“Autonomous self-reliance”

Gotama (the Buddha) presented his preference for “setting off alone, without a companion” as a model for all who seriously pursue the path of self-knowledge and enlightenment. Stephen Batchelor calls this the “model of autonomous self-reliance,” and it is certainly familiar to the hermit tradition regardless of culture or era.

In this model, Gotama sent off his disciples not to house themselves in monasteries but to mingle with people as they saw fit or to recluse themselves as they saw fit, but always to function as solitaries. They would share their wisdom with people or build their wisdom in forests and hermitages and the like, but the point was the rejection of institution-building. Here is a clear affinity to the Hindu and Jain sadhu rather than the priestly Brahmin class.

We can see the same model in Jesus when he bids his closest disciples to disperse in no more than pairs, carrying no money or food, only a staff, accepting with gratitude the invitation to enter a house but shaking the dust from themselves when made unwelcome. The disciples of Jesus mingle with the people as they see fit or presumably recluse themselves when they need to do so, but always funtion as solitaries. There is no hint in the Gospels of institutionalizing themselves like the priestly caste, the Pharisees, the equivalent of the Brahmins.

The model of “autonomous self-reliance” is viable to earnest hermits but also to the majority of seekers who value solitude but know that they are bound to live in society.


People tend to forget that both Gotama and Jesus were wandering ascetics. They were homeless and deliberately without property. “The birds have their nests, and the foxes their dens,” but not so Jesus or Gotama, and enough evidence suggests that they intended that their disciples should be likewise.

Yet even while householders and we moderns may not find ourselves able to follow the radical example of Gotama and Jesus, we recognize in their poverty and simplicity the truth that ultimately we own nothing, we control nothing, that nothing belongs to us. This is our identity with other beings in the universe, for does a tree or mountain or planet own anything? Even as we use the goods of this world (like a tree uses sunlight and rainfall and nutrients in the soil) we must admit to just temporarily borrowing things and having to give them up in the end. And we know that end, regardless of whatever individual tradition we follow. Are we not reminded facetiously that even the sun will expire in a few billion years?

Our lives should be a reflection on how we go about this “giving up,” little bits at a time, even as we go about our daily lives. Contrast modern culture, media, and self-help books that urge us to maximize our use of worldly goods and experiences, like insatiable gluttons. St. Augustine says somewhere that we should study how to die as much as how to live. Our lives should be a study on how free we can be if we do not cling to things, or at least begin giving things up now.