Tag Archives: Buddhist monastic practice

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. Continue reading

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Considerations on the Monastic Vocation

By: David Xi-Ken Astor Sensei

“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 own reality and of one’s ability to give himself to society…”

Thomas Merton from Thoughts In Solitude

Living a traditional monastic life could be viewed as being very scandalous in that a monk, Buddhist or Christian for that matter, seems to have no specific task that could be considered a job in the secular sense of the word.  That can be a mistake if you think monks are free from work tasks in order to spend all their time in meditation and scholastic activities.  In reality though, the life in a monastic community has many tasks and organized routines so their world is very much similar to the social life like everyone else’s.  This is especially true when the monastic community is living outside the walls of the monastery.  This kind of social life can become complicated and overly active in a way.  Living as a monk does not shield you from all the life challenges of an ordinary life.  In reality it is filled with all the ordinary life tasks plus enhanced practice ones too.  A growing number of monks now work outside their houses in order to share in the support of their community.  The monk is not defined by his tasks, job or secondary profession, but by his commitment to his practice as shared with his dharma brothers under the guidance of his sensei.  In a certain sense the monk is supposed to live an unstructured life because his mission is to be ready to engaged the dharma in whatever form it is presented in the moment, with little family or social distractions.  This means that monasticism aims at the cultivation of a certain quality of life, a deeper level of awareness, an awakened consciousness which is not usually possible in an active secular world these days.  In this 21st century we have so many distractions to keep us from our practice.

I do not mean to imply that the secular lifestyle is somehow totally about self centered priorities, or that there can be no real understanding of the importance of developing an interior awareness.  But it does mean that more immersion and absorption in worldly business will take away from a contemplative mind state that is of utmost importance in gaining readiness for experiencing awakened moments.  There is much to be said about a sustained practice over one that experiences fits and starts.  Monks are not weekend warriors, but seek to be free from what William Faulkner called “The same frantic steeplechase toward nothing” which can be the essence of a Buddhist practice when engaged for a few hours a month.

As a monastic community lives together, either in groups or alone but connected, they do so with a sense that they are not separate from the lay community they live side by side with.  We should avoid any notion of “inside or outside.”  The concept of “separation from the world” that can arise in a monastic community is yet another illusion.  Even for those monks within the walls of a monastery/temple.  We must never forget we are social-selves and agents for change.  We do not take vows to become a different species of being.

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