The Stoic philosopher Seneca displays Roman ignorance when he blithely reports (Epistle 108) that he is acetic because he abstains from mushrooms and oysters — not wine, however, because it is easier to consume it moderately than to abstain altogether. A similar misconception about ascetic practice can be found in the historical Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays, a practice deftly abused by certain medieval monks who devised exemptions for travelers arriving on their grounds on Friday, and took walks to qualify themselves as travelers exempted from the ban on meat consumption.
Perhaps these practices were mere moral shortcomings. Or perhaps these failed practices are distinctly Western failures, as Heidegger suggests in a larger context in “The Origins of the Work of Art.” They represent the Western failure to comprehend the original motivating experience behind practices. The failed practices (Heidegger begins by suggesting words and concepts) only bring a version of translation, an inorganic appropriation, to an uncomprehending culture.
This translation of Greek names into Latin is in no way the innocent process it is considered to this day. Beneath the seemingly literal and thus faithful translation there is concealed, rather, a translation of Greek experience into a different way of thinking. Roman thought takes over the Greek words without a corresponding, equally authentic experience of what they say, without the Greek words. The rootlessness of Western thought begins with this translation.
Thus, asceticism in the Christian Greek world — based on not only the language but the authentic experience of Syriac and Egyptian practices — is not a translation in the degree that Latin Roman practice, distant in time but also in spirit — not to say culture and language — inevitably remained. Western asceticism begins not in practice but in thought, in thoughtful reconstruction of what the desert experience was, now filtered through the Roman mentality of codes, hierarchies, and rituals.
Perhaps embedded in this issue, too, is what Buddhism scholar Robert Thurman refers to when he describes his personal search for authenticity in world religious tradition. Sanskrit and Tibetan alphabets are comprised of polysyllables, essentially words, but Western alphabets are comprised of contrived symbols that not only mean nothing but cannot be sounded without conjoining with other letters. What is the sound of “b” without adding “a” or “e”, for example? Hence reason and logic are applied to contrived symbols rather than to lived experience expressed. The Western form of translation, here, too, is “without a corresponding, equally authentic experience,” to return to Heidegger’s observation.
Without this lived experience, asceticism remains a set of contrived rules, an artificiality. No wonder the West must endlessly dabble in imported pieces of religion and spiritual practices that must be packaged for meaning because the pieces are not lived experience.
This phenomenon overtakes yoga, tai-chi chuan, meditation, prayer, belief, philosophizing, asceticism — any non-Western experience, any historical phenomenon that only individual practice at the heart of meaning, prior to culture and translation, can hope to address. As Heidegger says elsewhere, the East has “no thought” but the West, steeped in reason and logic, can only use thought to try to go beyond thought. And this can only be accomplished by the solitary individual.