The late Japanese Zen master Dainin Katagiri wrote a small essay entitled “Walking Alone, As All Beings,” commenting on the paradox in Buddhism of living solitary versus living with the group or sangha.
The conventional response to this paradox is to affirm that the sense of “living alone” is meant as a mature and free person, while life in the body of believers is associative and social. Thus:
There are two discourses on the sangha by the Buddha that appear to be contradictory. In one he speaks of the virtues of living in solitude. In the other he says we should find a wise and good friend with whom we can walk through life.
Without getting into the history of Buddhism (the early emphasis on the individual, the later on the group), we can conclude that these two statements are talking about the same experience, as Katagiri realizes.
But these teachings aren’t actually contradictory. Both refer to the spirit of self-discovery, of coming to the realization that you live with all beings and that your life is inseparable from those of others.
That our lives intersect, overlap, and parallel those of others is inevitably true. And for many solitaries, finding a friend for life, be it a sibling, a loved one, a spouse, or just a friend, is not an absolute contradiction to the eremitic life. Many Asian masters, from Brahmanic householders to Zen teachers, have been married. On the other hand, many Western non-hermits such as monks, priests, and nuns, have been unmarried and celibate but lived their lives within communities. Eremtism moves an entire sets of people from the notion of “social” life conventionaly understood as discourse, interrelations, and shared effort, to the notion of individual life lived internally, introvertly, or subjectively, regardless of physical and social context.
Strictly speaking, no matter what situation you are in, happy or sad, you live alone, and your practice is to walk steadily and alone.
The depth of this walking alone is reflected in the path, sometimes complex and elaborate, that we set before us. Only the one who trods it can envision this path, and sometimes even that one does not know where it leads. Subjective emotions, the depth of inner intuition and insight, are unique products of individuals, and do not necessarily contradict life in society. They are not competitive experiences, only parallel, seemingly overlapping the world but more like the asymptote that never really intersects with the line seen as norm by society.
The eremitic experience of one living in the world is to be engaged in work or communicating clearly and productively with others, yet never fully “there,” never fully delivered of self to some outward thing. Outward things are relational to the self, not real entities. Real enough, of course, but only taken into account by us when they need to be. Our relationship to the world, to people, to sentient beings, and to nature, defines and shapes our consciousness but can never fully “be” in us, never fully absorbing or be absorbed by us.
Instead, this function of monitoring one’s consciousness, one’s mind and its reactions when in the world, takes on a particular quality or value or “taste.” This experience then shapes our daily lives. Again, Katagiri:
Learning to live alone means that, whatever the situation you have to live quietly. All you have to do is just walk, step-by-step. It’s not so easy, but it’s very important for us. And if we are not too greedy, the good friend will appear.
The appearance of a good friend alludes to the old refrain about the appearance of a good teacher (“When the student is ready the teacher will appear”). But the latter saying is more receptive to a hopeful relationship of authority and mentorship. The solitary senses early on that no such teacher will ever be adequate, and that the best teacher will demure, sending his student away as soon as possible. How many stories of Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan masters, for example, tell of a student who clings to a master a long time, apparently making no progress, apparently wasting time in tedious and unproductive tasks (Milarepa is an example), until one day the teacher opens up with a few teachings that overwhelm the student in self-realization. Or the student comes to a sudden enlightenment. And then the student can go away.
While the solitary will not reject the “good friend” who may appear, the hermit is skeptical about a teacher appearing serendipitously. For a reason, the spirit has led the solitary into the desert, the mountain, the forest. Here, having already progressed beyond word or example, the hermit encounters all beings. And sometimes, this wilderness is still within the world, the city, society.
Katagiri follows up this idea:
In ancient times in India, people would look to find such a good friend meditating in the forest. If they found such a person, they would sit with him. This is how it was with Buddha. As people began to gather around him, he called them shravakas, which means “listeners.” The relationship between the Buddha and those who came to listen to his teaching was not like that of a boss and an employee or a parent and child. It was more like that of a master and an apprentice. If you go to see and listen to such a wise friend, you are not a student, exactly; you are just a listener. The idea of being called a student came about in a later age.
This point is very important: that we must free ourselves from an authority relationship even when seeking wisdom from another, because we are listening and exploring how the application of what we have heard relates to the intuitive path we have perceived, and to the adjustment we can make to increase the efficacy of our path, in short, to add insight and enlightenment to what is a mere intuition in our hearts at the moment we go off seeking advice. The analogy of master and apprentice, where we learn a skill that will later sustain us, differs from the analogy of master and student, where the latter imbibes a doctrine or teaching but cannot assimilate it because it is too much the path of another and not the components or aspects of a potential path of self for the listener.
Katagiri concludes by pointing out that the social dimension of Buddhism only came later: non-solitaries coalesced into groups or sanghas. This later era basically institutionalized paths, a phenomenon closer to contradiction than paradox, as the work of Stephen Batchelor, for example, shows. We must adhere to the original inspiration for striking out in search of wisdom, not adhere to the byproduct of too many bureaucrats and administrators who ossify the inspiration by turning it into an institution.
Finally, too, we must acknowledge, as does Katagiri in this little essay, that we are not different than all the myriad beings before, with, and after us. All of them exist, but are intrinsically alone. The paradox of solitude is that living alone yet finding a friend “both refer to the spirit of self-discovery, of coming to the realization that you live with all beings and that your life is inseparable from those of others. To live in solitude is to live with the understanding that there is nothing to depend on.” We come to realize best when in solitude that we are not separate from anything else, and that “suffering occurs only because we see ourselves separate in the first place.” Seeing this interdependence, yet experiencing this profound sense of solitude, brings us to both grandeur and humility.