SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE . Throughout history, religious traditions have noted that those people who long for a transformative or complete understanding of themselves and of their place in the world must somehow find a teacher or set of teachings to help them along. That guide may be a person, an idea, or a set of values; whatever it is, it establishes the orientation and outlines the procedures the seekers should follow in order to make real the transformation for which they hope. Many traditions further maintain that, having found (or having hoped eventually to find) that guide, the seeker then must practice various regimens that will help him continue along the way to ultimate transformation. Such endeavors constitute spiritual discipline, the means by which people find their fullest potential in the context of any particular religious ideology.
The practice of spiritual discipline marks the notion that one who is in search of the guide is not only a human being but also a human "becoming," one on his or her way toward an ideal. Images of such discipline, therefore, often include themes of movement or passage. Mahāyāna Buddhists describe the spiritual endeavor as bodhicaryāvatāra, "entering the path to enlightenment"; Jewish traditions speak of religious norms as halakhah, "the way to go"; and traditional Hindu literatures outline the three sacred "paths," marga, of proper action, proper meditation, and proper devotion. Not infrequently, religious systems refer to the sacred cosmos as a whole with terms meaning "the Way," like the Chinese dao.
The perfection such a person seeks may take a number of forms, each reflecting the fundamental worldview presented by the pertinent religious system. It may be the fulfillment of being or the return to nonbeing; it may be personal or impersonal; it may be the enjoyment of the good life or the release of the good death. Whatever the goal, spiritual disciplines claim to offer their adherents the means by which the religious ideal may be reached.
Without discipline, the seeker founders. The Ṣūfī mystic Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī spoke perhaps for many religious traditions besides his own when he noted that "whoever travels without a guide needs two hundred years for a two day's journey."
Connotations of the Term
The word discipline is a particularly apt one. To some people it rings of punishment, which in some cases is the point. But this certainly is not the primary meaning of the term, which carries a good number of connotations. The scope of its etymological cousins shows the broad applications the term can have in the study and practice of religion.
The word discipline may be derived through one of two ways, or, more likely, in a semantic combination of the two ways. It may come from the Latin discere, "to learn," and thus be directly related to the English word disciple, "one who follows the instructions of a teacher." Discere itself reflects the Indo-European root *dek- ("take, accept"), which also appears in the English decent, docent, docile, dogma, and dogmatic; doctrine, doctor ("one who teaches doctrine"), and thus indoctrinate ; as well as dignity, "to be acceptable," and decorous, "elegant, worthy of respect, graceful."
Perhaps the word comes from the Latin disciplus, "pupil," from discapere, "to grasp," in the sense of "to take hold of mentally" and thus "to understand." If so, then the word discipline derives primarily from the Indo-European *kap - ("grab hold of") and is related to such words as the English captivate, capture, and captive; accept, precept, concept ; and participate. Often that sense of reception (a related word) is described as a safe and protected experience, as would be the sense of the Germanic derivative of the root *kap-, *hafno, appearing in the Old English haefen, which leads in turn to the modern English haven, "place of refuge."
To be disciplined, then, is to be caught up by the teachings of a guide—whether that guide be a person, an ethic, a community, a historical tradition, or a set of ideas—and to organize one's behavior and attitude according to those teachings. The person who undertakes such discipline may be understood, then, to be a disciple of that which is felt to be true, a captive of that which is valuable. Religious traditions do not tend to view this as "punishment." Rather, they generally stress the notion that this very captivity allows one to become who he or she really is, or really could be. As Zen Buddhists have long noted, one is most free when one is most disciplined.
Types of Spiritual Discipline
Just what kind of teacher the student follows and what type of relationship exists between the two varies from tradition to tradition and within each tradition itself, so any typological classification of spiritual disciplines runs the risk of oversimplification. Classed very generally, however, the different kinds of spiritual discipline may be understood as heteronomous, autonomous, or interactive in nature. (Within these types one can discern various modes of discipline, to which this article shall return.) These three should be understood as ideal types only: Analysis of different examples of actual spiritual endeavors will show that individual disciples and specific traditions practice a combination of all three.
In heteronomous discipline, the disciple submits in his or her search for realization, completion, or genuine understanding to the guidelines presented by an external authority. While this authority may be personal or impersonal in nature, the structure of the relationship between guide and disciple is often represented as objective and depicted in oppositional images: creator/creature; lord/subject; teacher/apprentice; parent/child; shepherd/sheep; wise one/foolish one; judge/judged. In obeying the commands or by imitating the paradigmatic actions of the central authority, the seeker finds the way to fulfillment and meaning.
One sees the ideals of heteronomous discipline in any account of a disciple who serves a master: the Chan Buddhist who sweeps the floor and washes the pots for his teacher; the American Indian who follows the instructions discerned in the tones of a coyote's call; the orthodox Hindu who obeys the social regulations prescribed by the Dharmaśāstras. Heteronomy is found in those cases where people find meaning and validity in their actions as defined by an external authority of some kind.
Sometimes the teacher is so distant, either in time or in space, that the disciple first must learn from a fellow, but wiser, seeker who knows the teachings if not the teacher and who, having traveled it, can illumine the difficult passage from one mode of being and understanding to another. Such is the case, for example, in the Jewish figure of the rabbi, the Christian pater spiritualis, the Buddhist arhat and bodhisattva, the Chinese sage, and the Siberian shaman—although the particular ideologies in which each of these figures present their teachings vary immensely.
A good example of heteronomous discipline appears in Islamic spiritual traditions. Muslims repeatedly hear in the Qurʾān the notion that a person's sole purpose in life is to serve the will of God (Allāh) by cultivating his or her potential in accordance with God's "command" (amr ). This submission (islām ) to God is the purpose for which God sends through prophets and revealed literatures the divine "guidance" (hidāyah ). The central revelation, the Qurʾān, describes itself as an invitation to come to the right path (hudan li-al-nās ) and is the source of the Islamic sacred law (sharīʿah, literally "the way to the water hole," an appropriate image for spiritual travelers in a desert region). Islamic tradition notes that examples of such guiding laws include what is known as farḍ or wājib —those duties and actions all Muslims must obey, such as daily prayer (ṣalāt ), almsgiving (zakāt ), and fasting during the holy month of Ramaḍān (ṣawm ).
The paradigmatic disciple in this case is the prophet Muḥammad, who is said to have heard the sacred instructions from divine teachers and then to have obeyed the order to recite (qurʾān ) those teachings to the community. Tradition holds that Muḥammad first received these lessons one night during Ramaḍān when he was visited by the angel Gabriel. After cleansing Muḥammad's body and spirit, Gabriel swept him up into the air, carrying him first to the sacred shrine at Mecca and then upward through the seven heavens to the throne of God. There, surrounded by mystic light, the Prophet received divine instructions on proper religious action, specifically the practice of the five daily prayers (ṣalāt ), in which the Muslim is to cleanse himself and touch his forehead to the ground as he bows toward Mecca in the early morning, at noon, in midafternoon, at sunset, and in the evening. According to traditional stories, Muḥammad then returned from the heavens and shared those instructions with the human community on earth. "The key to paradise is ṣalāt," Muḥammad is reported to have said; and the practice of the daily purification and prayer remains today one of the Five Pillars of Islamic faith. The four remaining pillars are shahādah (the profession of faith), zakāt (care for the unfortunate through almsgiving), ṣawm (fasting during the month of Ramaḍān), and ḥajj (pilgrimage to the Kaʿbah in Mecca).
According to Islamic mystical traditions, primarily those influenced by Ṣūfī ideologies and practices, a person intent on gaining a direct experience of God's presence and power first seeks out a teacher (Arab., shaykh ; Pers., pīr ) who guides the disciple (Arab., murīd, "one who wishes to enter [the path]") through the stages of the spiritual journey. The teacher then watches over the murīd carefully, for the path (ṭarīqah ) is a long and difficult one. The master comes to know the disciple at the most intimate of levels. The master reads the student's mind and sees into the student's dreams in order to advise as the disciple moves through the anxiety and doubt inherent in the religious transformation. The master may make the murīd practice ascetic meditation for periods of forty days at a time and demand that the pupil direct all of his attention to God; or the master may require the student to live in a community of fellow seekers in order to benefit from the support a group can give. The master is careful to keep the disciple attentive to his or her spiritual duties as the disciple progresses through the "stations" (sg., maqām ) on the path: repentance (tawbah ), abstinence (waraʿ), renunciation (zuhd), fasting (ṣawm), surrender to God (tawakkul), poverty (faqr), patience (ṣabr), gratitude (shukr), the cultivation of ecstatic joy (basṭ) through constraint of the ego (qabḍ), and—finally—love (maḥabbah) and mystic annihilation (maʿrifah) into the being of God. Bringing the student through these stages, the Ṣūfī master shows the way to fanāʾ, in which the seeker disposes of all human imperfections and takes on the qualities of the divine.
The typological opposite of heteronomous discipline is characterized by ideologies in which the guide is said not to live or exist somewhere outside of the seeker but, rather, to inhabit the very depths of one's personal being. There, deep within the heart, the teacher rests timelessly beneath the swirling currents of the seeker's confused identity, unaffected by the vagaries of the objective world. The adept's task is to discover that inner wisdom. The discipline that arises from this notion of the guide may be called autonomous in nature because the aspirant's spiritual endeavors are self-contained and independent of external authority.
A good example of autonomous discipline would be the set of practices and assumptions reflected in the stories of Siddhartha Gautama's enlightenment and subsequent life as the Buddha. According to traditional accounts, the prince led a comfortable and secure life in his father's palace until, as a young man, he was shocked and utterly disillusioned with the passing enjoyments of the material world by the sight outside the royal walls of an old person, a sick person, and a corpse, sights that his father's protection had hitherto prevented him from seeing. After encountering a wandering ascetic who seemed to have attained a certain equanimity in the world of sickness and death, Gautama at age twenty-nine left his father's palace in search of a teacher who could help him understand the nature of life. He is said to have found successively two highly respected masters, but eventually left each one, unsatisfied, because he had become their equal in wisdom and yet still did not understand. He despaired of any teachings from another person, because even the most knowledgeable people did not know the full truth.
Traditional accounts say that Gautama then went alone into the forest, where he found a quiet place to fast and to control his breathing in order to enter into a trance in which he could gain transcendent knowledge. Eventually abandoning even some of these techniques because they led to what he experienced as a debilitating and therefore counterproductive physical weakness, he developed his own kind of meditation, which was neither austere nor self-indulgent. While meditating in this "middle way," he was confronted by demonic forces who tempted him, unsuccessfully, with worldly power and prestige.
Gautama is said to have entered into four successive levels of meditation (Pali, jhāna ), each one giving him deeper awareness of the origins and nature of suffering. Finally, at the dawn ending the night of the full moon, he gained complete understanding and stood up, alone. At that point he became the Buddha, the Enlightened One. He understood what have come to be known as the Four Noble Truths: (1) that all conditioned existence is permeated by suffering; (2) that there is a cause of suffering (namely, desire); (3) that there is a way to end suffering (namely, to cease desiring); and (4) that the way to cease desiring is to follow a set of principles that became known as the Noble Eightfold Path.
Traditional Buddhist hagiographies and commentaries note that one follows that path by maintaining and practicing the following disciplines: correct views (sammā-diṭṭhi) to see things as they really are rather than as one wishes them to be; correct thoughts (sammā-sankappa ), directed only to the goal of enlightenment; correct speech (sammā-vācā), in which one does not say anything that would harm his or other people's integrity; correct action (sammā-kammanta ), in which one refuses to kill another creature, take what is not given, or enjoy illicit sexual relations; correct livelihood (sammā-ājīva ), to earn a living only by ways in which living beings are not injured; correct exertion (sammā-vāyāma ), characterized by dispassion and benevolence; correct mindfulness (sammā-sati), the remembrance of the Four Noble Truths; and correct meditative concentration (sammā-samādhi), which allows one to understand the harmful nature of selfish desire. The Eightfold Path thus combines the practice of proper wisdom (namely, correct views and thoughts), morality (correct speech, action, and livelihood), and meditation (correct mindfulness and concentration).
Buddhist tradition firmly maintains that the Buddha gained this insight by himself. Records of the Buddha's first discourse after his enlightenment note that he told his followers, "No one in any of the worlds—neither the gods, nor Māra, nor Brahmā, nor ascetics or priests or gods or human beings—had ever gained this highest complete enlightenment. I [alone] knew this. Knowledge arose in me, insight that even my mind cannot shake." No teacher is said to have given this insight to the Buddha; the implicit lesson here is that other people, too, can gain such knowledge if they cultivate autonomous discipline. Gautama himself seems to have resisted the role of a master. One text records his encouragement to others that "as wise people test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so are you also to accept my teachings only after examining them and not simply out of loyalty to me" (Jñānasāra-samuccaya 31).
In another form of discipline, the teacher is neither completely external nor completely internal to the seeker. Rather, teaching and learning occur in a continuing and flexive process. The discipline needed here centers on a dialectical way of seeing or knowing that in itself brings the seeker to the desired transformation. Outside authority exists in the form of tradition, ethos, or structures of the natural world; but that authority is affected in various degrees by the hopes, worldviews, and training of the disciple. Similarly, internal authority holds sway, but it is defined and given form by external structures. Interactive discipline centers on practices that arise in an open-ended or multivalent relationship between the seeker and what he seeks.
Representative examples of interactive discipline might best come from the aesthetic arena. One thinks of a New England Shaker crafting a perfectly simple wooden chair; a sitār player quietly practicing a morning rāga in the Indian dawn; an Italian sculptor lovingly fashioning an image of the Virgin Mother out of a piece of marble. In such cases the disciple undergoes experiences in which the ideal is made real through his or her own creative power, but that ideal itself determines the form in which the disciple can make it real. Not only is there disciplined action; there is also a cultivated interaction between the disciple and the discipline itself.
At times the artist seems to be the effective agent in the creative process who brings his or her work to fruition through bold assertion. "This is not the moment for hesitation and doubt," Vincent van Gogh wrote of the creative process, "the hand may not tremble, nor may the eye wander, but must remain fixed on what is before one." Yet, no matter how subjective or personal this creative discipline may be, it frequently is described almost paradoxically as a participation in an impersonal event that transcends the idiosyncracies of the artist. "Everything vanishes around me," Paul Klee once noted to himself, "and works are born out of the void.… My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will." The artist cultivates a vision and undertakes a discipline in which the objective and subjective worlds converge and yet remain distinct.
Interactive discipline thus involves a kind of "attentive selflessness." Or perhaps it would be better to say that it centers on an "attentive wholeness"—for one who perfects this type of discipline is said to experience himself or herself as a creative and vital participant in the larger scope of life itself. Techniques of interactive discipline are different from those of heteronomous and autonomous discipline in that the former do not revolve around conceptual knowledge. The master is both external and internal, and neither external nor internal, to the disciple.
Interactive experience, like the artistic experience, centers on what the Japanese call myō, the wondrous mystery and rhythmic flow of life. One who disciplines himself or herself toward this experience seeks to know eternal truths within the mysteries of the constantly changing world. Such discipline is exemplified, to choose one of any number of possibilities, in the Japanese haiku tradition, in which poets compose short verses in moments of sublime understanding of the world. These poems reveal the unmediated nature of the world as it exists objectively but also the fond and attentive regard the poet holds for that world. Bashō (1643–1694) is said to have set the haiku tradition with this verse, translated by D. T. Suzuki:
|Furu ike ya!||The old pond, ah!|
|Kawazu tobikomu,||A frog jumps in:|
|Mizu no oto.||The water's sound!|
Quite typically, the images presented in haiku come from the ordinary world, but the terseness with which they are described comes from the poet's discerning vision of that world as an entirely remarkable place. The poet Buson (1716–1783) once exclaimed:
|Tsuri-gane ni||On the temple bell|
|Tomarite nemuru||Perching, sleeps|
|Kocho kana.||The butterfly, oh!|
If perfected, such interactive awareness of the world is said to lead to satori (enlightenment), which finds its meaning in one's everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, and moving one's body. The meaning that satori illumines in these activities does not come from outside; it is in the event itself. It is beingness, or life itself. Better still, it is the "is-as-it-isness" of something, the quality that in Japanese is known as kono-mama or sono-mama. It is this discipline of "seeing the isness" of the world that led the haiku poet Jōsō (1661–1704) to find transformative appreciation in the following image:
|Mizu soko no||Under the water,|
|Iwa ni ochitsuku||On the rock resting,|
|Kono ha kana.||The fallen leaves.|
Or Bashō, in a moment's notice of
|Nomi shirami,||Fleas, lice,|
|Uma no nyo suru||The horse pissing|
|Makuramoto.||Near my pillow.|
The freedom to experience the world as it arises from such cognitive or perceptual discipline occurs only when the poet's mind is in perfect harmony with the rhythms of life itself. "Wonder of wonders!" Hō Koji exclaimed in an eighth-century verse, "I carry firewood, I draw water!"
There are no heteronomous or autonomous authorities in this type of discipline, for to distinguish between object and subject is to bifurcate the essential unity of being. Interactional discipline takes a person beyond all dualities, including the duality of "self" and "other" or "disciple" and "master." Interactive discipline in the haiku tradition eventually frees the disciple from the need for a teacher. Such discipline recognizes that the guide, the way, and the wayfarer are one.
Modes of Spiritual Discipline
The three types of spiritual discipline just outlined should not be understood as mutually exclusive. Despite the autonomous ideals reflected in his early discourses, for example, even Gautama's followers directed their lives according to the instructions given them by their master and subsequently codified in the Vinaya Pitaka, a canonical collection of community rules and regulations established by the Buddha and his immediate followers. Conversely, even the Ṣūfī mystic who advances through the stages of the path under the heteronomous guidance of a shaykh finally experiences fanāʾ, the annihilation of ego-consciousness that brings knowledge of the unity of reality in a state similar to that called jamʿ, "unification." The Muslim, in fact, learns from the Qurʾān itself that God is "closer to man than is man's jugular vein" (50:16) and that God has placed within each person an "inner torch" (taqwā), which, if allowed to burn brightly, guides that person toward fulfillment. And the Japanese notion of immediacy of myō is said to be taught at first by a master, who teaches the student either through example or through specific instructions how to see and to experience sublime beauty himself.
In all three types of discipline, therefore, the seeker and the path on which that seeker travels are inextricably linked. Within the general parameters of these three types of spiritual discipline, one may recognize a number of ways in which the disciple actually practices the regimens deemed necessary for movement along the path. For simplicity's sake, these modes of activity can be classified in the following categories: ecstatic discipline, constructive discipline, discipline of the body, discipline of the mind, discipline of the heart, and discipline of enduring personal relationships.
It should be stated, once again, that these categories serve typological purposes only; they are not rigid classifications but general descriptive groupings of a variety of practices and ideas.
Many religious traditions maintain that the desired state exists outside of the human realm. It may lie in some other place such as in the heavens, across the mountains, or at the bottom of the sea; or it may take place in some other time, typically the past or the future. Whatever the case, in order to reach that extraordinary state personally or in order to be able to communicate with spirits from that other world, the seeker must somehow cultivate the ability to move out of his or her physical body, because that body is limited by the confining structures of time and space. Such out-of-the-body experience is classified generally as "ecstasy" and is attested in a variety of religious traditions throughout history.
The discipline needed to attain ecstasy typically includes practices in which the seeker deprives himself or herself of normal bodily pleasures in order to be free of his or her physical body. Such deprivational or ascetic discipline may begin with the seeker's withdrawal into solitude and spiritual tutelage under a master. It often culminates in the visitation by a guardian spirit and subsequent transformative vision or in an experience of death and resurrection.
Ecstatic discipline appears, for example, in North American Indian practices centered on what has come to be known as the vision quest. In such a quest practiced among the Thompson River Indians, for instance, a young man observed severe dietary restrictions and fasts, cleansed his spirit with such rituals as sweat bathing and immersion in a cold river, purged his body of impurities by forcing himself to vomit or by taking sacred medicines, and camped alone on a mountaintop, where he forsook sleep for nights on end. There he hoped to be visited by a guardian spirit who would teach him sacred ways and lead him through the dangers of life. The Ojibwa Indians of the Algonquin tribe near Lake Superior demanded that a boy entering puberty set up camp alone under a red pine tree, where he was to fast and to lie awake for days, waiting for a vision that would allow him to see who he was in the context of the sacred cosmos as a whole. These visions were often described as journeys taken into the worlds of the spirits, where the seeker was introduced to divine teachers who would guide him throughout his life.
Such ecstatic practices often included the seeker's ritualized symbolic death and resurrection. Shamanic initiates among the Pomo and Coast Miwok Indians of California lay on the ground and were covered with straw as if they had died and been buried; standing up and casting off the straw, the initiate was then known to have been resurrected from the dead. Among the Tlinglit Indians of coastal Alaska, a man was recognized as a potential shaman when he fell to the ground in a deathlike trance and subsequently revived.
In some instances of ecstatic discipline, the value of an enduring, rather than temporary, out-of-the-body experience lies at the very center of religious ideology itself. Perhaps the best example is that of the Tibetan traditions based on the notion of bar do'i sems can (or simply bar do ), the "intermediate stage" through which a departed soul moves over the interval of forty-nine days between death and rebirth. Tibetan priests read a series of instructions—most frequently from the the Bar do'i thos grol (often transliterated and simplified as Bardo Thodal, the Tibetan Book of the Dead) —to the dying or dead person to help him through the dangers of the bar do and to help him gain a comfortable rebirth or, ideally, freedom from the cycle of rebirth itself.
Immediately upon death—in fact, before a person even knows he or she is dead—a departed soul is said first to enter the 'chi kha state, a realm of pure light and bliss. Reading set instructions from the Book of the Dead, the priest tells the deceased that this is the ultimate reality and encourages the deceased to sever all emotional ties to the world left behind in order to remain free in this state. Most spirits are afraid of such freedom, however, and turn from it toward a second state known as chos nyid, in which the dead person encounters wondrous and beautiful creatures. The priest tells the person that these beings are images of his or her self that have been constructed through the person's own selfishness and that the person must renounce all attachment to them because they will soon turn into demonic monsters. Fearing these terrors, the person then enters a third state, srid pa, in which the person panics and flees into a new birth on earth as a way to avoid the horrors that have been experienced in the intermediate realm. The priest attempts to keep the person from moving through the second two of these realms—and thereby allowing the person to remain in the state of pure light and bliss—by reciting lessons and offering encouragement in the highly structured discipline of the long funerary ritual.
This mode of discipline does not seek in general to deprive the spiritual aspirant of unwanted or harmful characteristics; rather, it helps that person perfect his or her being by building on desirable characteristics that are already there.
Such constructive discipline often takes the form of personal imitation of a paradigmatic figure or figures who are said to embody desirable qualities or to have undertaken beneficial actions. Many times, therefore, such discipline takes the form of the correct performance of a ritual. "We do here what the gods did in the beginning," the priests report while explaining why they officiate at the sacred rites of Vedic India (see Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 188.8.131.52). For those priests, all work performed as part of the ritual thus becomes a disciplined imitation of a divine model. So, for example, the artist who fashions the utensils and ritual paraphernalia expresses artistry in a religious context: "Those works of art produced here by a human being—[an image of] an elephant, a goblet, a sacred robe, a gold figure, a chariot—are works of art only because they imitate the art of the gods" (Aitareya Brāhmaṇa 6.27).
But it need not be explicit ritual behavior only that embodies the ideals and techniques of constructive discipline. Such discipline appears in any system which assumes that within the seeker lie qualities that, although perhaps dormant, can be brought to the surface so that the ideal can be made real. "Be faithful imitators of Jesus, and perfect imitators of Mary," the fifteenth-century monk Thomas à Kempis wrote to his fellow Christians in his Imitation of Mary. "Be simple, like the simple children of God, without deception, without envy, without criticism, without murmuring, and without suspicion." In his Imitation of Christ, Thomas similarly taught others to "learn to turn from worldly things, and give yourself to spiritual things, and you will see the Kingdom of God come within you" (2.1).
Elements of constructive discipline may also be seen in the Chinese, specifically the Neo-Confucian, tradition of the cultivation of sagehood. Zhangzai (1021–1077) defined the sage as one who understands the harmonious and holistic nature of oneself and one's relationship to the world. According to his teachings, a human being's essential nature (xing ) is identical with all of nature (tiandi), and the sage understands the principle (li) that unites his essential nature with all things. According to Neo-Confucian thought, transformative understanding of this unity can be obtained through various techniques reflecting the ideology of constructive discipline. Gao Pan Long (1562–1626), for example, advocated a combination of several attitudes and practices: the cultivation of an open-minded reverence (jing) for all things; an intuitive exploration (ge wu) of the unifying principle that links the inner and outer worlds; a pervasive appreciation of the natural world; a sense of one's place in history; and a practice he generally characterized as "quiet sitting" (jing zuo) in which the student brings the body and mind together into a whole. Gao described this latter technique as "ordinary" (ping chang) because it reflects the basic unified nature of being itself.
In his Fu qi gui Gao notes that one may practice such quiet sitting by observing some general procedures:
Burn incense and sit in the lotus position.… Try not to be lazy. After eating one must walk slowly for a hundred steps. Do not drink too much wine or eat too much meat or you will stir up the muddy waters. When resting do not take off your clothes. If you feel sleepy, then lie down. As soon as you awaken, get up.
Discipline of the body
There is a general recognition among religious traditions that the body's tendency to please its own senses tends to distract the spirit from its more ethereal tasks. Therefore, most spiritual disciplines involve the seeker's control and restraint of his or her physical body.
Christian monastic traditions provide a good example of such discipline of the body. "The life of a monk should always be as if Lent were being observed" even though "few people have the fortitude to do so," wrote Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century (Rule of St. Benedict 49), for "monks should have not even their bodies or their wills under their own command" (33). According to Benedict, monks were to "let one pound of bread be enough for one day, whether there be one meal only, or both dinner or supper," and "wine is not appropriate for monks at all" (39–40). Benedict nevertheless admitted, "Since it is not possible these days to convince the monks of this, let us agree at least on this: we should not drink excessively nor to the point of satiation.… one pint of wine a day is enough for each one" (40).
Benedict's Rule thus reflects the value he placed on the monk's renunciation of material goods, the primary purpose of which is to satisfy the body. "He should have nothing at all as his own: neither a book, nor tablets, nor a pen—nothing at all" (33). Six centuries later, Francis of Assisi restated and modified for his fellow monastics many of Benedict's rules, telling them, for example, "to go and sell all that they have and carefully give it to the poor," and that "all the brothers shall wear humble garments, and may repair them with sack cloth and other remnants" (Rule of St. Francis 3.2).
It may be, however, that the best classical example of the discipline of the body comes from the rājayoga tradition of India, particularly as represented by Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra and its principal commentaries, Vyāsa's Yogabhāṣya and Vācaspati Miśra's Tattvavaiśāradī. According to that tradition, the path to the ultimate goal of meditation practices—namely, complete autonomy (kaivalya )—involves eight stages or "branches" (aṅga ) and is therefore known as the "eight-limbed discipline" (aṣṭāṅgayoga ).
The first of the eight steps given by Patañjali is known as restraint (yama ) and is centered on injunctions not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, not to enjoy sexual contact, and not to envy other people's possessions (Yoga Sūtra 2.30). The second stage is comprised of the five traditional spiritual practices (niyama ) of cleanliness, mental equanimity, asceticism, scriptural study, and devotion to a master (2.32). At the third level, the yogin masters the various limber body postures (āsanas, e.g., the lotus position) that strengthen the body against the rigors of severe asceticism (2.46), some of which take many years of training before they can be practiced without the risk of dangerous injury. The fourth level consists of breath control (prāṇāyāma ) in which the adept slows down his rate of respiration, sometimes to the point of stopping his breathing altogether for long periods of time, and in so doing releases for his disciplined use all of the life force (prāṇa ) that is said to reside within the breath itself (2.49–51).
At the fifth stage of the eight-limbed discipline, the yogin withdraws all senses from their objects in an enstatic process known as pratyahara, which includes in part focusing all attention thus retrieved from external distractions on a single object—such as the spot between his eyebrows—in a technique described as ekāgratā, the sustained concentration on one thing (Yogabhāṣya 2.53). Mastering this technique gives the yogin power over all of his body, which possesses an almost immeasurable amount of energy.
The sixth level, known as dhāraṇā, a term that might best be translated as "mental concentration," is a form of ekāgratā in which the yogin, under strict guidance of a master, concentrates all powerful attention on a single sacred syllable (mantra ) or visual diagram (yantra ) in such a way that the mind ceases to wander about in its constant fluctuations and the yogin comes to know and experience the unity of his or her soul (ātman ) with the soul of the universe.
In these first six stages of the eight-limbed discipline, the adept subdues and controls the instincts, desires, movements, respiration, senses, and mental activities of the physical body. This is done in order to prepare for the seventh and eighth levels of discipline, which may be said to transcend corporal existence. The seventh stage is known as dhyāna (deep meditation) in which the adept experiences the light of the Absolute within his or her own eternal soul. The final stage, samādhi, brings the yogic discipline to its fruition. At this point the yogin knows pure being, absolute consciousness, and complete bliss and is released from all suffering entailed in the cycle of rebirth.
Discipline of the mind
Many religions teach that one's mind tends to distract one from the necessities of spiritual growth and that it, like the body, must be restrained. Sometimes religious masters admonish their students not to daydream. Sometimes they scold their students for being too analytical. In either case, they encourage them to retain control over the mind.
The Kaṭha Upaniṣad records a mythic conversation between Naciketas, a young boy desirous of sacred knowledge, and Yama, the lord of the dead. One sees reflected in Yama's teachings the notion, cited often in ancient India, that the mind must be restrained the way a charioteer must control his horses:
Think of the true self as [riding in] a chariot
and that the body is the chariot.
Think of the intellect as the charioteer
and the mind as the reins.
He who has no understanding, whose mind is out of control—
his senses are unchecked
Like wild horses [when unrestrained by a bad] charioteer.
He, however, who has understanding,
whose mind is always under control—
his senses are checked
Like the obedient horses [of a good] charioteer. (3.3–6)
The lord of the dead continues to teach Naciketas that the search for the absolute truth residing within the self is difficult because it "cannot be known through language, nor by the mind, nor by sight" (6.12). According to Yama, one reason it is so difficult to comprehend the nature of the self is that it has no discernible qualities or characteristics: It is "without sound, without touch, without form, imperishable … without taste, eternal, odorless, without a beginning and without an end, beyond the great, constant." Nevertheless, Yama asserts that "by discerning That, one is liberated from the jaws of death" (3.15).
Another Upaniṣad notes that the master should accept as a disciple only a student "whose mind is tranquil and who has attained peace. He teaches in its very truth that knowledge of brahman [absolute reality] by which one knows the true eternal soul" (Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 1.2.12–13).
The adept who disciplines his or her mind undergoes here a kind of "unknowing" of all of the categories through which one's self, the world, and divine reality is normally understood. Part of this mental discipline involves the practice of seeing the essence of things as distinct from their form. In a classic teaching recorded in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, the Upaniṣadic sage Yājñavalkya repeatedly asserts (see 4.5.15, for example) that the eternal soul is "not this, not this."
Christian mystical traditions centered on the via negativa present similar teachings regarding the need in one's spiritual advancement to break down the categories to which one's undisciplined empirical mind clings. In his work The Mystical Theology, Dionysius the Areopagite (sixth century) taught that "the universal and transcendent Cause of all things is neither … a body, nor has He a form or shape, or quality, or quantity, or weight; nor has He any localized, visible, or tangible existence; He is not sensible or perceptible" (Happold, 1970, p. 212). Dionysius accordingly encouraged his followers to "leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that thou mayest arise, by knowing, towards the union, as far as is attainable, with Him Who transcends all being and all knowledge" (op. cit., pp. 216–217).
Discipline of the heart
Some religious traditions teach that the final universal truth centers on a profound, delicate, and enduring love. According to these traditions, everything that is real arises from and returns into love; and it is through the openhearted awareness of that love that one comes closer to divine truth. The cultivation of those attitudes and actions that help one see and know that love may therefore be called the discipline of the heart.
At times such discipline of the heart is described as a way of seeing the world in its sublime nature. As the Ṣūfī poet Muḥammad Gīsūdarāz (d. 1422) proclaimed,
You look at the beautiful one and see figure and statue—
I do not see anything save the beauty and art of the creator.
Jalāl al-dīn Rūmī (d. 1273) saw the structures of the natural world as expressions of universal love:
If this heaven were not in love, then its breast would
have no purity,
and if the sun were not in love, in his beauty would be
and if earth and mountain were not lovers, grass would
not grow out of their breast.
The Hebrew Song of Songs (whose verses date as early as the tenth century bce) presents classic love imagery set in a dialogue between a bride and her bridegroom. Traditional commentaries have interpreted the relationship between the characters of the bride and groom in four ways: literally, as a man and a woman in love with each other; figuratively, as a model on which proper marriage should be based; allegorically, as the people of Israel and their god; and anagogically, as the account of an individual soul's perfected relationship to God. Whatever its reference, the love between these two finds vivid expression:
Bride: Night after night on my bed
I have sought my true love;
I have sought him but not found him,
I have called him, but he has not answered.
Groom: How beautiful you are, my dearest, how beautiful! …
Your lips are like a scarlet thread, and your words are delightful;
your parted lips behind your veil are like a pomegranate cut open.…
Your two breasts are like two fawns, twin fawns of a gazelle.
Bride: I am my beloved's, his longing is all for me.
Come, my beloved, let us go out into the fields to lie among the henna bushes. (3.1–7.11)
The Cistercian monks of twelfth-century Europe tended to see the religious quest as an ongoing apprenticeship in the ways of love. In his Sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard of Clairvaux urged his readers to remember that "when God loves, he wants nothing else than to be loved; for he loves for no other purpose than that he may be loved, knowing that those who love him are blessed by that very love" (83.4). Christian mystics of that era often defined God in masculine and the soul in feminine terms and described the religious life as a relationship between the two. Richard of Saint-Victor, for example, outlined in The Four Degrees of Passionate Charity the stages through which the soul moves in its relationship to the loving God:
In the first degree, God enters into the soul and she turns inward into herself. In the second, she ascends above herself and is lifted up to God. In the third, the soul, lifted up to God, passes over altogether into Him. In the fourth the soul goes forth on God's behalf and descends below herself.
Discipline of the heart carries the seeker further and further into the depths, or heights, of divine love. This is seen in India, too. As Kṛṣṇa (i.e., God) is reported in the Bhagavadgītā to have told his disciple, Arjuna:
Through loving devotion [bhakti] he comes to know Me—my measure, and who, in very truth, I am.
Then, knowing Me in that complete truth, he enters immediately into Me. (18.55)
Discipline of enduring personal relationships
According to some religious ideologies, religious fulfillment is best achieved through the observation of principles that serve to uphold the relationship between the human community and the deity or to maintain important familial and other interpersonal bonds.
A classical example of such relational discipline appears in the traditions centered on and developed from the Jewish notion of mitsvah ("commandment"; pl., mitsvot ), a rule of discipline that is understood to have divine sanction. The rabbinic tradition of Judaism notes that God has given the people of Israel 613 mitsvot outlining the 248 positive instructions and 365 negative injunctions the people are obligated to honor. The most general and most familiar of the mitsvot are known as the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:2–14 and Deuteronomy 5:6–18), which combine strict monotheistic ideology with rules against destructive social behavior. According to these rules of discipline, the people of Israel are to believe in no other god but Yahveh, not to construct idols, to keep the commandments, not to misuse God's name, to observe the day of rest, to honor their parents, not to commit murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to testify falsely against their neighbors, and not to be envious of other people's possessions. Rabbinic traditions are careful to say that the Ten Commandments do not exhaust mitsvot, and remind the people of Israel of the religious duty incumbent on all Jews, for example, to marry and have at least two children in accordance with the divine commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gn. 1:22).
Such relational discipline finds similar expression in Paul's teachings to the hellenized Jewish-Christians at Thessalonica that the true disciple must "not [give] way to lust like the pagans who are ignorant of God; and no man must do his brother wrong in this matter, or invade his rights, because, as we have told you before with all emphasis, the Lord punishes all such offenses." Paul further noted to those disciples that we are "taught by God to love one another" in a selfless way and that "anyone who flouts these rules is flouting not man but God" (1 Thes. 4:4–9).
Discipline based on the maintenance of proper relationships also appears in another way in the classical Hindu notion of varṇāśramadharma, the sacred duties determined by one's vocation and stage of life. An entire science (śāstra ) of such sacred duties developed in Brahmanic India in order to interpret and preserve those rules by which orthodox Hindus are to act in society.
According to the texts of that tradition, the Dharma-śāstras, society is divided into four classes (varṇa s, sometimes translated as "castes") of people. Each varṇa has its own particular function, and the whole system may be understood as a symbiosis in which all parts depend on the others. The priests (brāhmaṇa s) perform rituals that ensure the favor of the gods for specific individuals or for society in general. Warriors (kṣatriya s) protect the society from foreign invasions and increase its land holdings. The responsibilities of production and distribution of material goods throughout society fall to the merchants (vaiśya s), and the laborers (śūdra s) perform the manual work the other classes need in order to fulfill their responsibilities.
Dharmaśāstra literatures similarly outline the four stages (āśrama s) of one's individual life, each having its own disciplined requirements. According to a representative text, the Mānava Dharmaśāstra (the Laws of Manu, second century bce), a student (brahmacārin ) must study the Vedic scriptures under the guidance of a master until he is old enough to marry. Becoming a householder (gṛhasthin ), one must raise a family and secure its well-being. Having carried out these responsibilities long enough to see one's grandchildren grow to be adults, one leaves the demands of family life to the children and enters the stage of the forest-dweller (vānaprasthin ) in order to offer private oblations to his ancestors and various deities. Only if one lives long enough, and has met all of these other responsibilities, can one then become a wandering ascetic (saṃnyāsin ) who, having finally abandoned all possessions and family obligations, seeks the inner wisdom that will bring eternal release.
Readers interested in discussions of spiritual disciplines in several traditions not outlined above and interpreted from a variety of approaches by eminent scholars will want to consult Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, vol. 4, Spiritual Disciplines, edited by Joseph Campbell (New York, 1960), a collection of papers read over several years at the Eranos meetings in Ascona, Switzerland.
On the development of Islamic sharīʿah and its relationship to personal piety, see Marshall G. S. Hodgson's The Venture of Islam, vol. 1, The Classical Age of Islam (Chicago, 1974), pp. 315–409; Fazlur Rahman's Islam (New York, 1966), pp. 100–116; and Frederick Mathewson Denny's An Introduction to Islam (New York, 1985), pp. 216–292. On Islamic spiritual traditions and mystical poetry, see Annemarie Schimmel's Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1975), esp. pp. 98–227 and 287–343; Reynold A. Nicholson's Studies in Islamic Mysticism (Cambridge, 1921); and William C. Chittick's The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany, N.Y., 1983). One of the better translations of the Qurʾān remains A. J. Arberry's The Koran Interpreted (London and New York, 1955). For an elucidating introduction to Qurʾanic thought, see Fazlur Rahman's Major Themes of the Qurʾān (Chicago, 1980).
Translations of traditional accounts of the Buddha's enlightenment, mostly from Pali sources, appear in E. J. Thomas's The Life of Buddha as Legend and History, 3d rev. ed. (London, 1949), pp. 38–96, esp. pp. 61–80, and in Edward Conze's Buddhist Scriptures (Harmondsworth, 1959), pp. 34–66, which is a translation of Aśvaghoṣa's Sanskrit work, Buddhacārita (Acts of the Buddha). For a traditional commentary on the Noble Eightfold Path, see Buddhaghosa's Visuddimagga 16.77–83, translated by Bhikkhu Ñyānamoli as The Path of Purification (Berkeley, Calif., 1976), vol. 2, pp. 583–584. For commentaries on the First Sermon, see Nalinaksha Dutt's Aspects of Mahāyāna Buddhism and Its Relations to Hīnayāna (London, 1930), pp. 129–202. An example of Mahāyāna Buddhist spiritual discipline can be found in Marion L. Matics's translation and study of Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra entitled Entering the Path of Enlightenment (New York, 1970). Robert C. Lester discusses Theravāda Buddhist ideals in Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1973).
The quotation from Vincent van Gogh comes from Dear Theo, translated and edited by Irving Stone (New York, 1969), p. 114; that from Paul Klee is taken from The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898–1918, edited by Felix Klee (Berkeley, Calif., 1964), p. 386.
Selections of Japanese haiku poetry appearing above come from D. T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture, 2d ed. (Princeton, 1959), pp. 215–268. See also R. H. Blyth's Haiku, 4 vols. (Tokyo, 1949–1952).
On the American Indian practices centered on the vision quest, see Ruth Benedict's "The Vision in Plains Culture," American Anthropologist 24 (1922): 1–23; Benedict's The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America (1923; Millwood, N.Y., 1974; Ake Hultkrantz's The Religions of the American Indians (Los Angeles, 1979), pp. 66–83; and Sam D. Gill's Native American Religions: An Introduction (Belmont, Calif., 1982). For personal accounts of the vision, see Gill's Native American Traditions: Sources and Interpretations (Belmont, Calif., 1983). On patterns of initiation in North America, see Edwin M. Loeb's Tribal Initiations and Secret Societies (Berkeley, Calif., 1929). The best general discussion of shamanism around the world remains Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, rev. & enl. ed. (New York, 1964).
Translations of the Bar do'i thos grol into English may be found in W. Y. Evans Wentz's The Tibetan Book of the Dead, 2d ed. (London, 1949), and in Francesca Fremantle and Chögyam Trungpa's The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo (Berkeley, Calif., 1975). The notion of dao in China is discussed by Arthur Waley in The Way and Its Power (New York, 1958). Rodney L. Taylor offers a concise discussion of Neo-Confucian sagehood in The Cultivation of Sagehood as a Religious Goal in Neo-Confucianism (Missoula, Mont., 1978). The translation from Gao Pan Long's Fu qi gui is taken from Taylor's work.
The only available complete English translation of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa is by Julius Eggeling, The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, 5 vols., "Sacred Books of the East," vols. 12, 26, 41, 43, 44 (Oxford, 1882–1900). The Aitareya Brāhmaṇa has been translated by Arthur Berriedale Keith in his Rigveda Brāhmaṇas: The Aitareya and Kausiktaki Brāhmaṇas of the Rigveda, "Harvard Oriental Series," no. 25 (Cambridge, Mass., 1920). The best English translations of the Upaniṣads are Robert Ernest Hume's The Thirteen Principal Upaniṣads, 2d ed. (London, 1931), and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan's The Principal Upaniṣads (London, 1953). There are many translations of the Bhagavadgītā. One of the best remains Franklin Edgerton's Bhagavad Gitā (Chicago, 1925), which includes helpful studies and a summary. Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra with commentaries by Vyāsa and Vācaspati Miśra has been translated by James Haughton Woods as The Yoga-System of Patañjali (1914), 3d ed. (Delhi, 1966).
Those interested in the writings of Thomas à Kempis might look to The Imitation of Mary, edited and translated by Albin de Cigala (Westminster, Md., 1948) and his far better-known The Imitation of Christ, translated by Leo Sherley-Price (Harmondsworth, 1953). Those wishing to read Benedict's rule have available many translations, a good one being The Rule of St. Benedict, edited and translated by Justin McCann (London, 1921). For Bernard of Clairvaux, see Étienne Gilson's The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard, translated by A. H. C. Downes (London and New York, 1940). Translations from Dionysius the Aeropagite come from F. C. Happold's Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology (Harmondsworth, 1970), pp. 212, 216–217. The same is true for the translation from Richard of Saint Victor's The Four Degrees of Passionate Charity (see Happold, pp. 241–248, esp. p. 242). Happold's book contains short selections drawn from mystical tracts from a variety of classical religious traditions around the world.
For studies on rabbinic understanding of Jewish sacred law and custom, both written and oral, one might turn first to The Code of Maimonides, 15 vols. (New Haven, 1949–1980). Less imposing works include A Maimonides Reader, edited by Isidore Twersky (New York, 1972), and Maimonides' Mishneh Toreh, 3 vols., edited and translated by Moses Hyamson (New York, 1949). For other codes, see Code of Hebrew Law: Shulḥan ʿAruk, 5 vols., edited and translated by Chaim N. Denburg (Montreal, 1954–), or Code of Jewish Law: Kitzur Shulhan Aruh, 4 vols., annot. rev. ed., compiled and translated by Solomon Ganzfried and Hyman E. Goldin (New York, 1961). Otherwise, see Alan Unterman's Jews: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (Boston, 1981); A Rabbinic Anthology, edited by C. G. Montefiore and Herbert Loewe (New York, 1974); and The Mishnah, edited and translated by Herbert Danby (Oxford, 1933).
William K. Mahony (1987)
"Spiritual Discipline." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/spiritual-discipline
"Spiritual Discipline." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved February 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/spiritual-discipline
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.