UBC Theses and Dissertations
Severe asceticism in early Daoist religion Eskildsen, Stephen Edward
This dissertation is a survey and analysis of the ideal of severe asceticism conveyed in early religious Daoist texts. “Severe asceticism” in this study refers to religious practices that entail hardship, suffering and the rejection of basic human needs, along with the beliefs and attitudes that serve as justification and motivation for such practices. The period dealt with in the study is roughly the first six centuries of the common era. The study addresses three basic questions: 1) What specific severe ascetic training methods and ways of behavior were being carried out by Daoists? 2) What attitudes and beliefs served as motivation for such practices? 3) How and to what degree did the severe ascetic practices and the beliefs and attitudes dictating them evolve during the period in question? The study finds that throughout the period discussed, severe asceticism was always an important ideal for Daoists, especially for advanced adepts. The prominent severe ascetic practices included fasting, celibacy, sleep-avoidance, wilderness seclusion and selfimposed poverty. Highly uncommon and generally disapproved of were austeries which harmed and weakened the body with no purpose of ultimately strengthening it. In general, the motives for severe asceticism were (1) the strengthening and transformation of the body, (2) contact and participation in what is sacred and transcendent and (3) disdain and fear of the world and society. However, it is also discussed how during the latter part of the period examined, the emergence of new, partly Buddhist-influenced, soteriological and cosmological beliefs intensified the inherent tension between the two primary sotenological objectives, longevity and transcendence, and may have given justification to austenties which harmed the body and contradicted the archaic ideal of bodily immortality. In order to be able to analyze the phenomenon of severe asceticism in its full integrity, an approach has been taken that emphasizes comprehensiveness. This is because the phenomenon was much too widespread and diverse to be accurately assessed on the basis of one authoritative text. Thus a wide variety of sources have been utilized so that severe asceticism in early Daoist religion can be viewed to its fullest and understood properly based on a broad base of information.
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