Is asceticism a phenomenon driven by the upper class?


…this at least is the thesis of social scientist Rodney Stark in his paper “Upper Class Asceticism” (2003).

The article includes Early Buddhism but the bulk of statistical analysis is about Christianity. The results show that the upper class was very over-represented in comparison to the general population, and that asceticism was therefore not a lifestyle of the deprived.

A nice quote from the article: “it was only the nobility who had the time and opportunity to become saints - as the peasants were too busy trying to scratch out a living”


"There are these four types of people to be found existing in the world. Which four? One in darkness who is headed for darkness, one in darkness who is headed for light, one in light who is headed for darkness, and one in light who is headed for light.


Every so often you see an article in the New York Times or some such publication about tech billionaires or people who got rich through some other means “trading in” their wealthy lifestyles to lead a life of simplicity. Whenever you see a story such as that you can be sure that the subplot is that the individuals in question bought an entire island or thousands of acres in the wilderness where they built a yurt complete with internet access and all of the comforts to which wealthy people have become accustomed. I have long observed that the key to living the simple life is to have a lot of money! It’s easy to get out of the “fast lane” if you can build your own highway. Then you can lead a life of splendid, isolated, contemplation. Does that qualify as “asceticism”? Perhaps asceticism is in the eye of the beholder.


… the nobility might think this.
Or is this perhaps the functional way in which we define nobility, and peasants; monastics, and lay?


over-represented in what? total population, as surveyed how?


I’m not sure if this holds for the Thai Forest Tradition in its early days. I think a lot of the monks wandering in northern Thailand in the early 20th century that became well known teachers or at least practitioners came from rural peasant farming families.


It’s in the article

I can imagine that you’re right overall. At least Ajahn Mun seems to have come from a simple economic background (?). About Ajahn Chah the latest bio says “Luang Por was born into an affectionate and respected household, one of the wealthier families in a closely-knit community.”

The article has a specific approach but I assume that there are different parallel processes. One of them would be that once a charismatic figure has carved out a spiritual path the privileged would start to be overrepresented. After all, I assume, one wants to trade the economic security for spiritual security. The early Thai forest movement was then maybe still too insecure. The process I mean could have kicked in at the third generation for example.


According to Ajahn Thanissaro, yes:

Ajaan Mun would do this with his students. He himself was the son of a peasant; most of his students were peasants’ sons, and peasants in Thailand are way down on the social ladder. The message coming out of Bangkok in those days was that if you wanted to get anywhere in the Buddha’s teachings, you had to go to Bangkok and study with the experts there: Bangkok people from the royal family, people from educated backgrounds. If you’re just a peasant son meditating out under the trees, what would you know? A lot of people in the countryside had internalized that message, so Ajaan Mun’s first task was to counteract it. One of his frequent teachings was, “What do you need in order to practice? You need a human birth: you’ve got that. You need the 32 parts of the body. Sometimes you don’t have to have all 32 functioning properly, but you’ve got a human body and you’ve got a human mind. You’ve got what it takes.” You see this repeated again and again in his teachings. He had to build up the confidence of his students, and Yes: Even though they were peasants and had had minimal education, they had enough. They had what it takes. This is why we have the Wilderness Tradition. They were able to overcome the messages that society had been sending to them. - Source

Perhaps, I do think the wealthy and educated often seem to become even more prevalent over time in religious movements as they gain stability but I’m not sure if spiritual security is a necessary condition for their prevalence.


I recall seeing a documentary about self-described hippies who flocked from the West to India in the 1960s to discover spirituality. The hippies came from all walks of life, of course, but the impression one gets is that many of these individuals were from middle class and/or privileged backgrounds. It was sort of a “thing” back in the day to chuck Western privilege aside in the pursuit of enlightenment. Naturally, when things didn’t work out, it was fairly easy to go back home and pick up where one left off. People from less wealthy backgrounds don’t have the luxury of spending what would otherwise be years of earning in search of a spiritual path.


I think this is true in most cases. Who has the time to contemplate about a spiritual life when they are hungry all the time? (for food and other pleasures)
Also the people with merit have a good life. They have been rewarded with material wealth and rich families for their kamma and also the knack for spirituality (old habits perhaps?) so that they can go look for what lies beyond the worldly things.


Yes, we can frequently find this position in the EBT: If you live a good life following the Dhamma you can hope to be reborn rich and beautiful.


For me this has nothing to do with material wealth but all to do with spiritual wealth. Spiritual wealth of Faith, Energy, Mindfulness, Concentration and Wisdom (pañcindriyāni).


To what do you refer to with ‘this’`? There is no thing as ‘pure spirituality’ - at least for 99.999% spirituality is embedded in a socio-economic context. Upbringing, availability of teachings, time to learn and practice, means to travel, the linguistic marks appealing to a certain stratum of society, etc.

Could you detail how the indriyani can ‘reach’ people independent of their context?


whether you have a little or a lot it’s all impermanent. Hearing this they become disciples of the buddha. Understanding, household life is like dust and homeless life the open air they become wandering monks.


That’s a myth among Buddhists that the Buddha discovered impermanence. As if ancient cultures with their high mortality rates, and uncontrollable natural forces needed to be told that things are impermanent.

Most people when they hear that all is impermanent don’t become disciples of the Buddha. They say “… and so what?” - in itself it’s trivial.


This is exactly what i meant by the indriya dhammas. If you have sufficently developed indriyas you dont go “So what?”. :smile:


It’s a bit tautological, but I’d even agree with that. Just that’s a different topic literally.


Wheres my dictionary :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


I am sorry but i disagree. But of course the brahmins the christians, … all knew impermanence of the body at least. But it was the buddha who first said nothing is permanent. Everything is impermanent. God, brahman , Atman, consciousness , body, mind……


We can disagree on this, but again, please start a different topic if you like to discuss this.