The front of the house is a garden of forking paths. Not so sinister as in the short story of that tile by Jorge Luis Borges. Well, it isn’t really a garden, either — that’s on the other side of the house.

A little path of flagstones diverted in one direction, the original “path.” But with the expansion of bamboo, trees, and other plantings, the flagstone path ended up leading to nowhere, or became too hard to follow out. Now the flagstones have sunk to a perfect ground level and are nicely weathered. Their aimlessness and obscurity have become their charm. An old set of chimes, a bird feeder, and a few oversized pots and the path is an invitation to stay and not go that way.

On the other side of the bamboo is a dirt path worn in the grass, unprotected, charmless, and unoriginal. Such is the “fork” and the “paths.”

Something about paths always lures travelers, hikers, and the observant. A path represents both someone else’s effort but potentially someone else’s failures, too. Efforts fail, paths lead to nowhere, and two forks in a path don’t mean two solutions or sides to every coin — to extend the metaphor. Sometimes the comfort of trodding in someone’s previous path is offset by the sensation that this isn’t where we want to go after all

It is inevitable, then, that the best statements about “paths” come from kindred souls like the Buddha or Thoreau. Here is a neat summary by the latter:

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.

Vegetarian hermits, 17th century England

Reading The Bloodless Revolution, a Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times, by Tristram Stuart. A striking fact in seventeenth-century England was the appearance of two hermits, of different temperaments, both advocates of vegetarianism.

Thomas Bushell was Sir Francis Bacon’s secretary, and evolved (based on Bacon’s own observations) a view of vegetarianism based on the idea that God did not sanction the slaughter and consumption of flesh in the Garden of Eden but only after the Flood. Eden being the model for ethical behavior, Bushell advocated vegetarianism, even as a loyal monarchist and Anglican — meaning that he did not see it as subversive, as did some churchmen.

After the downfall of Bacon, Bushell became a hermit on the Isle of Wight, where he was famous for his diet of bread, water, and greens. He even put on a masque for the king and queen, portraying (guess what) a wise vegetarian hermit.

Roger Crab was originally a Cromwellian and soldier, but quickly wearied of Cromwell’s authority and became a Leveller and radical. (We have already written a little about Crab on Hermitary.) Crab held the same religious arguments as Bushell but his motive for vegetarianism was more egalitarian: he saw meat as the luxury of the wealthy, and a vegetarian diet as the diet of the poor and ate like them in solidarity with their plight. But soon he advocated the diet as healthful and he became a folk healer in herbs and diet, attracting many patients. His status as a hermit furthered his reputation as an eccentric, but also gave him a certain moral authority.

In many ways, Crab was ahead of his time. He made the connection between violence in society and violence against animals (both in how animals were treated and in their slaughter for food). He supported a radical group called the Diggers, who agitated for land reform, pointing out the enormous tracts of empty land owned by nobles on the one hand, and the eager masses of landless poor who were ready to grow their own food if they had land. Crab’s Christianity, therefore, was more radical than Bushell’s or his contemporaries in having a clear social consciousness. That Crab was a hermit only added insult to those who opposed him.

Stuart concludes with regards to Crab and his associates that “vegetarianism was a familiar expression of political and religious dissent in seventeenth-century England” and that “the rejection of violence, oppression and inequality went hand in hand with vegetarianism in a movement that aimed to achieve a bloodless revolution.”

Eremitism is radical, too, in its own way, and yet it reconciles all polarities, as the cases of Bushell and Crab suggest.

Reproducing the sage III

In reproducing or approximating the sage, much depends on our definition of the sage, or at least on what sort of human context we conceived. The historical Jesus and Buddha are technically unknowable, and the texts that remain to us — and the source of much critical exegesis since the nineteenth century — have an uninspiring dichotomy between sage and institution-founder. The latter image often absorbs and obliterates the former, making the reproduction of the enlightenment process almost impossible if based on the teaching authorities rather than a insightful reflection on the texts.

An authentic presentation of the sages is often subordinated to the role of authority on the part of the presenter, and the reader or listener is often reduced to the role of subordinate. This role of modern pedagogy becomes the subconscious or obvious way of thinking about the sages. But to reproduce in our lives the image of an authority, much less an ambitious founder of institutions and orders, is not going to work.

In the case of the Buddha, the notion of sangha has represented a community of believers or adherents. Similarly, in the case of Jesus, the ecclesia or people has come to represent the institutional Church. But can these notions be reconciled to the historical sages, who were doubtless addressing groups and crowds of householders but not crowds of authorities intent on recreating not the sage but themselves as authorities?

The listeners and followers of the sages are often portrayed as the simple, humble, oppressed, and poor. In those portraits of the Buddha or Jesus facing authorities, the latter are always seen as either arrogant and hostile or as on the brink of recognizing that they should renounce authority if they are to gain wisdom. How, then, can it be argued that the essence of the sage is to lend ethical credence to power and authority?

Perhaps the least ambiguous example, of sagacity, then, is to be seen in the ancient Chinese sages ranging from Confucius to Chuang-tzu, where authority and individual are unremittingly opposed to one another and where sagacity clearly lodges not in one person or class but in nature. The individual must capture the patterns of nature in order to achieve sagacity, but these patterns cannot be captured unless authority and power is renounced. Additionally, the most successful renunciation is not an ethical process as such but leads to an ethical process as its vindication and confirmation.

The process of sagacity, therefore, can be simply presented as a psychological or logical necessity, as a means to an end. It becomes attainable by anyone regardless of station or formal learning. Moreover, it opens the possibility of solitude in a world of social class and consciousness. Sagacity is a matter or reproducing or approximating the natural order. The reproduction or approximation of sagacity in an individual is therefore not so much a matter of imitating someone as it is the seeing of the self engaged in the understanding and following of the natural order.

When Buddhism reached China and Japan, this tradition was ready to transform the intellectual categories of the new thought into already perceived historical wisdom-processes. Unfortunately in the West, there was nowhere for the sage Jesus to be received except into the existing models of cultural arrogance, whether of the religious exclusivity of chosenness or the authoritarian model of empire.

Reproducing the sage II

By “reproducing the sage” I mean recreating the psychological setting if not the actual physical situation of the historical sages as a way of approximating their mental and physical state and moving positively from it. Our efforts will be largely mental, though, but at least they enable one to get started. So perhaps it can be better called “approximating the sage.”

A person in a complex, cluttered, and wealth-dependent setting will not be able to approximate the sage because he or she cannot physically disengage from the physical circumstances of the present. Moreover, such a person will not easily disengage from such a setting mentally either, although an intellectual sleight-of-hand is always possible. The tendency to intellectualize things and make of abstractions as if they were real can be a form of self-deception. On the other hand, living at a level of simplicity that shocks a spoiled person not used to it will not be conducive to right thinking either. Hence the Zen dictum: “Just practice.” Settings and attitudes will adjust accordingly.

But a key element in the path of sages is often overlooked. In biographical accounts of Jesus, Buddha, Mahavira, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, and others, we see it but don’t fully approximate it, namely solitude.

The story of Jesus in the desert prior to teaching or the Buddha’s sitting beneath the tree after many austere practices is often presented as a prologue. But in fact it is the whole thing. Many people will never get out from the desert or out from beneath the tree. The whole transformational process is in the desert and under the tree. To stay there as long as necessary may mean being there indefinitely, and that, admittedly, is very unattractive. Yet everyone needs to go there first, see who they are, what they are capable of, and what everything else signifies. It may turn out that the desert or tree is actually the physical setting where we were all along, in all its austerities, and just didn’t realize it because we just aren’t going to be leaving it after all.

Our solitude in this special setting is not self-sufficient. We need the insight of the sages after all. We need the input of the sage in order to see how the transformation actually happens. The leap from emptiness to transformation may be too elusive. Do we slide into it uneventfully? Do we leap as from one cliff to another with a gaping chasm beneath us? Do we bring all of our baggage, dragged with us into the desert and now dragged back? Is there any such thing as a transition anyway?

We have the texts and sayings of the sages, the content of right thought and right living, but the transition to understanding and living them is not actually explained by anyone. We are only bid to get started, to start living “as if” — as if we were already there, checking our thoughts, our actions, our words, testing ourselves as to whether we are really there, or testing ourselves to find out where we are.

This solitary enterprise (solitary because no one else can really confirm its progress for us) is itself the reproducing of the sage, or approximating of the sage. Reproducing the sage is reproducing the solitary, that is, the solitary as a kind of ideal. Which is all that the sage really is.

Reproducing the sage

The emergence of formal religious hierarchy, whether in traditional or esoteric religions, signaled not the maturation of the thought of the founder but the end of the creative application of the sage’s thought.

This is clearly the case in the most famous sages Jesus and Gautama Buddha, less so in Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Jainism, or Theosophy. The religions of the ancient world were often so diffuse in content that it is hard to investigate them except as anthropological objects. Their enthusiasm and the rarefied but unreproducible insights of original sages such as Zoroaster or mythic figures like the Yellow Emperor of China offer tantalizing glimpses into the formation of self-reflective culture.

Gnosticism exists as a foil to Christianity. The other scriptural religions — Judaism and Islam — are akin as cultural phenomena that provoked no particular controversy internally until they encountered other philosophies and traditions. The scriptural religions are a cultural continuity but vulnerable to inimical forces in the new cultures they run into or which co-opt them. In short, historical religions are collective social structures are not to be probed as sources of wisdom but rather social solutions to material and cultural challenges.

What has all this to do with the solitary? It will be seen that in the grand mix of religions and religious culture, the solitary alone holds the insights as founder or sage. The immediate followers of the sage or “founder” have the historical opportunity to grasp the charism and enthusiasm of the sage. This response from the sage’s immediate followers is very much an individual and internalized experience. How can it be conveyed to succeeding generations except in the most careful language, at once open and wise?

The instinct of succeeding generations is to capture the sage’s essence, as it were, in a bottle. Special souls (often enough solitaries themselves!) will be able to relive the insights by reliving the physical and psychological circumstances, but doing so is not obvious to most people. The householder or the covetous of power in religious castes or orders will not be able to understand the sage.

Most people will unconsciously assume that codifying and ritualizing the sage’s thoughts will keep it alive and long-lived, therefore permanently available. Such availability is exactly the ossifying process, or at least the assumption that this availability is the same as living thoughts and actions. The empty shell remains. The remnant may be a source of great comfort, for it undoubtedly appeals to an important part of our psyche and our heart.

But it is mere sentiment and rote if we cannot reproduce the mind and circumstances of the sage. Meditation, simplicity, and disengagement are all universal techniques of the sages. They do not guarantee insight but are rather necessary prerequisites. The solitary is best fitted to at least attempt to pursue this path. By reproducing the mind of the sage the solitary cuts directly to what is essential to know in the brief time allotted to us in this life.