The Samannaphala sutra tells the story of king Agatasattu’s visit to Gotama, the Buddha. The king is accompanied by his advisor and physician, who informed him that the Buddha was in the vicinity and that the king should see him. The king prepares his grand retinue to go to Mango Grove. We have a telling glimpse of the insecurity of power when Agatasurra panics upon aproaching the grove. The place is completely quiet despite a thousand monks having assembled there, and the king fears a trap by his enemies.
After he is graciously received by the Buddha, the king impetuously demands to know from him what is the virtue of being a recluse: “Can you declare to me the immediate benefit of the life of a recluse?” The king relates what other authorities have told him in answer to this questions: the transmigrationist, the annihilationist, the idealist, etc. He is not satisfied and now asks Gotama.
We know today that the earliest followers of the Buddha were not monks as understood in the hierarchical and institutional sense of centiries later. Like contemporary sadhus, they were truly recluses in that they had renounced family, property, and entitlements, and lived alone — in the company of others who, like them, were dubbed “homeless.” Hence, the life of the recluse meant more than just solitude.
Gotama responds to the king’s question with his own. He presents the king with the parable of a servant whose life is consumed in service and loyalty, emptying his mind and heart in order to attend to his master’s pleasures from morning until night. The servant believes that this is his inevitable lot given that his master enjoys merit despite his life of pleasure and dissolution.
One day the servant reflects on this. “He is a man — and so am I.” To renounce all of this is freedom. The servant would lose nothing. In renouncing the world he merely renounces his master’s contrivances, the contrivances of a whole system of thinking and being. If he becomes a recluse, he reasons, he will have nothing material in this world, but then he never had anything anyway. He would know freedom of mind and body, “delighting in solitude,” as the sutra puts it.
Gotama asks the king if it would make sense to tell the servant that he should return to the master’s household and resume the status of a slave. Of course not, replies the king. Gotama concludes: “This, O king, is the first kind of fruit, visible in this world, from the life of a recluse. But it is only the first fruit.”
The sadhu and arahat represented radical social change for their time. The remnant of this revolutionary change is our modest solitude, a solitude with a long and worthy heritage. But we are obliged nevertheless to identify who is our master, whether anyone is worthy to lord it over us with contrivances and privileges, and to renounce such a one (be it a person, society, or culture) as did the servant in the parable, in order to enjoy the first fruits of solitude in our own brief lives.