A previous entry maintained that moderation is not a qualitative stance or measure but an accommodation that fails to address a necessary ethic. It falls back or launches forward, but the self does not resolve an issue or solve a dilemma. Moderation trembles at a weak point, constantly struggling to push back an extreme.

Given that moderation is recommended so universally as a palliative or remedy to excess, what, then, is the alternative?

The alternative to moderation is balance. These concepts are not synonymous. They each seek a different moral center. Moderation is a human contrivance based on perception and will, and in the end seeks to satisfy the excesses of an errant appetite, idea, prescription, or other flawed presentation.

Balance is based on perception, inevitably, but balance already exists a priori to human intervention. Balance is intrinsic to the myriad things, upon which they take existence and depend, governed by its parameters, animated by its flow, functioning as its expression. Balance is not a Platonic form from which everything deviates, requiring moderation. It would be an apt image, nevertheless, if not so reductionist and subjective. Balance as a concept cannot be maintained by mental effort. Balance as a form is not a thing. Balance is not a being but a relationship, an equation of sorts, a thing only in so far as our human need for language and thought and conceptualizing, but not a thing in reality. Not a thing contrasted to many other “things.”

In a historical sense, the philosophical will to power is a deep reaction to cultural oppression and hypocrisy, but it is a willing nevertheless, a human contrivance attempting to correct other human contrivance, some enormous, most intractable by cultural or social terms. Will lacks the benefit of disengaging in order to understand a necessary interdependence. Hence, willing to power is still willing from within culture. As such, how can willing be any more effective than moderation at achieving a point of insight?

We try to alter the veneer of culture, modify it, moderate its excesses, knead it like clay to get a new surface, but nothing substantial changes because external acts are modifications, a reshaping of the same contrived elements. How, then, can a person change from certain fruitless behaviors by modifying the behaviors rather than by discarding the premises? Not by change, not by force, not by will, does insight arise. Only from insight can change, at least moral change, arise, but not from insight alone.

The only alternative to change (which we take as the starting point, the center point, for insight of any kind) is disengagement, non-engagement. This is withdrawal not merely from moderation as a human activity, not from willing as a gritty forbearance of pain, but by non-activity, wu wei, no-will, no-power.

Emptiness and formlessness are already within the self and nature. Emptiness needs to be cultivated so that it can quietly purge the accretions of culture, identity, experience, emotion, and the elements we think comprise our self. This is not destruction because the accretions disappear when no longer fed. This is not dis-assembly because nature maintains the true self intact when the accretions, fed by appetites and desires, fall away and insight begins to appear. What collapses like dust in spring rain are the thoughts that form a structure to worries, desires, impulses, emotions, habits. Stillness allows perception, no longer constricted by cultural pressures, though we are inevitably creatures of culture. The constrictions loosen. The cultural necessities of self — language, ethos, habitat, experience, style — do not disappear but recede to the degree that we are no longer restricted or constricted in outreach to nature and the universe. It is up to ourselves at that point to disengage from the burdens of culture and the demands of worldly involvement in order to advance insight.

This is the process of achieving balance. We do not moderate our cultural characteristics so much as extend self into nature and adapt its patterns, which transcend culture and human definitions of necessity. Culture misses the subtle processes of nature, crushes them in its lack of nuances, lack of silence, lack of observation and recollection.

Balance is what nature presents, without directive, and so we too must enter this flow in order to approximate the answers that plague our questions, to assuage through dissolution the worries, thoughts, ambitions, fears, and sorrows. Reductionism would capture balance into mere physical forces, barometric pressures, temperatures, movements and currents. The balance is not physical, however. No instrument can quantify it, no technology can co-opt it for another nefarious use. Balance is a soft revelation of deeper principles. Nothing is hard to be modified to softness, or the opposite. Not hot or cold, rough or smooth, black or white, but always an equilibrium, a flow, a balance wherein no single state exists but rather relationship. Human activity cannot capture these processes as structural projections that make culture. These processes escape this reductionism. Balance revels that nothing is so absolute or myriad that it cannot but be part of this oneness.

Environs of eremitism

Eremitism takes the solitude and silence within and projects them into the living milieu around the self, into the physical environment. Each tradition of eremitism crafts this environment using different terms and images. The cell is a favorite of Westerners familiar with the monastery, further circumscribed by the anchorhold. The cave and the hut are favorite images East and West of physical autonomy, closer to nature than the cenobitic. The hermit within a crowd or city has both solitary and social images as environs, still focusing on the immediate mental and physical environs into which to retreat, to cultivate, and to practice. A few brave souls live directly under the sky, under the aegis of nature.

In all cases, the physical environs become a projection of the self’s solitude and silence. Although the physical environs exist independent of our mental purposes (the cave, mountain, forest, desert, and, more contrived, the cell or hut), they are embraced and transformed by the solitary’s application of mental and physical effort.

The qualitative characteristics of the environ of cell, cave, and hut, become important not merely as an atmospheric, as a field for Feng-shui, a vibrational region, or as mere decor. The transformation of the environs physically is not based on the practitioner’s eye for interior design. Rather, the environ comes to mirror the deeper self, and reflect an order, a sense of discipline, and the greater project of mental and spiritual work. Such an environ is the apex of simplicity, yet it can become complex in its interrelations of objects and setting. Everything in the room or space takes on symbolic importance, and anything out of place or not contributing to this trajectory of solitude and silence intrudes unnecessarily.

The solitary rightly safeguards the solitude of place as much as the solitude of self. Privacy and discretion are not vanities or psychological weaknesses but tools for fostering practice. While others see this safeguarding as extended to property, the solitary maintains no proprietary relationship to objects, less one of covetousness. Rather, the attitude is one of awareness and cultivation of a seamlessness of environment based on function, namely the function of sustaining solitude.

Thus when the Abba Aresenius was visited by a certain bishop Theophilus, the latter waited for some wise words frpm Arsenius, who remained silent. Finaly, Arsenius looked up and said to the bishop, “If I give you advice, will you take it to heart?” The bishop nodded. “Then,” said Arsenius, “whatever you hear of Arsenius again, don’t come here.” And another bishop once asked of Arsenius if the old man would open his door to receive him. “Yes,” said Arsenius,” but if I open to you I must open to all, and then I will have to move from this place.”

Then, too, is the story of the Abba Moses, a large black man. He was walking in the desert when a visitor from the city stopped him and asked, “Where does Abba Moses live?” Abba Moses looked at him pointedly and replied, “Why do you want to see that old fool?” So the visitor returned to the city and told others what had happened. The others asked the traveler what the man in the desert looked like. He was large and black. “That was Abba Moses,” they replied knowingy.

A similar anecdote concerns the Chinese Zen monk Da-mei, who entered the mountains fleeing the world. A certain monk was in those mountains searching for branches suitable for staffs. He lost his way and came upon Da-mei’s hut. They exchanged a few words and the monk returned to his monastery. He told the abbot of what transpired. The abbot wondered, having remembered a certain monk gone to the mountains years before. Perhaps it was the one he was thinking of. The abbot asked the monk to return to the mountain and invite the hermit-monk to visit. But Da-mei, receiving the envoy, left him with a poem which ends:

When worldly men discover where you live
You move your thatched hut further into the hills.

Notice how this discovery of the self by others, this involuntary disclosure to others, and, therefore, to the world, is not merely physical but involves many psychological nuances, instincts, even.

To conceal self is not to flee anything that is not already present itself. It is but to put in its place those desires of weakness: curiosity, vanity, sloth, self-aggrandizement. That which is precious is not to be exposed to corrosion or pollution. The hermit is proactive in being aware of harmful influences and avoiding them. In the tragic sense, it is the world itself. That which is precious, that must be safeguarded, is a treasure, the last and only one anyone can still have, namely solitude and practice.

The world misunderstands, insisting that the hermit must participate, share his talents, live a normal social existence, perhaps because it pleases the world that everyone conform to its pattern, however, futile and without purpose, that everyone be revealed, exposed, laid bare for inspection and control. And even those in the world who have an inkling of this perception of the solitary hesitate but intuitively appreciate the heroism of solitude. And these are our allies, our only friends. This point is nicely illustrated by a tale from Kahlil Gibran titled “Finding God.”

Two men were walking in the valley, and one man pointed with his finger toward the mountain side, and said, “See you that hermitage? There lives a man who has long divorced the world. He seeks but after God, and naught else upon this earth.”

And the other man said, “He shall not find God until he leaves his hermitage, and the aloneness of his hermitage, and returns to our world, to share our joy and pain, to dance with our dancers at the wedding feast, and to weep with those who weep around the coffins of our dead.”

And the other man was convinced in his heart, though in spite of his conviction he answered, “I agree with all that you say, yet I believe the hermit is a good man. And may it not well be that one good man by his absence does better than the seeming goodness of these many men?”

Banes of saintliness

The universal banes to the reputation of the solitary and the holy cross cultural and historical times. What dogged the Christian saints also pursued the holy figures of India, China, and Japan. These conflations of virtue and power also affect hermits East and West. The popular manifestations are favored by the masses of religious believers who cannot grasp the mechanics of wisdom, seeing it as a supernatural phenomenon and therefore not applicable to their lives, at least not beyond minimal ritual. So these signs and miracles become a bane to the saintly in throwing up a wall or veil to a true path.

Here one unusual example will be cited. The life of Chinese Zen master Xu-Yun, who died in 1959 and may therefore be considered modern, at least in chronology and time, unintentionally reveals these conundrums in his autobiography, titled Empty Cloud, and translated in 1988. Three characteristic “banes” may be cited.

1. Hagiography.
Biographies or Lives of the Western Christian saints and hermits are filled, sometimes painfully so, with standard devices signifying that the person is holy. Such events and signs often outweigh historical data or replace unavailable data. Nor often do biographies find mere praise sufficient, not even the modest contemporary requirement of a couple of posthumous miracles. The Lives are a literary genre, not a historical or documentary one. To the discerning, they are childlike, full of awe and wonder, rather than deliberately malicious or mischievous. The biographies often cite the very acts of nature as approbations of saintliness.

The autobiography of Xu-Yun, who lived to 120 years and died in 1959, is sprinkled with nature confirmations, of the type familiar in Western hagiography: receptivity to the dharma eliciting reform in wayward or ignorant animals (a cow, geese, a raven); brilliant lights in the sky upon the death of holy persons; sweet fragrances exuded upon the death of holy persons; successful exorcisms; weather phenomena such as rainfall when sought by prayers; and the lifting of an enormous heavy boulder with the mere hands at a dangerous moment when scaring off bandits was necessary. (The veneration of relics was also related but is universal and not necessarily hagiographic.)

2. Family.
The problem of family relations ofter dogs children who want to follow a religious path against the will of their parents. This phenomenon is common to East and West. If the saintly figure’s parents are cruel and abusive, the child’s option is naturally easier, but not always. The twin poles are regret and resentment on the parent or guardian’s part, and guilt on the child’s part. This theme fits a larger psychological paradigm, but even the simplest interpersonal factors reflect tension, often exacerbated by differences in personality.

In the example of Xu-Yun, his mother died in childbirth, and he was raised the only son of his father and a stepmother. He was educated in Taoism, but Xu-Yun preferred Buddhism, saying nothing of his preference, however. Once, at 15, he ran off with a cousin to enter a Buddhist monastery, but was retrieved. His father then put him in the charge of an uncle, and, at 17, married Xu-Yun to two girls of local families. They remained, however, “pure-minded companions,” as Xu-Yun describes it. He then made a second and successful flight to a Buddhist monastery and was never found.

Twenty years later, however, he was clearly still assailed by guilt, in part because he was still an itinerant monk (thus “unsuccessful”). “I felt very ashamed,” he writes plainly. He undertook a pilgrimage to pay his debt of gratitude to his mother for giving him birth, prostrating himself every third step, holding incense-offerings. Later, against the advice of others, he was to burn off one finger in his effort to propitiate his mother’s salvation. Once he dreamed of his mother on a dragon’s back flying westward (Ahmida’s paradise is in the west vis-a-vis China), and he was content but still wondered

He learned of his father’s death, then that of his stepmother. His stepmother and two wives had entered Buddhist nunneries. Xu Yun received a set of gathas or poems from his stepmother chiding him for his abandonment of the women, and a letter from one of his wives similarly ruing his callow treatment but commending his virtue. Naturally Xu-Yun received the documents with “mixed feelings,” as he puts it. His former wife states:

The more I think of your inability to pay back your debt of gratitude to your parents and of your casting aside all feelings towards your wives, the more I am at a loss trying to understand how you have been able to bear all this.

3. Politics.
Hermits, priests, and sages East and West have often dealt with kings, princes, and the powerful. These confrontations have often been depicted as symbolic duels of black and white, good and evil. But because such powerful people arise from within the culture, no realistic resolution is presented by hagiography, nor can one expect to find resolutions in that genre. On the other hand, reclusion and solitude have been the usual and necessary recourse, although these are considered blameworthy by authorities, and received skeptically in the West, though not so in the East. Xu-Yun was not a hermit or recluse (exception in early retreats and during his itinerant days) and did not shirk these encounters because he felt obliged to his followers.

From Xu-Yun’s narrative, it is clear that China’s hegemony over historical Tibet is assumed. This is not a popular conclusion in the West nor among China’s historical rivals or foes. The editor of the autobiography goes so far as to excise a sentence from Xu Yun as being “insensitive.” In context, however, when Xu-Yun undertook a walking pilgrimage to India that included stops in Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet, he reveals his own disappointment if not disapproval of the Tibetan sangha, criticizing its disregard for monastic code and flagrant eating of meat. The monastic code in China forbade meat-eating, linking the Vinaya Code with the “Brahmmayala Sutra” and the “Lankavatara Sutra.” Seeing this fact and witnessing a sea of strange yellow and red hats, which he took as a proliferation of sectarianism, Xu-Yun lamented:

I thought of the days of the Jetavana Assembly [the Buddha’s original disciples in their simplicity of the dharma] and could not refrain from tears.

There is also a story, linked with hagiography but plausible, wherein a raven was brought to China by a tradesman. The raven was accustomed to eating meat, but through his instruction Xu-Yun got the raven and it gave up meat-eating. Is this a critique, suggesting that the raven it was “Tibetan”? It is only today, in fact, that the Dalai Lama recommends vegetarianism, but only as a health option, not an ethical expression.

Sectarianism has historically oscillated between rivalry for power, insistence on orthodoxy, and genuine conviction about ethics and right behavior. In the case of Chinese versus Tibetan Buddhism, the ethics of vegetarianism is acknowledged by Xu-Yun editor. He apologizes for the historical argument that Tibet could not grow adequate vegetables and greens while at the same time favorably noting the abstemiousness of the Chan monks.

Later in life, as a Buddhist elder widely respected for his efforts in rebuilding historic shrines, temples, and monasteries of China into the modern era, Xu-Yun deftly faced literal political threats. He faced hostility from secular anti-clericals of the Republic, bandits who suspected him of hoarding gold and riches, rapacious Japanese soldiers and occupiers, then destructive Communist locals. Political contentiousness from these external sources in each case threatened his years of nurturing what he realized were impermanent structures, though they meant a great deal to common people on the brink of grasping anything spiritual.

Whenever he began a project, it was said, Xu Yun arrived with only a staff in his possession, managed to raise money and volunteer labor to refurbish an ancient site, and left again with only a staff in his possession. Xu-Yun died in a cowshed, preferring it to the comfort of one of the sites he refurbished, leaving within himself the banes of holiness, which are the banes of life itself.