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Verse 25-2: Ascetic practices

Verse 25-2: Ascetic practices

Part of a series of talks on the 41 Prayers to Cultivate Bodhicitta from the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Ornament Sutra).

  • The ascetic practices allowed by the Buddha
  • How restraining the body and senses can be helpful
  • The purpose of the practices

41 Prayers to cultivate bodhicitta: Verse 25-2 (download)

The other day we were talking about Verse 25,

“May all beings be endowed with the twelve ascetic virtues.”
This is the prayer of the bodhisattva when seeing someone without ornaments.

I thought I would go through the 12 ascetic virtues. These were twelve ascetic practices that the Buddha allowed monastics to do. He didn’t require it, he just allowed it, because he didn’t believe that people should hate their body or be cruel to their body in any way. But he did realize that for some people certain ways of restraining the body and restraining the senses was very, very helpful to their practice. He allowed these. Mahakyatsapa was one of the Buddha’s disciples who was doing 12 ascetic virtues.

There are four that have to do with shelter, two that have to do with your bed, three with food, and three with clothes.


In terms of shelter he allowed a monastic to live in a secluded place, not in a populated place with a lot of people. Not in town with all the distractions. To live being with trees, not in a building but outside. This, by the way, was in ancient India were it is warm, not here where it is snowing. To live beneath trees. To live in graveyards, because if you lived in a cemetery or charnel ground it really helped your practice. You had a very clear awareness of death. Sometimes people would be quite frightened by the corpses—they saw spirit’s in the area. That was seen as a way to really inspire samadhi practice because it was a way to deal with the fear.

They were secluded either beneath trees, in a charnel ground, or in the place with no roof. Just out in the open, exposed to the elements. Clearly this was in a different society. Now if you did this they might arrest you for vagrancy. But it is nice on our land. I guess you could sleep outside and do it like that.


In terms of the mattresses, one is to sleep sitting up—cross-legged—instead of lying down. You see some meditators now doing that, especially when they are doing long retreat. In a little meditation box and they just sit there and sleep sitting up. The other one is just sleep having grass as your mattress instead of some kind of comfortable soft thing that we can easily get attached to. Just sleeping on grass.


In terms of food, the ascetic practice is eating alms. Some people say that the monastics are begging. That’s not correct. When you’re begging, you’re asking people for food. As a monastic you don’t ask. When you go on alms round you have your bowl, your eyes are down, you stand in front of a house. If people see you and they want to make offerings, they will come out and give food and then you go on to the next house and stand there. If they want to give something then they come out and put it in your bowl. But you don’t ask. It’s not begging. It’s on alms. And when you’re on alms you don’t hang out and chat with the person and say, “Oh, thank you very much! And what’s in this? Oh, you make my favorite dish. I’ll come back for alms again tomorrow. You have such a lovely house.” You don’t do that kind of thing. You are very mindful and aware and feeling gratitude, making prayers for the benefactor, but not chatting.

Eating on alms and eating alms means that you’re content with what is giving to you. Here we do it in the sense that people offer food to the Abbey. We don’t go out and buy food. If you are on alms round, if people don’t give you food you don’t eat. If they don’t give you what you like then you have a choice, either you eat what you don’t like or you don’t eat. It’s kind of like this in here. If people don’t give, then that’s it. People here cook and that’s what’s served at that meal, and if it’s not what you like then you either eat or don’t eat it. It depends on you.

It’s a practice in developing non-attachment to food. Because we like to eat what we want to eat, when we want to eat it, cooked in the way we like to cook it. We like to piddle in the kitchen and if we don’t have the ingredient we want, we go out to the store and buy it. This cuts out all that kind of stuff.

Another one regarding food is to eat only one meal a day, rather than two meals as allowed in monastic life—breakfast and lunch—or three meals as lay people do. They are eating only one meal in the day and together with that is standing for alms only at three doors—at three households—and whatever you get at those three households is what you eat. You don’t keep on going until your alms bowl is full, as full as you want it. You just accept what you get in three households.

The third ascetic practice regarding food is that what you receive, the first time you ask for alms is sufficient. You don’t go again on another alms round later on. The way they practice this in Thailand is what you get on your alms round is sufficient and if anybody brings food to the monastery you don’t accept that. It’s a way again of limiting what you eat, developing contentment, accepting with gratitude and grace what people offer. Those three are regarding food.


There are three regarding clothes. They are to first wear rags—in other words, wear clothes that have been used by others for over four months. Not clothes that somebody has worn once and given away, but have been used for a while, or clothes that have been discarded. For example, often the monastics would get the cloth that they made their robes from from the charnel ground because the bodies which were thrown in, they were covered in cloth, then that cloth was taken. And you use the cloth that was found by the way side that was discarded. You would take that and then sew that up and make your robes.

The idea here is to be content with whatever clothes we have. We don’t need to get new robes every year, or new sweaters every year. You start this when you take the anagarika vows, when you are wearing gray. You go in to the closet and there are a lot of gray clothes. You just take what other people who have been anagarikas before you wore and you’re content with that. Now also we have robes that people have given us. Some are new, some are used. When you ordain, or when an ordained person needs new robes, then you go and you take from that pile instead of going, “I want this and that and the other thing. I want to make it like this. I will pick the cloth that is beautiful and I want it really smooth and so on.” This develops contentment with the clothes that we wear.

The second one regarding clothes is to wear only three robes. We have our three robes that we have as a monastic, five robes for bhikshunis. The three for the monastics are shemdap, the primary robes; the chugu, the yellow robe that you have as a sramanera/sramanerika; and the namjar, the yellow robe with many many patches that you have as a fully ordained person. Those sometimes can double as your blankets. Remember this was not your shemdok, but the other two were because in ancient India when you were walking because you didn’t have a permanent residence, then you had your two robes and they could cover you and protect you from mosquitoes and bugs and so on.

The third one regarding clothes is to wear only felt cloth. I’m not sure here if “felt” means actually what we mean by felt today, or if it just means some kind of rough cloth. In other words not the nice, smooth cloth. Remember India is famous for silks and beautiful cloths and this might be just to wear a very simple kind of cloth.

The purpose of the practices

Those were the practices that the Buddha allowed monastics to do and encouraged people who had a lot of attachment to do them. Nowadays, again, it’s up to us. We need to follow the laws of the country and not be vagrants. We also need to take care of our health. When I was living at Kopan, we lived in this one old building. It was a brick building, so the floor was bricks. It was pretty cold and we had grass mats for a while and then we got upgraded. We got small foam mats. We were sleeping on those. Lama Yeshe used to come and check out our rooms to see what stuff we had in them and I remember that there was this one monk who was just sleeping on the one grass mat on the cold brick and Lama scolded him. He said, “You are on some kind of Milarepa trip. The thin little mattress is no big deal, it’s not luxurious, you should have one because otherwise, you’re going to get sick. When you sleep on the cold floor it effects your internal organs and then it is easy to fall ill and then it is difficult to practice the Dharma, or more challenging, not necessary difficult but more challenging.”

The idea behind the ascetic practices is to remember that we are training our mind against attachment, because we see attachment, and craving, and clinging as the enemies that destroy our happiness. It really hits home a lot, especially when you come to live in a monastery. You are already giving up a lot of things and that’s why the kitchen becomes really the center of attention. You start training your mind there. The schedule becomes the center of the attention because having already given things up, sometimes very small things can become very big things in your mind. You have given up television, and meat, and drugs, and your car, and you really feel like you have gone cold turkey already. So the schedule become important, or the food becomes very important, or something else comes in there.

It’s just a reminder to us to tame our mind in reducing attachment, but without going to some kind of extreme of torturing the body, or hating the body, because that’s not good.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.