mantras day and night. If you live through this forbidding trial, which is designed to bring you to the very edge of your mortality and plunge you into a resplendent vision of the Ultimate, then you will have attained the title of Togyoman Ajari, or “Saintly Master of the Severe Practice.”
Hunger will be the least of your agonies. By the fifth day, you will be so dehydrated that you will taste blood. But at least you will be allowed to wash your mouth out with water, even if you can't drink it. Two devoted novices will make sure that you stay erect and awake. Your only break from the sitting position during this ordeal will be the 2 AM pilgrimage to the Holy Well. You will draw water, which you will then offer to Fudo Myo-o, the Unshakable King of All Light, a deity whose awesome energy you aspire to embody. This walk will take about fifteen minutes on the first night. On the last night, it will take you roughly an hour and a half, moving at a snail's pace across the stone floor, assisted by the novices.
Nine days without food, or water, or sleep, is just...insane. If you read about the biology of what would happen to your vital systems while undergoing such an ordeal, it seems like there could be nothing more tortuous. Why would anyone voluntarily choose to undertake this? Moreover, should we actually be commending those who would choose to do this? (As, it seems, the surrounding community in Japan does?) Or should we reject it as something hurtful?
My thinking goes like this:
1. All human life has the same value.
2. It is self-evident that to torture someone else is morally reprehensible.
3. Why should it be considered blessed to torture oneself? There is NO moral merit in causing ANYONE to suffer physically, whether that person is oneself or another.
It strikes me that, under a different set of circumstances and in a different place, what these men are doing might be labeled as anorexia nervosa. Obviously, the motives behind the two behaviors are different, but I think that in some ways they come from a similar place. In both cases there's an impulse to obtain complete and utter control over oneself, over one's own body. We look at anorexia as a condition to be healed. Are these monks to be lauded?
Seriously, read the rest of the article, if you dare. If you're anything like me, and descriptions of physical suffering bother you, then what these men do to themselves will make you .
Thank you to the SSMC makers for my beautiful siggies!