Solitude And The Socially Engaged Monk

By:  David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I speak often about the importance of awakening to how the Four Noble Truths articulate the importance for us to develop the individual as well as social elements of this noble practice we call Buddhism.  We learn how we are, both as persons and as partners, in this web of connections we call life.  As a Buddhist monk that has taken vows to engage others beyond the walls of a temple, it is important for me to confront the realities of the social-self component of my practice.  Without it I do not have much of a Buddhist ministry.  The Buddha emphasized, however, the importance for us to balance our social responsibility with the individual need for our own spiritual renewal.  Siddhartha often removed himself from the everyday activities of the Sangha, and retreated into solitude in order to “recharge” his spiritual energy.  The Ch’an and Zen tradition has a long history of supporting an extended period of retreating into solitude away from all distractions.  This is true in both the East as it is now in the West.

I want to share with you today some thoughts on the nature of this transformative body-mind practice know as “session”, or intentional practice into solitude.  Time or space is not imposed.  It is up to the individual to establish the parameters surrounding the need.  It is always an effect of the causal chain of events that drives the situational aspects of making the choice for withdrawing from social interaction.

Solitude or withdrawal is the state of being secluded or separate from others.  An individual can choose to inter a state of practice of being solitary based on circumstances.  It is an example of situational-practice.  When used at the right time and in the right manner it can have an important role in our spiritual development.

Before his enlightenment Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, also spent over six years in extended periods alone in the forests of his ancestral home in what we know today as Nepal.  He was seeking first to understand himself before he could have the wisdom to administer the affairs of others.  That was when he thought his destiny was to govern the region after the death of his father, the King.  That we know now did not happen.  The causal nature of the Universe revealed a different path for him, and we are all the richer for that reality.  Reminiscing on this time many years later he said in the Majjhima Nikaya, “Such was my seclusion that I would plunge into some forest and live there.  If I saw a cowherd, shepherd, grass-cutter, wood-gatherer or forester, I would flee so that they would not see me or me them.”  We know from the many references made in the various Pali Canon that after he attained enlightenment he would occasionally go into solitude.  In the Samyutta Nikaya he is reported as saying, “I wish to go into solitude for half a month.  No one is to come to see me except the one who brings my food.”     Even though Siddhartha came to consider that the fabric of all phenomena-form, including our human one, are interconnected and dependent, it was still vital to withdraw from intentional contact in order to reconnect with renewed vigor.  The notion is that I might be in a room by myself, but I am never totally alone, because all the connections I have with others before I stepped into solitude are never severed, unless that too is an intentional act.   Even then, we are only in a body-mind state of being “alone with others” as Stephen Batchelor puts it.

The Buddha made a distinction between physical and psychological solitude.  He considered physical solitude to be the more important.  For him, psychological solitude meant isolating the body-mind from negative thoughts and emotions, something that is a natural human experience that can result in positive change, and should not be avoided.  The Buddha recognized that we can choose to be solitary for a variety of reasons, some positive, and others not as useful or productive to our well being.   Some of us want to isolate ourselves from others out of personal anguish, mental illness, or misplaced preference.  More intelligent reasons why one might seek solitude, he said, included a feeling of healthy contentment, individual modest needs, to achieve self-examination, some appreciation for the value of aloneness, and because it can be helpful for spiritual growth.  It is certainly true that regular periods of solitude and even occasional extended periods, can be psychologically refreshing.   But it is important to examine our intentions to make sure that the psychological component of the desire for creating a period of withdrawal is based on healthy objectives.  Some of the objectives can be to learn the value of independence, to rest the body-mind, enhance an appreciation for silence especially in zazen, and to impose a space for rigorous self-honest that brings a wiser and more confident mental state of how we are.

It is most important that when we seek a prolonged period of solitude for all the encompassing and corrective reasons, that we still need to monitor how this special practice is enhancing our everyday-practice in useful and productive ways.  The blissful state of aloneness, however,  can subtly result in the shirking of our responsibilities, to ourselves, to our teacher, to the Sangha, to our monastic vows, and to our family and community.  We must be alert to the possibility of over doing it by over reaching ourselves and end up straining the body-mind state that we are trying to strengthen.   This is why the Buddha cautioned, “One who goes into solitude will either sink to the bottom or rise to the top.”

In contemporary times this brings to mind Thoreau’s Walden experiment.  Certainly one aspect of it was to show how little one really required to live well.  This of course required living an intentional existence, similar to the reality of a monastic life.  But his primary goal was to demonstrate something to himself.  As he put it,  to “transact some private business with the fewest obstacles.”  I would call this “private business” as being in the nature of contemplation.  Thoreau was constantly tracking his own nature, which to him was not necessarily other than nature itself.   This brings to mind how Eihei Dogen saw Buddhism: to first study the self, that leads to discovery of the nature of our humanness, and then to awaken to the nature of self and other as having no distinction.  Thoreau also said of his experience, “I was reminded of the lapse of time (in every moment).  I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than the work of the hands would have been.  There was no time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.  I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works.”    One might say that Thoreau was pre-Buddhist in much the same way that the Chinese Taoists were.  He forecast by his actions an American Buddhism by the vary nature of his contemplation and body-mind awakening.

When you become accustomed to solitude and the world of nature, when you begin to relish the silence of the woods, the ever active birds and other animal life, the night sky, when you contemplate the various supportive roles of the relationships you come to rely on, you experience a gradual restoration of fundamental humanity.  As a result you become increasingly sensitive to what is real and what is not.  It is this aspect of seeking periods of solitude that is of primary importance to a maturing spiritual practice.

Over the years of my evolving monastic experience, both Christian and Buddhist, I have been deliberating on the differences between practice in solitude or that in community engagement beyond the walls of a monastery.  I am concerned in a trend that I have observed that many that follow an absorbed path of solitude, either in retreat, extended guided session, or on their own in some other situation, to get absorbed in their own agenda, their own practice, their own trip.  This is true for both monks and laity alike.  This is why it is important to set objectives and goals before stepping onto the path of withdrawal, and remember that a life of commitment to the Bodhisattva principles always includes the community of others.  We seek solitude in order to gain insight on how the Universe is, and then to share this wisdom when engaging others.  Monasticism is a thought transformation practice.  In order to get the maximum benefit out of all the work required for ordination, we really have to live a life of community involvement.   A formal lay practice has the same challenge and commitment.  Making the decision to intentionally step on the Buddhist path and take the lay precepts, is a life changing act.  In the West the laity hold the key for the survival of a thriving monasticism.

The Buddhist community includes monastic’s and lay people working together in equal partnership.  Both are necessary for the preservation of traditional Buddhism.  It is important, in my mind anyway, that the Buddhist leadership live a life of simplicity and one dedicated to the teaching of the dharma.  In the West, it is the laity that often manage the daily operation of our training centers.  It is vital for all to understand how the need for a practice in momentary solitude nourishes the spiritual life of the Sangha and the community we serve.  This requires support and understanding from all that wish to maintain the vitality of a community-based Buddhist practice.

The 21st century presents a new set of challenges for how a contemporary traditional Buddhist practice is constructed.  Through technological advancement and the creation of computers, humanity has crafted an artificial environment that can be used as a tool for teaching the dharma.  It directly teaches the lessons of how we are interconnected and interdependent of others around the world.  These tools break down the walls that have been erected by different cultures over the centuries to define who they are.   We may not be totally aware of it, but we have developed relationships with both the human and mechanical components to make cyberspace work in useful and productive ways.  Ideally, the aim of tools is to ease life of man and to also facilitate global communication.   These new-world tools have also redefined how we might consider a practice of solitude.  We often sit in a room alone and connect with others that are also in a room alone.  It becomes easy to personify the virtual environments we use and come to think we are fulfilling and engaged practice.  But this is generally not the case.  Only connecting with others on a virtual platform may not be a healthy Buddhist practice, you must also step out the door to the world of reality.  After all we must not forget that the virtual platform is only one of the many tools we have to engage others.  A healthy practice of solitude is similar to taking refuge.  We take refuge in order to engage others with confidence when we know our intentions are good.    Solitude is like taking one step back in order to take three steps forward.  But the goal is always to move forward, not to move backwards, or worse, not to move at all.

This brings me to the final point I would like to mention about how the practice of solitude is a practice of the individual human spirit.  It is individual by its very nature.  While the human fabric is woven by all the individual strands of each of our lives and connected in all the mired ways that gives importance to how we engage others, and the reality of the principle of Dependent Origination, we only begin to know this connection when we confront our mind in a room alone.  It is individual discovery of how we connect with others that gives meaning to a Buddhist practice.  But individual nevertheless.  Solitude and withdrawal is the one aspect of Buddhism that remains an individual act and a personal commitment to ourselves alone.  We do this in order to reengage with others in the bond that recognizes no distinction between self and other.

In an age when political uncertainty and social injustice has striven to devaluate and degrade human dignity, I hope it is correct to demand consideration for the right of man to favor his inalienable solitude and his interior freedom.  The din of our materialistic world cannot be allowed to silence the independent voices which will never cease to speak, whether they are the voices of Buddhist masters, Christians like Mother Teresa, or the voices of individuals like Thoreau or Martin Luther King Jr.  It is all very well to awaken to man as a social-self, the fact is obvious enough when we awaken to Siddhartha’s worldview.  But that does not diminish the need to step away from social interaction in order to see the path more clearly.  To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s awakening to his reality and one’s ability to give themselves to society, on compassionate terms.  When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by compassion.  Awakening to how the Universe is, is already apart of what makes us  human, and becoming aware of this reality requires a certain interior solitude and silence.  The focus of our meditation practice.

Considering the lessons within the Four Noble Truths, we can reason that a temperamentally angry person may be more inclined to anger than another.  But as long as he remains sane he is still free not to be angry.  His inclination to anger is simply a force in his character which can be turned to good or harm according to his personal preferences and ability to learn to control his desires.  This requires a great deal of time in rigorous self-honesty that is fostered in a state of productive solitude.  Detachment is not insensibility.  Sometimes in order to achieve a state of encompassing and corrective ways of being, it is important to take time to contemplate without distraction.

A spiritual life is not a mental life.  It is not about thought alone.  Nor is it a life of sensations or mystical unknowing.  It is a life of feeling what we are experiencing in a profound way.  It is not that the spiritual life is without thought, it requires thinking to have a good contemplative practice.  But to touch the spirit within our grasp to awaken to, requires a great deal of silence.  However, the activity we engage in is not purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind.  Our purpose in life as I see it, is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it.  It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.  Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life, and life to thought, in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old, and old things in the new.  This makes life always new.  And for that to happen, we must have an active life of silence, often moment to moment.

There are a few take-away lesson of importance here.  The first comes when we consider the three dimensions of Buddhism, the philosophical, the psychological, and the spiritual.  As I see it, we are challenged first to grasp the foundational philosophical principles of Buddhism so we can awaken to how we humans can have a satisfactory relationship to this wonderful Universe of ours.  When we begin to really understand the depth of these lessons, we come to realize how our psychological responses to situations build the connections with others in constructive ways.  These two elements are the social characteristics driving a Buddhist practice, and point to the nature of the social-self.  The spiritual dimension, however, is the individual aspect associated with becoming aware of how we are as Universal expressions, and nurtures our body-mind practice that supports how we interact with others.  A healthy Buddhist practice seeks to create balance between these three dimensions.   Without a practice of silence, we can not achieve a compassionate social practice.  Working hard in engaged Buddhist activities only, we will eventually loose the vitality and freshness that comes from periods of mental-solitude.  Being a Buddhist is not all about helping others, or living without others alone in a forest somewhere either.  It is seeking a balance that creates the opportunity of awakening to how the Universe is, and we can only do that when we hear it’s whisper in moments of silence.


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