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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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