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
by: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
We can meditate alone or with others. When attending a Buddhist center we do so with others, and with others we listen to the Sensei delivering a dharma talk. Even within a monastic community the monks generally sit along with others. In fact sitting with others is an entirely different experience than when we sit by ourselves, it is often more intense. A contemplative practice, however, is better done alone in solitude. A contemplative practice is not teaching us to be solitary, that would be absurd. Even for those that have chosen to live a monastic community life do so with others. Those who wish to be solitary are, as a general rule, expressing their solitary character that is not how the Buddha expressed our human natures to be, especially for us that value engaging the dharma. We are, after all, social selves. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path is about self and others. Steven Batchelor expressed it as “alone with others.” Interconnectiveness and interdependence are primary principles of Buddhist thought.
There are also many examples of individuals that can not stand to be alone. It drives them crazy. Our culture and social values provides ample opportunities to enable us to avoid our own company and be with others almost twenty four hours a day. Even when we are in a room alone, we can turn on and tune in to so many modern devices that bring others into our room even if they are electronic-people. Just noise can eliminate being alone, even if it is just in our minds. Being truly alone is hard work in our contemporary 21st century world. Men can’t live without society, that would be almost impossible today. Those who claim they would like to live in solitude and are able to, are often those who depend most on others, even if they are not aware of this simple fact. Their pretense of solitude is only a clear admission of their dependence, another type of illusion. Even another example of suffering.
Our communities enable us to care more easily for ourselves which gives us the capability to care for others. This is an essential element of what makes us human as advanced sentient beings. Yet, there is great value in taking the time to be alone, both physically and in a contemplative mind-state, in order to create the solitary-environment that can promote experiencing awakened moments. Another aspect when considering the notion of solitude is that of interior solitude. We retreat into our private space so we can activate this inner observer that is apart of a contemplative solitary interior practice.
An authentic contemplative is not one who simply withdraws from the world. The act of social withdrawal from others results in personal suffering and a sick kind of solitude without a useful and harmonious out come. A contemplative monk is called not to reject the nature of his social-self but to transcend it using social interaction with others as a reminder that just living in the material world without “looking up” into silence is a life void of realizing a world that reflects back into our eyes the meaning of the wonder of its majesty.
An essential component of this interior solitude is that we practice rigorous self-honesty and not develop a self-centered sense of our importance by “doing” what we think is serious practice. This is our ego talking. We must remember that when we direct our mind toward universal suchness, we our at the same time encountering it as mystery. By nature mystery is just that, a mystery, unknowing. Another essential of this interior practice of solitude is the actualization in which we take responsibility for our own inner life. We face its full mystery as is that of our own universal expression. We take upon ourselves the barely comprehensible task of working our way through the unknowing aspect of our own mystery-ness and become aware of how we and the very Universe we work to comprehend is the reality beyond common knowing. We accomplish this by losing all words and language to express it. What is interesting is that there is nothing particularly special or spectacular about these glimpses of Dharma. Don’t expect “the ultimate answers.” The Universe will always remain a mystery. But we can learn to sense a connection that resolves into great doubt that works to sustain our contemplative practice to go further. These become moments when we confront the solitary aspects of our contemplative practice, and by so doing, find we are not alone after all.