Anthropology has long shown that religion, rather than an intellectual contrivance or a set-out system of commandments and controls, is simply a social and cultural phenomenon, evolving in a cultural group like agriculture, healing, food-preparation, or rituals of birth, marriage, and death. Religion is loftier because it intends to address the origins of the universe and the trajectory of human existence within a perceived scheme.

But because religion is a common phenomenon, a universal expression, its contents can be cataloged and compared. The panoply of detail is fascinating, and comparative studies inviting. How each culture finds an interpretation of the universe that fits its own physical and psychological experiences reveals a criteria for self-understanding, regardless of an individual’s social or cultural upbringing. The process mitigates hostility towards one’s own culture while promoting understanding of other’s cultures. Thus distilling common factors is both a relativizing process but also a “scientific” process. Once information is gathered, imagination and creativity salvage the effort from the extremes of exceptionalism on the one hand and relativism and science on the other.

Since no modern can adhere to the practice and ritual of a given religion without, in effect, betraying or ignoring the cultural specificity of the given ritual, the dilemma for the sensitive and respectful has been to create syncretic approximations to a more universal religion, synthetic approximations to universal systems of thought, decorated by spiritual or ritualized elements.

In the Eastern world, such syncretism has been more natural: Vedanta as the product of Vedic and spiritualized Hinduism, Zen as the product of Taoism and Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism as the product of Buddhism and Bon. The distinction between popular ritual and intellectual thought, too, has been easier to maintain in the East, as even the Dalai Lama has noted. The religious tensions of the East have been promoted by external imperial expansion, as in the Muslim presence in India, the coming of Christian missionaries in China and Japan, or diasporic circumstances, as suffered by the Rohingya in Myanmar.

In the West this tension has been more intrinsic to history. Persecution, pogroms, and wars of religion have dominated Western history not only in antiquity and Early Modern Europe but even today, where violence, however, is transmuted into cultural rivalry. After the rise of science and technology, the displacement of institutional religion excluded popular spiritual alternatives other than esotericism. The influx of Western-language translations of sacred books from the East in the late 19th century, promoted a new syncretism, dominated by Theosophy, which linked Western spiritism and generic supernaturalism with imagined Tibetan Buddhism, with its deities, demons, and angels. Permutations such as Fourth Way, New Thought, anthroposopy, and other syncretic bodies of thought emerged. The premise of many syncretisms is that a more original or root body of knowledge, necessarily esoteric, exists at a level never explored or consciously suppressed by the major religious authorities.

This premise now crosses the East and West divide. Helene Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, believed that in Tibetan Buddhism were to be found mysterious supernatural powers as much as universal knowledge, and hidden masters who knew this knowledge and skills. G.I. Gurdjieff similarly presented hidden masters as the source, in his estimation the mysterious Sarmoung Brotherhood. In a curious inversion, the successors of Blavatsky, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, identified a young J. Krishnamurti as Theosophy’s forthcoming World Teacher, for which Krishnamurti was being groomed. After much education, travel, and socialization around the world, Krishnamurti rejected the ideas of the Theosophists, but he became a world teacher after all. And Krishnamurti’s premise is basically that no body of thought or tradition derived from institutions is reliable or believable. Krishnamurti combines a Socratic philosophical method of questioning with a Buddhist emphasis on self and enlightenment of self as a contemplative project.

Where does the syncretism that especially animates the Western interest in yoga, meditation, and similar practices go for vindicating the logic of the new thinking? Here T.D. Suzuki (or a successor) explains the nature of Buddhism to Westerners, and Westerners explain Buddhism to readers of specialized presses or glossy magazines that offer expensive retreats in highbrow locations around the world. As with the subject of religion, the new syncretism can be viewed simply as a cultural phenomenon. Only a given individual and the person’s intellectual effort can reconcile truth, but that is an intellectual effort that frustrates the very goal of syncretism. Is one best off sailing new waters, or familiarizing oneself with already-met waters? Or realizing that whatever waters one encounters, the river is different every time one attempts to step into it.

Hermit’s Walk

The eminent Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945) spent much of his life in Kyoto, teaching at the university there and, after retirement in 1927, writing. He used to take breaks to walk along a quiet tree-lined path from the university along a canal, with several shrines and temples along the way. In those days, the path was doubtless solitary and restful, but since then it is populated with tourists, visitors, and small vendor stands catering to them. The path is called “Philsopher’s Walk” or “Path of the Philosopher,” retaining a sense of what it may have been like a century earlier when Nishida walked it.

In a parallel vein, philosopher’s walks are named walkways in Heidelberg, Germany — along the Neckar River, a scenic path popularized by Romantic-era writers and thinkers — and in Toronto, Canada — between the University of Toronto and a quiet old residential area. The Heidelberg area has plaques and signage, being close to old shops and a church. The Toronto path was a deliberate plan for pedestrian access to and from certain academic buildings and beyond.

A walking path conceived as a nature trail near Ripton, Vermont, is named for the American poet Robert Frost, who, however, did not walk this route during his lifetime but lectured and taught nearby for a while later in life. The US National Park Service maintains this interpretive trail, as it is called, and has put up placards of Frost poems along the trail.

(As an aside concerning Kyoto: the city of Kyoto was a priority target site for nuclear bombing for the United States Targeting Committee in World War II. The Secretary of War Henry Stimson intervened to suggest that post-war relations with Japan would suffer if Kyoto was destroyed. But the art historian and archaeologist Langdon Warner may have been the more influential voice, arguing forcefully concerning preservation of the cultural jewel of Japan that housed thousands of shrines, temples, a university, and other historically significant sites.)

The philosopher’s paths suggest a counterpart: a “hermit’s walk” or “hermit’s path.” Perhaps they exist already for some, in a deep forest somewhere, unmarked and unintended, pr in a public park, with placards of hermit quotations or sayings carried in the walker’s mind. Such sayings would probably include poems of Chinese wilderness poets, a passage from a Hindu or Buddhist sage, a saying of Paul of Thebes, a passage from Rousseau, Thoreau, or Muir. There are many possibilities, slanted toward nature versus society, toward the mystical or spiritual versus the formal and engaged. And perhaps a little composition book to read and reflect upon, filled with favorite sayings collected over years of reading, while taking a moment to sit on a boulder or mound, taking a break from walking. The latter, empty and meditative, a quiet state of mind in nature, is the ideal. The experience may a nearby destination or a planned visit to a nearby park, a frequent practice or an occasional vacation. Nature bathing with a little thoughtfulness is a salutary experience.

About books

The great dilemma for dwellers of small or tiny houses is what to do with books. (Here, of course, we are not referring to electronic formats, which are sometimes a reluctant necessity; enlarging fonts for old eyes is a boon, but reading them is an aseptic experience without spatial-temporal marker, aesthetically and tactically empty, a kind of defeat.)

One rule of some simplicity advocates is that for every new book, an existing one must go. This is a hard rule when one’s collection is already considered essential, and especially after experiencing regret over a favorite or needed book long discarded. Nor does “discarding” seem a harsh word for this mechanical treadmill or quota system. Besides, who can say that what was good won’t become essential, that what was redundant and disposable becomes a much needed and now lacking insight or contained an important point overlooked or underappreciated at the time. It can be argued that giving books to a library is a good and charitable use, but having spent a career in libraries it must be said that few donations are deemed useful by the powers that judge. Let us admit, too, that a book sale or even an arrangement like Book Crossing is poor treatment of a treasured tome that is being booted from the collection based on draconian numbers. Seems as heartless as abandoning a puppy, or worse.

Ancient Chinese poet-recluses have all mentioned the limits of their book collections, sometimes rather few books at that. We only hear of Tao Chien’s books when he sits at night to browse the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” (Shan hai jing), probably his only book. Han-shan, recently reclused from court service, tells us of daily life, that

with his son he picks wild fruit
with his wife he hoes between rocks
what does he have at home
a shelf full of nothing but books.

But that was before he became a hermit, some sources suggesting that poverty and starvation killed his family.

Po Chu-i built a two-room house for his wife, daughter, and his own anticipated retirement from court. He describes the cottage in loving detail, mentioning dimensions, windows, bamboo and hemp, beams and rafters, wooden benches, two screen partitions, favorite objects: a ch’in, or lute– and books, Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist.

Stonehouse built a tiny house or hut about ten feet wide. From the outside the hut looks cramped, he admits, but he does not mind because he owns so little: a grass mattress, a slab of wood for a pillow, a gilt statue of the Buddha (and three clay ones fashioned by his own hand). Stonehouse tells us that at night he moves a “book stand to read sutras by moonlight,” but doesn’t mention any other books.

The Japanese hermit Kamo no-Chomei described his hut in detail, including his images of the Buddha. He tells us that “on the wall that faces the north I have built a little shelf on which I keep three or four black leather baskets that contain books of poetry and music and extracts from the sacred writings. Beside them stand a folding koto and lute.”

The eccentric Japanese recluse-monk Kenko, whose “Essays in Idleness” reflects a somewhat Epicurean angle to solitary living, notes (not unlike Tao Chien), that “The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.” Among his preferred reading, Kenko includes Po Chu-i and the Taoist classics of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu.

Lastly, for now, is the Japanese poet-hermit-monk Ryokan.

Ryokan describes his hut in one poem as a “three-mat hut,” but in another passage as “four-mat.” He refers to the same hut, of course, not necessarily to the number of tatami mats as flooring but to the relative size of his “little grass hut,” what he sees as “little more than four bare walls.” He mentions his one window. There is no apparent niche or divider; Ryokan speaks of “sitting along in my empty room.” On a wall several poems are written. On the bed and strewn on the floor are books of poetry. His possessions include one robe (probably two sewn as one but thin nevertheless), and a walking stick. He employed a “solitary lamp” and a hearth that burned firewood or charcoal. Ryokan mentions a kettle and a rice steamer, plus his ubiquitous bowl.

Skipping a few centuries we come to Michel de Montaigne, the French Renaissance writer of “Essays,” including a favorite titled “On Solitude.” He tells us he had plenty of room for books (being also a lawyer and civil servant) but took a different tact. He disagrees with Pliny’s advice to use solitude to devote oneself to study, for even books and learning, says Montaigne, are a tyranny. “Books are pleasant; but if by associating with them we end by losing gaiety and health, the best parts of us, let us leave them.” Further, “I like only pleasant and easy books which entertain me,” he declares, “or those that console me and counsel me to regulate my life and my death.”

Montaigne does not contradict the Chinese or Japanese hermits. Everyone values books, and if more are helpful, why not keep them, wherever in the house or hut one must find a place for them. Whenever one comes across a used book in a shop or library that is quite valuable, the surprise and delight of discovery is always refreshing. But, more glumly, its owner may have parted reluctantly with the book, or not understood it, or was forced by wrong-headed advocates of simplicity. Or perhaps its owner is no longer with us. Long life to that one who has passed, to one who loved good books as much as we do.

Pope and Keats on solitude

In an article by Raymond D. Havens titled “Solitude and the Neoclassicists,” reviewed in Hermitary, the author notes that the dry rationalist British writers of the 18th century had a deep loathing of solitude and anything or anyone interested or attracted to solitude. The author traces the attitude to anti-clericalism (solitude being identified with monks), Enlightenment enthusiasm, and a disdain for religious thought. They narrowly defined solitude as retirement at best, sloth and dissipation at worst, and held a deep aversion to being alone.

For British attitudes more sympathetic to solitude, therefore, one must turn to the eras just before and just after the 18th century. Thus the poet Alexander Pope composed “Ode to Solitude” in 1700, just before the rationalist era took hold, and John Keats composed “O, Solitude!” in 1816. Interestingly, while we may think that reflections on solitude are the provenance of age and maturity, Pope composed his poem at 12 years of age, and Keats when he was 21. For both poets, the poems were their first effort. Pope understands the nature of solitude as withdrawal and anonymity. Keats, a sociable and gregarious youth, saw solitude perfected by sharing it with a like-minded companion.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
“Ode to Solitude”

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

John Keats (1795-1821)
“O Solitude!”

O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,-—
Nature’s observatory whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavilioned, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refined,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

Emergence of eremitism

In every major world religion, the emergence of eremitism or a more restrained form of solitude practice emerges at a very specific historical point in the evolution of the given religion. One may even consider such a moment a precondition to the emergence of eremitism or an equivalent practice of solitude. The question of what can sustain eremitism over time will be found within the moment itself.

And if “religion” is broadly defined as a way of looking at the universe and responding to large questions, then the historical model might be broadened to include primitive religion as well as philosophy itself. The important factor is the larger context of society and culture.

Consider Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. All of these are “scriptural” religions, to some decree, meaning that the religion presents a set of texts as authoritative. At the same time, each of these religions emerges from specific historical, cultural, social, geographic, environmental, material,and perhaps psychological, contexts. These avenues of reflection and investigation are rich, indeed. For now, here are very brief considerations of each:

Hinduism emerged from the the distinctive myths, deities, stories, rituals, prayers, and societal practices of the conquering Aryans in India. The myriad gods, their foibles and desires expressed in stories, and the social hierarchy or caste system they created around priests, warriors, mercantile, and household classes, comprise the structure in which the religious injunctions were pursued. The scripture is the Rig Veda, which has no spirituality, because the society and dominant Brahmin class had no need for it. But as that intellectual class came to recognize the shallowness of rote rites, prayers, and inadequate comprehension of self and universe, succeeding generations of Brahmins compose the Upanishads, spiritualizing the religion and forming Vedanta. In this new, refreshing spiritual movement emerges the primacy of the hermit, as a social and religious option.

Judaism reflects its desert origin in a sky god, unusual as a single deity, thus monotheism, which may have had Egyptian origins or simply reflect the stark geography of its earliest adherents. Its priests and scholars accommodated myth and history with ritual and doctrine in its scripture, dominated by the harsh image of the deity Yahweh, shaping the psychology of the Hebrew and Jewish culture. Rigidly communal in social expectations, structuring society around the family and community, the exhaustion of the old scripture after the diaspora gradually saw emergence of mysticism, especially in medieval Western Europe and later in Eastern Europe. In these mystical forays, the practice of solitude and tolerance of scholarly eccentricity in pursuit of spirituality became options to the serious adherent. Though no formal eremitism emerged in the Judaic tradition, instances of solitary behavior were tolerated.

The content of earliest Christianity remained the experience of the first generation or two witnessing the historical Jesus, for Jewish scripture retained a moral and priestly hold for a century and more. Christianity became split between adherents of the historical sense of community and values versus the emergent priestly and ecclesiastical structure that regularized (or “sanitized”) the sayings and teachings into ritual, doctrine, and dogma. As the latter forces dominated, the first wave of hermits emerged in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, lasting several hundred years and strongly reflecting a spiritual versus ecclesiastical preference. Eventually scattered geographically from their desert settings, eremitism consolidated in Greece, Ethiopia, and parts of Europe. But in Europe the ecclesiastical movement dominated (less so in Britain, southern Italy, and later, in the Low Counties). Eremitism only reached its apex in Europe with the emergence of a significant mystical movement in the later Middle Ages. Christian eremitism virtually disappeared after the Protestant reform and emergence of nation-states.

Islam shares many characteristics of Judaism, not only as an Abrahamic religion and its conception of God, but in terms of initial geography and the dominance of communalism, discouraging social life outside of family and group. A rapid 7th-century expansion from Persia to Egypt, North Africa, and Spain, could not contain a strict ritualism from welcome intellectual influences. A spirituality built around mysticism evolved into Sufism, with its emphasis on solitude as an individual practice towards greater comprehension and identification with God. As with Judaism, no hermit movement emerged, but the primacy of solitude in spirituality, however restricted or rarefied, is a notable feature.

Buddhism represented a new religious phenomenon among world religions. For centuries, the compelling moral weight of traditional ascription of sayings and teachings of historical Guatama were sufficient to guide the adherent. The religion remained largely the practice of a spiritual “elite,” leaving myth, ritual, and doctrine to the mass of societal adherents, the tenor of which was governed largely by the particular society or country. Unlike Brahmins, the Buddhist monks seldom interacted with society except on a “shamanic” basis, as in bestowing wishes, prayers, and healing formulas, especially in Tibet, where the transition from the local Bon religion sustained these rituals. Eremitism seemed inevitable in Buddhism, especially among an intellectual class not residing in large ecclesiastical structures like monasteries but pursuing Buddhism as philosophy, with a willingness to follow some ritual prescriptions as religion. The rich reflections of the historical hermits of China and Japan automatically include an entirely spiritual component, something between philosophy and poetry, weaving an eremitic movement that often absorbs the entire expression of Buddhism.

In each instance above, though sketchily presented, an inevitable conclusion emerges: eremitism thrives when ecclesiastical structure is weak or absent, when a mystical or spiritual sense of the universe is evoked, pursued, and applied and appreciated, when rote ritual and doctrine is exhausted, and when the social structure itself is challenged by the popular realization that conventional thought and formulas are insufficient to represent the heights to which the given religion can attain.