The meaning of ātāpī and the Buddha’s approach to asceticism

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Ātāpī is commonly translated as ardent, diligent, serious in effort, zealous.

The term appears most prominently in the Satipaṭṭhāna formulas:

DN 22

 

bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhā-domanassaṃ. a bhikkhu dwells observing body in body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having given up covetousness and affliction towards the world.

 

It is explicitly defined at SN 16.2 in formulas reminiscent of those describing sammā·vāyāma:

 

“kathañcāvuso, ātāpī hoti? idhāvuso, bhikkhu ‘anuppannā me pāpakā akusalā dhammā uppajjamānā anatthāya saṃvatteyyun’ti ātappaṃ karoti, ‘uppannā me pāpakā akusalā dhammā appahīyamānā anatthāya saṃvatteyyun’ti ātappaṃ karoti, ‘anuppannā me kusalā dhammā anuppajjamānā anatthāya saṃvatteyyun’ti ātappaṃ karoti, ‘uppannā me kusalā dhammā nirujjhamānā anatthāya saṃvatteyyun’ti ātappaṃ karoti. evaṃ kho, āvuso, ātāpī hoti. And how, friend, is one ardent? Here, friend, a bhikkhu exerts ardor [considering]: ‘If unarisen bad, unskillful mental states arise in me, it would lead to [my] misfortune’; he exerts ardor [considering]: ‘If arisen bad, unskillful mental states are not abandoned in me, it would lead to [my] misfortune’; he exerts ardor [considering]: ‘If unarisen skillful mental states do not arise in me, it would lead to [my] misfortune’; he exerts ardor [considering]: ‘If arisen skillful mental states cease in me, this may lead to [my] misfortune.’ Thus, friend, he is ardent.

 

This definition is extended to include the ability to endure extreme dukkha·vedanā at AN 3.50:

 

“yato kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu anuppannānaṃ pāpakānaṃ akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ anuppādāya ātappaṃ karoti, anuppannānaṃ kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ uppādāya ātappaṃ karoti, uppannānaṃ sārīrikānaṃ vedanānaṃ dukkhānaṃ tibbānaṃ kharānaṃ kaṭukānaṃ asātānaṃ amanāpānaṃ pāṇaharānaṃ adhivāsanāya ātappaṃ karoti, ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, bhikkhu ātāpī nipako sato sammā dukkhassa antakiriyāyā”ti. Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu exerts ardor for the non-arising of unarisen bad, unskillful mental states, for the arising of unarisen skillful mental states, and for enduring arisen bodily feelings that are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, disagreeable, displeasing, threatening life, this is called, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who is ardent, alert, and mindful for making a correct end of ill-being.

 

Another example of what being ātāpī means is given at AN 4.11:

 

“carato cepi… ṭhitassa cepi… nisinnassa cepi… sayānassa cepi, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno uppajjati kāmavitakko vā byāpādavitakko vā vihiṃsāvitakko vā, taṃ ce bhikkhu nādhivāseti, pajahati vinodeti byantīkaroti anabhāvaṃ gameti, sayānopi, bhikkhave, bhikkhu jāgaro evaṃbhūto ‘ātāpī ottāpī satataṃ samitaṃ āraddhavīriyo pahitatto’ti vuccati. If while walking… while standing… while sitting… while lying down a thought of sensuality, a thought of ill will or a thought of harming arises in a bhikkhu and he does not give in to it but abandons it, dispels it, removes it, and brings it to complete cessation, then while wakefully lying down that bhikkhu is said to be ardent, to fear wrongdoing and to be continually and continuously of aroused energy and resolute will.

 

And at AN 4.12:

 

“carato cepi… ṭhitassa cepi… nisinnassa cepi… sayānassa cepi, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno jāgarassa abhijjhābyāpādo vigato hoti, thinamiddhaṃ pahīnaṃ hoti, uddhaccakukuccaṃ pahīnaṃ hoti, vicikicchā pahīnā hoti, āraddhaṃ hoti vīriyaṃ asallīnaṃ, upaṭṭhitā sati asammuṭṭhā, passaddho kāyo asāraddho, samāhitaṃ cittaṃ ekaggaṃ, sayānopi, bhikkhave, bhikkhu jāgaro evaṃbhūto ‘ātāpī ottāpī satataṃ samitaṃ āraddhavīriyo pahitatto’ti vuccatī”ti. If while walking… while standing… while sitting… while wakefully lying down covetousness and ill-will have ceased in a bhikkhu, dullness and drowsiness are abandoned, mental agitation and worry are abandoned, doubt is abandoned, his energy is aroused relentlessly, his mindfulness is established and unconfused, his body is tranquil and calm, his mind is concentrated and unified, then while wakefully lying down that bhikkhu is said to be ardent, to fear wrongdoing and to be continually and continuously of aroused energy and resolute will.

 

A list of terms that appear to be related to ātappaṃ karoti and may help gathering the meaning of ātāpī is given at SN 12.87: sikkhā karoti (practice the training), yoga karoti (exert dedication), chanda karoti (stir up the desire), ussoḷhī karoti (make an exertion), appaṭivānī karoti (exert persistence), vīriyaṃ karoti (exert energy), sātaccaṃ karoti (exert perseverance), sati karoti (exert mindfulness), sampajaññaṃ karoti (exert clear comprehension), appamādo karoti (exert heedfulness).

SN 12.87

 

upādānaṃ, bhikkhave, ajānatā apassatā yathābhūtaṃ upādāne yathābhūtaṃ ñāṇāya sikkhā karaṇīyā… yogo karaṇīyo… chando karaṇīyo… ussoḷhī karaṇīyā… appaṭivānī karaṇīyā… ātappaṃ karaṇīyaṃ… vīriyaṃ karaṇīyaṃ… sātaccaṃ karaṇīyaṃ… sati karaṇīyā… sampajaññaṃ karaṇīyaṃ.. appamādo karaṇīyo. Bhikkhus, one who does not know, who does not see attachment as it really is should practice the training… exert dedication… stir up the desire… make an exertion… exert persistence… exert ardor… exert energy… exert perseverance… exert mindfulness… exert clear comprehension… exert heedfulness in order to know it as it really is.

 

Another list is found at DN 3 and adds padhāna, anuyoga and sammā·manasikāra (probably a synonym for yoniso manasikāra):

DN 3

 

ekacco samaṇo vā brāhmaṇo vā ātappamanvāya padhānamanvāya anuyogamanvāya appamādamanvāya sammāmanasikāramanvāya tathārūpaṃ cetosamādhiṃ phusati Some renuniciate or brahmin, by means of ardor, by means of effort, by means of dedication, by means of heedfulness, by means of proper consideration, attains such a concentration of the mind

 

Some suttas help understanding what being ātāpī means, as they explain what may happen when the practitioner is in that state:

SN 36.7

 

“tassa ce, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno evaṃ satassa sampajānassa appamattassa ātāpino pahitattassa viharato uppajjati sukhā vedanā… dukkhā vedanā. so evaṃ pajānāti: ‘uppannā kho myāyaṃ dukkhā vedanā. sā ca kho paṭicca, no appaṭicca. kiṃ paṭicca? imameva kāyaṃ paṭicca. ayaṃ kho pana kāyo anicco saṅkhato paṭiccasamuppanno. aniccaṃ kho pana saṅkhataṃ paṭiccasamuppannaṃ kāyaṃ paṭicca uppannā dukkhā vedanā kuto niccā bhavissatī’ti! so kāye ca dukkhāya vedanāya aniccānupassī viharati, vayānupassī viharati, virāgānupassī viharati, nirodhānupassī viharati, paṭinissaggānupassī viharati. tassa kāye ca dukkhāya ca vedanāya aniccānupassino viharato, vayānupassino viharato, virāgānupassino viharato, nirodhānupassino viharato, paṭinissaggānupassino viharato, yo kāye ca dukkhāya ca vedanāya paṭighānusayo, so pahīyati. As a monk is dwelling thus mindful & alert — heedful, ardent, & resolute — a feeling of pleasure… a feeling of pain arises in him. He discerns that ‘A feeling of pain has arisen in me. It is dependent on a requisite condition, not independent. Dependent on what? Dependent on this body. Now, this body is inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen. Being dependent on a body that is inconstant, fabricated, & dependently co-arisen, how can this feeling of pain that has arisen be constant?’ He remains focused on inconstancy with regard to the body & to the feeling of pain. He remains focused on dissolution… dispassion… cessation… relinquishment with regard to the body & to the feeling of pain. As he remains focused on inconstancy… dissolution… dispassion… cessation… relinquishment with regard to the body & to the feeling of pain, he abandons any resistance-obsession with regard to the body & the feeling of pain.
“tassa ce, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno evaṃ satassa sampajānassa appamattassa ātāpino pahitattassa viharato uppajjati adukkhamasukhā vedanā… yo kāye ca adukkhamasukhāya ca vedanāya avijjānusayo, so pahīyati. As he is dwelling thus mindful & alert — heedful, ardent, & resolute — a feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain arises in him… he abandons any ignorance-obsession with regard to the body & the feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain.

 

For a more refined understanding of the expression and what it may have meant at the time, it is interesting to study related words. We may start by noting that the closest word in Sanskrit is ātapya (आतप्य), meaning ‘being in the sunshine’.

1) The first shade of meaning is best illustrated by the verb tapati, meaning ‘to shine’, as at SN 1.26: ‘divā tapati ādicco’ (the sun shines by day) or at SN 21.11: ‘sannaddho khattiyo tapati’ (the khattiya shines clad in armor).

2) The second shade of meaning can be derived from the first by noting that staying where the sun shines in a tropical climate generally turns out to be a hot and unpleasant experience, which may be how tapati comes to refer to the dukkha·vipāka that arises as a result of akusala kamma. Thus, at AN 10.141, the tenfold micchā·paṭipadā is called ‘the teaching that causes torment’ (tapanīyo dhammo). AN 2.3 provides more detail about the workings of these torments:

 

“dveme, bhikkhave, dhammā tapanīyā. katame dve? idha, bhikkhave, ekaccassa kāyaduccaritaṃ kataṃ hoti, akataṃ hoti kāyasucaritaṃ; vacīduccaritaṃ kataṃ hoti; akataṃ hoti vacīsucaritaṃ; manoduccaritaṃ kataṃ hoti, akataṃ hoti manosucaritaṃ. so ‘kāyaduccaritaṃ me katan’ti tappati, ‘akataṃ me kāyasucaritan’ti tappati; ‘vacīduccaritaṃ me katan’ti tappati, ‘akataṃ me vacīsucaritan’ti tappati; ‘manoduccaritaṃ me katan’ti tappati, ‘akataṃ me manosucaritan’ti tappati. ime kho, bhikkhave, dve dhammā tapanīyā”ti. Bhikkhus, these two things cause torment. Which two? Here, bhikkhus, someone has performed bodily misconduct and has not performed bodily good conduct; he has performed verbal misconduct and has not performed verbal good conduct; he has performed mental misconduct and has not performed mental good conduct. He is tormented, [thinking]: ‘I have performed bodily misconduct’; he is tormented, [thinking]: ‘I have not performed bodily good conduct’; he is tormented, [thinking]: ‘I have performed verbal misconduct’; he is tormented, [thinking]: ‘I have not performed verbal good conduct’; he is tormented, [thinking]: ‘I have performed mental misconduct’; he is tormented, [thinking]: ‘I have not performed mental good conduct.’ These, bhikkhus, are two things that cause torment.

 

We also find various instances of words related to tapati, used to refer to dukkha·vipāka and the remorse the wrong-doer experiences:

SN 2.8

 

akataṃ dukkaṭaṃ seyyo, pacchā tapati dukkaṭaṃ. Better left undone is a wrong deed, for a wrong deed later brings torment.

 

SN 2.22

 

na taṃ kammaṃ kataṃ sādhu, yaṃ katvā anutappati. An action which, once performed, brings torment is not well done.

 

Dhp 17

 

idha tappati pecca tappati,
pāpakārī ubhayattha tappati.
‘pāpaṃ me katan’ti tappati,
bhiyyo tappati duggatiṃ gato.
The evil-doer is tormented here and is tormented hereafter,
He is tormented in both [worlds].
He is tormented, [thinking]: ‘I have done evil [things]’,
And he is tormented even more when gone to a bad destination [after death].

 

 

3) The third shade of meaning is also derived from the first, as staying in the sunshine can also be a symbol for making an effort, for example to earn one’s living:

AN 5.33

 

“yo naṃ bharati sabbadā,
niccaṃ ātāpi ussuko.
sabbakāmaharaṃ posaṃ,
bhattāraṃ nātimaññati.
The one who always supports her
Constantly ardent and zealous
The man who brings what she desires,
Her husband she does not despise.

 

In another example, someone overcome by the three akusala·mūlas does not make an effort to correct the falsehood that is said to him:

AN 5.33

 

abhūtena vuccamāno na ātappaṃ karoti tassa nibbeṭhanāya itipetaṃ atacchaṃ itipetaṃ abhūtanti. When he is told things that are not factual, he doesn’t make an effort to correct it: ‘It is not true because of this, it is not factual because of this’.

 

 

4) The fourth connotation, stronger, is that of asceticism or austerities.

MN 12

 

iti evarūpaṃ anekavihitaṃ kāyassa ātāpana-paritāpan-ānuyogamanuyutto viharāmi. idaṃsu me, sāriputta, tapassitāya hoti. Thus in such a variety of ways I dwelt pursuing the practice of tormenting and mortifying the body. Such was my asceticism.

 

Those austerities are depicted at MN 51:

 

 

“katamo ca, bhikkhave, puggalo attantapo attaparitāpanānuyogamanuyutto? idha, bhikkhave, ekacco puggalo acelako hoti muttācāro hatthāpalekhano naehibhaddantiko natiṭṭhabhaddantiko; nābhihaṭaṃ na uddissakataṃ na nimantanaṃ sādiyati; so na kumbhimukhā paṭiggaṇhāti na kaḷopimukhā paṭiggaṇhāti na eḷakamantaraṃ na daṇḍamantaraṃ na musalamantaraṃ na dvinnaṃ bhuñjamānānaṃ na gabbhiniyā na pāyamānāya na purisantaragatāya na saṅkittīsu na yattha sā upaṭṭhito hoti na yattha makkhikā saṇḍasaṇḍacārinī; na macchaṃ na maṃsaṃ na suraṃ na merayaṃ na thusodakaṃ pivati. so ekāgāriko vā hoti ekālopiko, dvāgāriko vā hoti dvālopiko… sattāgāriko vā hoti sattālopiko; ekissāpi dattiyā yāpeti, dvīhipi dattīhi yāpeti… sattahipi dattīhi yāpeti; ekāhikampi āhāraṃ āhāreti, dvīhikampi āhāraṃ āhāreti… sattāhikampi āhāraṃ āhāreti iti evarūpaṃ aḍḍhamāsikaṃ pariyāyabhattabhojanānuyogamanuyutto viharati. so sākabhakkho vā hoti, sāmākabhakkho vā hoti, nīvārabhakkho vā hoti, daddulabhakkho vā hoti, haṭabhakkho vā hoti, kaṇabhakkho vā hoti, ācāmabhakkho vā hoti, piññākabhakkho vā hoti, tiṇabhakkho vā hoti, gomayabhakkho vā hoti; vanamūlaphalāhāro yāpeti pavattaphalabhojī. so sāṇānipi dhāreti, masāṇānipi dhāreti, chavadussānipi dhāreti, paṃsukūlānipi dhāreti, tirīṭānipi dhāreti, ajinampi dhāreti, ajinakkhipampi dhāreti, kusacīrampi dhāreti, vākacīrampi dhāreti, phalakacīrampi dhāreti, kesakambalampi dhāreti, vāḷakambalampi dhāreti, ulūkapakkhampi dhāreti; kesamassulocakopi hoti, kesamassulocanānuyogamanuyutto, ubbhaṭṭhakopi hoti āsanapaṭikkhitto, ukkuṭikopi hoti ukkuṭikappadhānamanuyutto, kaṇṭakāpassayikopi hoti kaṇṭakāpassaye seyyaṃ kappeti; sāyatatiyakampi udakorohanānuyogamanuyutto viharati iti evarūpaṃ anekavihitaṃ kāyassa ātāpanaparitāpanānuyogamanuyutto viharati. ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, puggalo attantapo attaparitāpanānuyogamanuyutto. And what, bhikkhus, is the person who torments himself and pursues the practice of mortifying himself? Here, bhikkhus, a certain person goes naked, rejecting conventions, licking his hands, not coming when asked, not stopping when asked; he does not accept food brought or food specially made or an invitation to a meal; he receives nothing from a pot, from a bowl, across a threshold, across a stick, across a pestle, from two eating together, from a pregnant woman, from a woman giving suck, from a woman lying with a man, from where food was advertised to be distributed, from where a dog was waiting, from where flies were buzzing; he accepts no fish or meat, he drinks no liquor, wine or fermented brew. He keeps to one house, to one morsel; he keeps to two houses, to two morsels;… he keeps to seven houses, to seven morsels. he lives on one saucerful a day, on two saucerfuls a day… on seven saucerfuls a day; he takes food once a day, once every two days… once every seven days, and so on up to once every fortnight; he dwels pursuing the practice of taking food at stated intervals. He is an eater of greens or millet or wild rice or hide-parings or moss or ricebran or rice-scum or sesamum flour or grass or cowdung. He lives on forest roots and fruits, he feeds on fallen fruits. He clothes himself in hemp, in hemp-mixed cloth, in shrouds, in refuse rags, in tree bark, in antelope hide, in strips of antelope hide, in kusa-grass fabric, in bark fabric, in wood-shavings fabric, in head-hair wool, in animal wool, in owls’ wings. He is one who pulls out hair and beard, pursuing the practice of pulling out hair and beard. He is one who stands continuously, rejecting seats. He is one who squats continuously, devoted to maintaining the squatting position. He is one who uses a mattress of spikes; he makes a mattress of spikes his bed. He dwells pursuing the practice of bathing in water three times daily including the evening. Thus in such a variety of ways he dwells pursuing the practice of tormenting and mortifying the body. This, bhikkhus, is what is called the person who torments himself and pursues the practice of mortifying himself.

 

Given on one hand this close proximity of the term ātāpī with the vocabulary of austerity and mortification and on the other the fact that the Buddha recommends being ātāpī (most prominently in the satipaṭṭhāna formulas), and knowing he also rejected self-mortification, in order to understand more precisely what he meant exactly by being ātāpī, it would appear useful to examine in greater details what his wider position was in regards to austerity.

First of all, it should be borne in mind that the Buddha clearly rejects the pursuit of self-mortification in his first recorded discourse, the Dhamma·cakka·ppavattana Sutta:

SN 56.11

 

“dveme, bhikkhave, antā pabbajitena na sevitabbā. katame dve? yo cāyaṃ kāmesu kāmasukhallikānuyogo hīno gammo pothujjaniko anariyo anatthasaṃhito, yo cāyaṃ attakilamathānuyogo dukkho anariyo anatthasaṃhito. These two extremes, bhikkhus, should not be adopted by one who has gone forth from the home life. Which two? On one hand, the pursuit of hedonism towards sensuality, which is inferior, vulgar, common, ignoble, deprived of benefit, and on the other hand the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble and deprived of benefit.

 

But at AN 10.94, the Buddha says he does not reject categorically both « all austerity » and « all ascetics leading the rough life », as it all depends on whether their practice removes unwholesome states and brings about wholesome ones, or not:

 

— “saccaṃ kira, gahapati, samaṇo gotamo sabbaṃ tapaṃ garahati, sabbaṃ tapassiṃ lūkhājīviṃ ekaṃsena upakkosati upavadatī”ti? — « Is it true, householder, that Gotama the contemplative criticizes all asceticism, that he categorically denounces & disparages all ascetics who live the rough life? »
— “na kho, bhante, bhagavā sabbaṃ tapaṃ garahati napi sabbaṃ tapassiṃ lūkhājīviṃ ekaṃsena upakkosati upavadati. — « No, venerable sirs, the Blessed One does not criticize all asceticism, nor does he categorically denounce or disparage all ascetics who live the rough life.
… [The Blessed One:]
nāhaṃ, gahapati, sabbaṃ tapaṃ tapitabbanti vadāmi; na ca panāhaṃ, gahapati, sabbaṃ tapaṃ na tapitabbanti vadāmi; nāhaṃ, gahapati, sabbaṃ samādānaṃ samāditabbanti vadāmi; na panāhaṃ, gahapati, sabbaṃ samādānaṃ na samāditabbanti vadāmi; nāhaṃ, gahapati, sabbaṃ padhānaṃ padahitabbanti vadāmi; na panāhaṃ, gahapati, sabbaṃ padhānaṃ na padahitabbanti vadāmi; nāhaṃ, gahapati, sabbo paṭinissaggo paṭinissajjitabboti vadāmi. na panāhaṃ, gahapati, sabbo paṭinissaggo na paṭinissajjitabboti vadāmi; nāhaṃ, gahapati, sabbā vimutti vimuccitabbāti vadāmi; na panāhaṃ, gahapati, sabbā vimutti na vimuccitabbāti vadāmi. I don’t say that all asceticism is to be pursued, nor do I say that all asceticism is not to be pursued. I don’t say that all observances should be observed, nor do I say that all observances should not be observed. I don’t say that all exertions are to be pursued, nor do I say that all exertions are not to be pursued. I don’t say that all forfeiture should be forfeited, nor do I say that all forfeiture should not be forfeited. I don’t say that all release is to be used for release, nor do I say that all release is not to be used for release.
“yañhi, gahapati, tapaṃ tapato akusalā dhammā abhivaḍḍhanti, kusalā dhammā parihāyanti, evarūpaṃ tapaṃ na tapitabbanti vadāmi. yañca khvassa gahapati, tapaṃ tapato akusalā dhammā parihāyanti, kusalā dhammā abhivaḍḍhanti, evarūpaṃ tapaṃ tapitabbanti vadāmi. « If, when an ascetic practice is pursued, unskillful qualities grow and skillful qualities wane, then I tell you that that sort of asceticism is not to be pursued. But if, when an ascetic practice is pursued, unskillful qualities wane and skillful qualities grow, then I tell you that that sort of asceticism is to be pursued.
“yañhi, gahapati, samādānaṃ samādiyato… padhānaṃ padahato… paṭinissaggaṃ paṭinissajjato… vimuttiṃ vimuccato akusalā dhammā abhivaḍḍhanti, kusalā dhammā parihāyanti, evarūpā vimutti na vimuccitabbāti vadāmi. yañca khvassa, gahapati, vimuttiṃ vimuccato akusalā dhammā parihāyanti, kusalā dhammā abhivaḍḍhanti, evarūpā vimutti vimuccitabbāti vadāmī”ti. « If, when an observance is observed… when an exertion is pursued… a forfeiture is forfeited… a release is used for release, unskillful qualities grow and skillful qualities wane, then I tell you that that sort of release is not to be used for release. But if, when a release is used for release, unskillful qualities wane and skillful qualities grow, then I tell you that that sort of release is to be used for release. »

 

But again, by contrast, at SN 42.12, while still not rejecting categorically both « all austerity » and « all ascetics leading the rough life », the Buddha does seem to reject categorically the fact of ‘attānaṃ ātāpeti paritāpeti’ (tormenting and torturing oneself), by presenting it as a reason good enough by itself to draw disapproval:

SN 42.12

 

ekamantaṃ nisinno kho rāsiyo gāmaṇi bhagavantaṃ etadavoca: Having sat down to one side, Rasiya the headman said to the Blessed One:
— “sutaṃ metaṃ, bhante, ‘samaṇo gotamo sabbaṃ tapaṃ garahati, sabbaṃ tapassiṃ lūkhajīviṃ ekaṃsena upavadati upakkosatī’ti . ye te, bhante, evamāhaṃsu… kacci te, bhante, bhagavato vuttavādino, na ca bhagavantaṃ abhūtena abbhācikkhanti, dhammassa cānudhammaṃ byākaronti, na ca koci sahadhammiko vādānuvādo gārayhaṃ ṭhānaṃ āgacchatī”ti? — Bhante, I have heard: ‘The renunciate Gotama disapproves of all austerity, he categorically criticizes and blames all ascetics leading a rough life.’ Those who say this, Bhante… do they speak in line with what the Blessed One has said, do they not misrepresent the Blessed One with what is contrary to fact, do they answer in line with the Dhamma, so that no one whose thinking is in line with the Dhamma would have grounds for criticizing them?
— “ye te, gāmaṇi, evamāhaṃsu… na me te vuttavādino, abbhācikkhanti ca pana maṃ te asatā tucchā abhūtena”. — Those who say this, headman, do not speak in line with what I have said, and they misrepresent me with what is false and contrary to fact.
“tatra, gāmaṇi, yvāyaṃ tapassī lūkhajīvī attānaṃ ātāpeti paritāpeti, kusalañca dhammaṃ adhigacchati, uttari ca manussadhammā alamariyañāṇadassanavisesaṃ sacchikaroti. ayaṃ, gāmaṇi, tapassī lūkhajīvī ekena ṭhānena gārayho, dvīhi ṭhānehi pāsaṃso. katamena ekena ṭhānena gārayho? attānaṃ ātāpeti paritāpetīti, iminā ekena ṭhānena gārayho. katamehi dvīhi ṭhānehi pāsaṃso? kusalañca dhammaṃ adhigacchatīti, iminā paṭhamena ṭhānena pāsaṃso. uttari ca manussadhammā alamariyañāṇadassanavisesaṃ sacchikarotīti, iminā dutiyena ṭhānena pāsaṃso. Here, headman, regarding the ascetic leading a rough life who torments and tortures himself, yet achieves a wholesome state and realizes a supra-human state, an attainment in knowledge and vision that is suitable to the noble ones, this ascetic leading a rough life, headman, may be disapproved of on one ground and praised on two grounds. And what is the one ground on which he may be disapproved of? He torments and tortures himself: this is the one ground on which he may be disapproved of. And what are the two grounds on which he may be praised? He achieves a wholesome state: this is the first ground on which he may be praised. He realizes a supra-human state, an attainment in knowledge and vision that is suitable to the noble ones: this is the second ground on which he may be praised.

 

Yet the exact same combination of verbs, ‘ātāpeti paritāpeti’ (meaning here to heat and burn), is also used (although with a different connotation) at MN 101 in a simile illustrating a recommended kind of unpleasant practice:

MN 101

 

“kathañca, bhikkhave, saphalo upakkamo hoti, saphalaṃ padhānaṃ? idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu na heva anaddhabhūtaṃ attānaṃ dukkhena addhabhāveti, dhammikañca sukhaṃ na pariccajati, tasmiñca sukhe anadhimucchito hoti. so evaṃ pajānāti: ‘imassa kho me dukkhanidānassa saṅkhāraṃ padahato saṅkhārappadhānā virāgo hoti, imassa pana me dukkhanidānassa ajjhupekkhato upekkhaṃ bhāvayato virāgo hotī’ti. so yassa hi khvāssa dukkhanidānassa saṅkhāraṃ padahato saṅkhārappadhānā virāgo hoti, saṅkhāraṃ tattha padahati. yassa panassa dukkhanidānassa ajjhupekkhato upekkhaṃ bhāvayato virāgo hoti, upekkhaṃ tattha bhāveti. tassa tassa dukkhanidānassa saṅkhāraṃ padahato saṅkhārappadhānā virāgo hoti. evampissa taṃ dukkhaṃ nijjiṇṇaṃ hoti. tassa tassa dukkhanidānassa ajjhupekkhato upekkhaṃ bhāvayato virāgo hoti. evampissa taṃ dukkhaṃ nijjiṇṇaṃ hoti. « And how is striving fruitful, how is exertion fruitful? There is the case where a monk, when not loaded down, does not load himself down with pain, nor does he reject pleasure that accords with the Dhamma, although he is not fixated on that pleasure. He discerns that ‘When I exert a [physical, verbal, or mental] fabrication against this cause of stress, then from the fabrication of exertion there is dispassion. When I look on with equanimity at that cause of stress, then from the development of equanimity there is dispassion.’ So he exerts a fabrication against the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the fabrication of exertion, and develops equanimity with regard to the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the development of equanimity. Thus the stress coming from the cause of stress for which there is dispassion through the fabrication of exertion is exhausted & the stress resulting from the cause of stress for which there is dispassion through the development of equanimity is exhausted.
“seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, puriso itthiyā sāratto paṭibaddhacitto tibbacchando tibbāpekkho. so taṃ itthiṃ passeyya aññena purisena saddhiṃ santiṭṭhantiṃ sallapantiṃ sañjagghantiṃ saṃhasantiṃ. taṃ kiṃ maññatha, bhikkhave, api nu tassa purisassa amuṃ itthiṃ disvā aññena purisena saddhiṃ santiṭṭhantiṃ sallapantiṃ sañjagghantiṃ saṃhasantiṃ uppajjeyyuṃ soka-parideva-dukkha-domanass-ūpāyāsā”ti? « Suppose that a man is in love with a woman, his mind ensnared with fierce desire, fierce passion. He sees her standing with another man, chatting, joking, & laughing. What do you think, monks: As he sees her standing with another man, chatting, joking, & laughing, would sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair arise in him? »
— “evaṃ, bhante”. — « Yes, lord.
— “taṃ kissa hetu”? — Why is that?
— “amu hi, bhante, puriso amussā itthiyā sāratto paṭibaddhacitto tibbacchando tibbāpekkho… soka-parideva-dukkha-domanass-ūpāyāsā”ti. — Because he is in love with her, his mind ensnared with fierce desire, fierce passion… sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair would arise in him.
— “atha kho, bhikkhave, tassa purisassa evamassa: ‘ahaṃ kho amussā itthiyā sāratto paṭibaddhacitto tibbacchando tibbāpekkho. tassa me amuṃ itthiṃ disvā aññena purisena saddhiṃ santiṭṭhantiṃ sallapantiṃ sañjagghantiṃ saṃhasantiṃ uppajjanti sokaparidevadukkhadomanassūpāyāsā. yaṃnūnāhaṃ yo me amussā itthiyā chandarāgo taṃ pajaheyyan’ti. so yo amussā itthiyā chandarāgo taṃ pajaheyya. so taṃ itthiṃ passeyya aparena samayena aññena purisena saddhiṃ santiṭṭhantiṃ sallapantiṃ sañjagghantiṃ saṃhasantiṃ. taṃ kiṃ maññatha, bhikkhave, api nu tassa purisassa amuṃ itthiṃ disvā aññena purisena saddhiṃ santiṭṭhantiṃ sallapantiṃ sañjagghantiṃ saṃhasantiṃ uppajjeyyuṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassūpāyāsā”ti? — « Now suppose the thought were to occur to him, ‘I am in love with this woman, my mind ensnared with fierce desire, fierce passion. When I see her standing with another man, chatting, joking, & laughing, then sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair arise within me. Why don’t I abandon my desire & passion for that woman?’ So he abandons his desire & passion for that woman, and afterwards sees her standing with another man, chatting, joking, & laughing. What do you think, monks: As he sees her standing with another man, chatting, joking, & laughing, would sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair arise in him? »
— “no hetaṃ, bhante”. — « No, lord.
— “taṃ kissa hetu”? — Why is that?
— “amu hi, bhante, puriso amussā itthiyā virāgo. tasmā taṃ itthiṃ disvā aññena purisena saddhiṃ santiṭṭhantiṃ sallapantiṃ sañjagghantiṃ saṃhasantiṃ na uppajjeyyuṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassūpāyāsā”ti. — He is dispassionate toward that woman. As he sees her standing with another man, chatting, joking, & laughing, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair would not arise in him.
— “evameva kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu na heva anaddhabhūtaṃ attānaṃ dukkhena addhabhāveti, dhammikañca sukhaṃ na pariccajati, tasmiñca sukhe anadhimucchito hoti. so evaṃ pajānāti: ‘imassa kho me dukkhanidānassa saṅkhāraṃ padahato saṅkhārappadhānā virāgo hoti, imassa pana me dukkhanidānassa ajjhupekkhato upekkhaṃ bhāvayato virāgo hotī’ti. so yassa hi khvāssa dukkhanidānassa saṅkhāraṃ padahato saṅkhārappadhānā virāgo hoti, saṅkhāraṃ tattha padahati; yassa panassa dukkhanidānassa ajjhupekkhato upekkhaṃ bhāvayato virāgo hoti, upekkhaṃ tattha bhāveti. tassa tassa dukkhanidānassa saṅkhāraṃ padahato saṅkhārappadhānā virāgo hoti: evampissa taṃ dukkhaṃ nijjiṇṇaṃ hoti. tassa tassa dukkhanidānassa ajjhupekkhato upekkhaṃ bhāvayato virāgo hoti: evampissa taṃ dukkhaṃ nijjiṇṇaṃ hoti. evampi, bhikkhave, saphalo upakkamo hoti, saphalaṃ padhānaṃ. — « In the same way, the monk, when not loaded down, does not load himself down with pain, nor does he reject pleasure that accords with the Dhamma, although he is not infatuated with that pleasure. He discerns that ‘When I exert a [physical, verbal, or mental] fabrication against this cause of stress, then from the fabrication of exertion there is dispassion. When I look on with equanimity at that cause of stress, then from the development of equanimity there is dispassion.’ So he exerts a fabrication against the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the fabrication of exertion, and develops equanimity with regard to the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the development of equanimity. Thus the stress coming from the cause of stress for which there is dispassion through the fabrication of exertion is exhausted & the stress resulting from the cause of stress for which there is dispassion through the development of equanimity is exhausted. This, bhikkhus, is how striving is fruitful, how exertion is fruitful.
“puna caparaṃ, bhikkhave, bhikkhu iti paṭisañcikkhati: ‘yathāsukhaṃ kho me viharato akusalā dhammā abhivaḍḍhanti, kusalā dhammā parihāyanti; dukkhāya pana me attānaṃ padahato akusalā dhammā parihāyanti, kusalā dhammā abhivaḍḍhanti. yaṃnūnāhaṃ dukkhāya attānaṃ padaheyyan’ti. so dukkhāya attānaṃ padahati. tassa dukkhāya attānaṃ padahato akusalā dhammā parihāyanti kusalā dhammā abhivaḍḍhanti. so na aparena samayena dukkhāya attānaṃ padahati. taṃ kissa hetu? yassa hi so, bhikkhave, bhikkhu atthāya dukkhāya attānaṃ padaheyya svāssa attho abhinipphanno hoti. tasmā na aparena samayena dukkhāya attānaṃ padahati. « Furthermore, the monk notices this: ‘When I live according to my pleasure, unskillful mental qualities increase in me & skillful qualities decline. When I exert myself with stress & pain, though, unskillful qualities decline in me & skillful qualities increase. Why don’t I exert myself with stress & pain?’ So he exerts himself with stress & pain, and while he is exerting himself with stress & pain, unskillful qualities decline in him, & skillful qualities increase. Then at a later time he would no longer exert himself with stress & pain. Why is that? Because he has attained the goal for which he was exerting himself with stress & pain. That is why, at a later time, he would no longer exert himself with stress & pain.
seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, usukāro tejanaṃ dvīsu alātesu ātāpeti paritāpeti ujuṃ karoti kammaniyaṃ. yato kho, bhikkhave, usukārassa tejanaṃ dvīsu alātesu ātāpitaṃ hoti paritāpitaṃ ujuṃ kataṃ kammaniyaṃ, na so taṃ aparena samayena usukāro tejanaṃ dvīsu alātesu ātāpeti paritāpeti ujuṃ karoti kammaniyaṃ. taṃ kissa hetu? yassa hi so, bhikkhave, atthāya usukāro tejanaṃ dvīsu alātesu ātāpeyya paritāpeyya ujuṃ kareyya kammaniyaṃ svāssa attho abhinipphanno hoti. tasmā na aparena samayena usukāro tejanaṃ dvīsu alātesu ātāpeti paritāpeti ujuṃ karoti kammaniyaṃ. « Suppose a fletcher were to heat & warm an arrow shaft between two flames, making it straight & pliable. Then at a later time he would no longer heat & warm the shaft between two flames, making it straight & pliable. Why is that? Because he has attained the goal for which he was heating & warming the shaft. That is why at a later time he would no longer heat & warm the shaft between two flames, making it straight & pliable.
evameva kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu iti paṭisañcikkhati: ‘yathāsukhaṃ kho me viharato akusalā dhammā abhivaḍḍhanti, kusalā dhammā parihāyanti; dukkhāya pana me attānaṃ padahato akusalā dhammā parihāyanti, kusalā dhammā abhivaḍḍhanti. yaṃnūnāhaṃ dukkhāya attānaṃ padaheyyan’ti. so dukkhāya attānaṃ padahati. tassa dukkhāya attānaṃ padahato akusalā dhammā parihāyanti, kusalā dhammā abhivaḍḍhanti. so na aparena samayena dukkhāya attānaṃ padahati. taṃ kissa hetu? yassa hi so, bhikkhave, bhikkhu atthāya dukkhāya attānaṃ padaheyya svāssa attho abhinipphanno hoti. tasmā na aparena samayena dukkhāya attānaṃ padahati. evampi, bhikkhave, saphalo upakkamo hoti, saphalaṃ padhānaṃ. « In the same way, the monk notices this: ‘When I live according to my pleasure, unskillful mental qualities increase in me & skillful qualities decline. When I exert myself with stress & pain, though, unskillful qualities decline in me & skillful qualities increase. Why don’t I exert myself with stress & pain?’ So he exerts himself with stress & pain, and while he is exerting himself with stress & pain, unskillful qualities decline in him, & skillful qualities increase. Then at a later time he would no longer exert himself with stress & pain. Why is that? Because he has attained the goal for which he was exerting himself with stress & pain. That is why, at a later time, he would no longer exert himself with stress & pain. This is how striving is fruitful, how exertion is fruitful.

 

Examples of some inherently unpleasant practices are mentioned elsewhere:

AN 4.163

 

“katamā ca, bhikkhave, dukkhā paṭipadā dandhābhiññā? idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu asubhānupassī kāye viharati, āhāre paṭikūlasaññī, sabbaloke anabhiratisaññī, sabbasaṅkhāresu aniccānupassī; maraṇasaññā kho panassa ajjhattaṃ sūpaṭṭhitā hoti. « And which is painful practice … ? There is the case where a monk remains focused on unattractiveness with regard to the body, percipient of loathsomeness with regard to food, percipient of non-delight with regard to the entire world, (and) focused on inconstancy with regard to all fabrications. The perception of death is well established within him.

 

A reason why some practices may become unpleasant is also mentioned at AN 4.162:

 

“katamā ca, bhikkhave, dukkhā paṭipadā … ? idha, bhikkhave, ekacco pakatiyāpi tibbarāgajātiko hoti, abhikkhaṇaṃ rāgajaṃ dukkhaṃ domanassaṃ paṭisaṃvedeti. pakatiyāpi tibbadosajātiko hoti, abhikkhaṇaṃ dosajaṃ dukkhaṃ domanassaṃ paṭisaṃvedeti. pakatiyāpi tibbamohajātiko hoti, abhikkhaṇaṃ mohajaṃ dukkhaṃ domanassaṃ paṭisaṃvedeti. « And which is painful practice … ? There is the case where a certain individual is normally of an intensely passionate nature. He perpetually experiences pain & distress born of passion. Or he is normally of an intensely aversive nature. He perpetually experiences pain & distress born of aversion. Or he is normally of an intensely deluded nature. He perpetually experiences pain & distress born of delusion.

 

The Buddha also goes so far as to accept the appellation ‘one who tortures [himself]’ (tapassī), saying that what he has tortured were actually akusala dhammas:

AN 8.12

 

“katamo ca, sīha, pariyāyo, yena maṃ pariyāyena sammā vadamāno vadeyya: ‘tapassī samaṇo gotamo, tapassitāya dhammaṃ deseti, tena ca sāvake vinetī’ti? tapanīyāhaṃ, sīha, pāpake akusale dhamme vadāmi kāyaduccaritaṃ vacīduccaritaṃ manoduccaritaṃ. yassa kho, sīha, tapanīyā pāpakā akusalā dhammā pahīnā ucchinnamūlā tālāvatthukatā anabhāvaṃkatā āyatiṃ anuppādadhammā, tamahaṃ ‘tapassī’ti vadāmi. tathāgatassa kho, sīha, tapanīyā pāpakā akusalā dhammā pahīnā ucchinnamūlā tālāvatthukatā anabhāvaṃkatā āyatiṃ anuppādadhammā. ayaṃ kho, sīha, pariyāyo, yena maṃ pariyāyena sammā vadamāno vadeyya: ‘tapassī samaṇo gotamo, tapassitāya dhammaṃ deseti, tena ca sāvake vinetī’”ti. And what, Siha, is the line of reasoning by which one speaking rightly could say of me: ‘The renunciate Gotama is one who tortures, he professes a teaching of torture and instructs his disciples accordingly’? I say, Siha, that bad, unwholesome states, bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct and mental misconduct are to be tortured. I say that one who has abandoned the bad, unwholesome states that are to be tortured, cut them off at their root, made them like a palmyra stump, annihilated them, so that they are unable to arise again in the future, is one who tortures himself. The Tathagata has abandoned the bad, unwholesome states that are to be tortured, cut them off at their root, made them like a palmyra stump, annihilated them, so that they are unable to arise again in the future. This is the line of reasoning by which one speaking rightly could say of me: ‘The renunciate Gotama is one who tortures himself, he professes a teaching of torture and instructs his disciples accordingly’.

 

So we may try to conclude here that what the Buddha rejected was the performance of unpleasant practices that would not help removing unwholesome states and developing wholesome ones (AN 10.94), or even if they do have that effect, the performance of unpleasant practices for themselves, as a way of ‘rough life’ (lūkhajīvita, SN 42.12). But even the right type of asceticism has to be undertaken in a balanced way, to avoid having it ending up developing unwholesome states:

AN 6.55

 

— “nanu te, soṇa, rahogatassa paṭisallīnassa evaṃ cetaso parivitakko udapādi: ‘ye kho keci bhagavato sāvakā āraddhavīriyā viharanti, ahaṃ tesaṃ aññataro. atha ca pana me na anupādāya āsavehi cittaṃ vimuccati, saṃvijjanti kho pana me kule bhogā, sakkā bhogā ca bhuñjituṃ puññāni ca kātuṃ. yaṃnūnāhaṃ sikkhaṃ paccakkhāya hīnāyāvattitvā bhoge ca bhuñjeyyaṃ puññāni ca kareyyan’”ti? — « Just now, as you were meditating in seclusion, didn’t this train of thought appear to your awareness: ‘Of the Blessed One’s disciples who have aroused their persistence, I am one, but my mind is not released from the fermentations through lack of clinging/sustenance. Now, my family has enough wealth that it would be possible to enjoy wealth & make merit. What if I were to disavow the training, return to the lower life, enjoy wealth, & make merit?' »
— “evaṃ, bhante”. — « Yes, lord. »
— “taṃ kiṃ maññasi, soṇa, kusalo tvaṃ pubbe agāriyabhūto vīṇāya tantissare”ti? — « Now what do you think, Sona. Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vina? »
— “evaṃ, bhante”. — « Yes, lord. »
— “taṃ kiṃ maññasi, soṇa, yadā te vīṇāya tantiyo accāyatā honti, api nu te vīṇā tasmiṃ samaye saravatī vā hoti kammaññā vā”ti? — « And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune & playable? »
— “no hetaṃ, bhante”. — « No, lord. »
— “taṃ kiṃ maññasi, soṇa, yadā te vīṇāya tantiyo atisithilā honti, api nu te vīṇā tasmiṃ samaye saravatī vā hoti kammaññā vā”ti? — « And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune & playable? »
— “no hetaṃ, bhante”. — « No, lord. »
— “yadā pana te, soṇa, vīṇāya tantiyo na accāyatā honti nātisithilā same guṇe patiṭṭhitā, api nu te vīṇā tasmiṃ samaye saravatī vā hoti kammaññā vā”ti? — « And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune & playable? »
— “evaṃ, bhante”. — « Yes, lord. »
— “evamevaṃ kho, soṇa, accāraddhavīriyaṃ uddhaccāya saṃvattati, atisithilavīriyaṃ kosajjāya saṃvattati. tasmātiha tvaṃ, soṇa, vīriyasamathaṃ adhiṭṭhahaṃ, indriyānañca samataṃ paṭivijjha, tattha ca nimittaṃ gaṇhāhī”ti. — « In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme. »

 

 

It may also be important to note that being ātāpī does not necessarily refer to unpleasant practice, since it can constitute the basis to enter the jhānas:

SN 48.40

 

idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno appamattassa ātāpino pahitattassa viharato uppajjati dukkhindriyaṃ. so evaṃ pajānāti: ‘uppannaṃ kho me idaṃ dukkhindriyaṃ, tañca kho sanimittaṃ sanidānaṃ sasaṅkhāraṃ sappaccayaṃ. tañca animittaṃ anidānaṃ asaṅkhāraṃ appaccayaṃ dukkhindriyaṃ uppajjissatīti: netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati’. so dukkhindriyañca pajānāti, dukkhindriyasamudayañca pajānāti, dukkhindriyanirodhañca pajānāti, yattha cuppannaṃ dukkhindriyaṃ aparisesaṃ nirujjhati tañca pajānāti. kattha cuppannaṃ dukkhindriyaṃ aparisesaṃ nirujjhati? idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati: ettha cuppannaṃ dukkhindriyaṃ aparisesaṃ nirujjhati. ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, ‘bhikkhu aññāsi dukkhindriyassa nirodhaṃ, tadatthāya cittaṃ upasaṃharati’”. Here, bhikkhus, while a bhikkhu is remaining heedful, ardent and striving, the pain faculty arises. He understands thus: ‘The pain faculty has arisen in me; it possesses a feature, a cause, a construction, a condition. It is impossible that the pain faculty would arise without a feature, a cause, a construction, a condition’. He understands the pain faculty, he understands its origin, he understands its cessation, and he understands where the arisen pain faculty ceases completely. And where does the pain faculty cease completely? Here, bhikkhous, a bhikkhu, detached from sensuality, detached from unwholesome states, having entered in the first jhāna, remains therein, with thoughts, with thought processes, exaltation and well-being engendered by detachment: here the arisen pain faculty ceases completely. This is called, bhikkhus, ‘a bhikkhu who knows the cessation of the pain faculty, and who directs his mind to that end.’

 

The same is then repeated about domanass·indriya sukh·indriya somanass·indriya upekkh·indriya, respectively about the second, third, fourth jhānas and saññā·vedayita·nirodha. At MN 19, the same expression appamattassa ātāpino pahitattassa viharato (remaining heedful, ardent and striving) is similarly used to describe the state in which the Buddha was when he reached the three vijjās just before his awakening.

 

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