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By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 08/25/2007
In Topics: Religion

Zoketsu contemplates the role of prayer and solitude in practice. “The truth is, spiritual practice is the practice of solitude.” Quoting from Thomas Merton’s journals, Zoketsu suggests that solitude is not the opposite of intimacy, but rather solitude supports and enhances intimate relationships.
As many of you know lately I have been studying the Surangama Sutra, which is a fascinating text of the Mind Only school of Buddhism – a school that holds that everything is mind. This sounds like an odd idea – how could everything be mind? As we know, there’s mind and there’s matter. Matter is hard and slow, mind is fluid and quick. You can break your arm but you can’t take hold of a thought and break it open. As soon as you try to take hold of a thought it is gone – you can see easily it’s not that kind of thing. Material things can be seen or heard or tasted, but the actual experience of a thought or a feeling can’t be made manifest in the physical world.

The Mind Only school isn't trying to say that there is no difference between what we call mind and what we call matter. Certainly these are different kinds of things. But when you investigate down to the nub of the question you do find that there is not so much difference between them as it seems. At the most intimate level the physical world is also seen to be fluid and quick, in constant motion, and just as ungraspable as a thought or a feeling. Actually, contemporary notions of space, electron microscopes and so on reveal that the seemingly solid physical world is much more enigmatic and various than we ever expected.

In Buddhism, mind or consciousness doesn't refer only to our human experience of awareness or cognition. It includes that of course but it wants to point us beyond that. Like all of Buddhist thought, the Mind Only school is not particularly interested to point out some abstract truth but rather to show a saving truth – a truth that will actually matter in our living. If we take consciousness for granted as something that is only taking place within the body – that it is, in some way, a by product of the body – of the brain's electrical impulses, the circulation of impulse – carrying fluids and so on – then we will as a consequence of that view suffer a lot. The body is clearly not long for this world. If that is what the mind is: nothing more than an extension of the body, an aspect of the body’s activity, then death is an absolute end, and the passing of time is something final, literal, and, I would say, depressing.

On the other hand, consciousness could be seen to arise in connection with the body but not to be the same as what the body is or does. In other words, consciousness, while not some sort of separate floating entity out there (which would of course end up being just another form of matter, however subtle it might be), is also not the body and its functioning, but is something wider and larger than that – then you have more or less the basis for religious faith that is grounded in what actually is taking place in our living. This is not just an idea, an enthusiasm, or a received and coercive notion.

This is the great point of the Surangama sutra. Through a long and probably not too reasonable series of logical discussions, the Buddha shows Ananda that the mind isn’t locatable. That it isn’t really limited to the body’s functioning – that in fact nothing about the mind can be asserted or denied because it can neither be said to be or not to be – it’s, in a sense, nothing at all. From our point of view one could say that the mind is nothingness, that it can’t be apprehended or known in any way. And yet this nothing-at-all is the greatest of all things because thanks to it the world and we ourselves appear. Brightly, as the sutra says.

The implications of this for practice are important. It means that we don’t have to worry so much about ourselves, our limited selves, because what we most truly are is much larger than that. Suzuki roshi used to talk about Big Mind and small mind, good terms I think. Small mind is just me: my body, my thoughts, my wishes, my desires. There's nothing wrong with it. It’s necessary. But it's poisonous when it seems to me to exist without any reference to Big Mind. When I know about Big Mind, when I pay attention to it, appreciate it, even though I can’t exactly experience it – at least not the way I can experience eating lunch – then I can find a way to live with some balance and equanimity.

I think of meditation practice in this way – that it’s a way to touch Big Mind with our whole body. To swim in it, float in it. Sometimes we might have some kind of experience that might remind us of what we have heard about Big Mind – sometimes not. But still, always, once we have really given ourselves to meditation practice over some period of time, then I think (this has been my experience) we touch Big Mind with our practice. We can sense it even in the middle of distraction and confusion. A kind of confidence arises. Dogen I think really had something when he said, “just to take this posture is already Buddha – there’s nothing further to seek.” There’s something about this practice of sitting up straight quietly breathing that is very profound. This is what I have found.

Lately I have also been interested in the practice of prayer. I have been doing this practice. It is not something I have ever done or am used to but I find it quite fascinating. My teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman, and I were talking about this the other evening. We had a wonderful time together talking about prayer. He told me that some Indian tribes would go up to the top of certain mountains and send out their voices up to the sky. This is marvelous – to send out your voice, your words, out to the sky, out to the vastness, the namelessness, the unborn and undying. It seems as if the main practice of Nachman of Bratslav, the grandson of the famous Baal Shem Tov, was this. He’d go out into the woods and talk to God for hours on end. No doubt he didn't think of God as a person who was watching over him somehow, like a Super Daddy who knew and either approved or disapproved of his actions. Being a kabbalist, he knew that God is Ain Sof – the Nothing beyond all knowing and distinction, he absolute zero at the heart of things, which lurks there at the edge of consciousness, or within the light of consciousness, which is of course existing at all points of consciousness. Even in the act of eating lunch it’s there! So this is what he did. He sent out his voice to that, he spoke what was on his mind and heart out into that. He practiced very simply. He just gave voice to who he was, a small person who was living and who would die and who had problems that he needed help with. He spoke all of that out into Big Mind. If you think about this you see that almost anything can be a prayer because we are always speaking our lives into that endlessness, even when we don’t know that we are. But it is also very good to remember that we are, and to speak out of that sense of remembering it. I have always felt as if this was the essence of poetry – to speak in that way, and to be surprised by what comes out.

All of this is finally getting me around to the topic I really wanted to talk about – solitude. It seems like such an odd thing to talk about – who of us here really has much solitude in our lives? Solitude – it seems like a very large word, very solemn. It comes from the word “self” – isolated and alone. It also is related to the word “secret” – the secret that can only be found in seclusion and isolation. Solitude is the province of monks and nuns – the Buddha recommended it for meditation; that you would go out by yourself and sit far away in the forest at the root of a tree. The early Christian monastics were hermits, living alone in their cells in the middle of the Egyptian desert.

Of course when you think of solitude, of aloneness, you can’t help but remember Buddha’s first words. According to the legend, pointing to the heavens above and the earth below the talented baby exclaimed, “I alone am the World Honored One!” This might sound like the supreme arrogance, or narcissism at the very least. But I think not. In the light of the Mind Only teachings it means that there is only one thing in this world, Mind itself. Buddha, in being Buddha, had completely merged with and identified with that. What he said was really true for him. He alone was the World Honored One sharing one big life with all that is. The same is true for us too: we are all alone, truly alone, and in that aloneness joined with everything in an intimacy that is liberating and warm.

Many people don't enjoy being alone. They want to turn on the television or pick up the telephone immediately. But many others do enjoy it. I love to be alone, it nurtures and soothes me. There is a certain sense I can have of my life when I am alone that just doesn't exist at other times – a sense of the weight, the density of living – the strangeness, the mystery or secret of it all. I am sure that this is why I like to read and write and to do practice because at those times I am alone and my life is enriched. To me a perfect day is one in which I don’t see or talk to anyone, I just putter around on my own, washing dishes or reading or writing or maybe walking. Not looking at any clocks so that time seems just to melt away – as if every moment were just one moment, and there was no passage of time, no duration. Luckily once in a while I can spend a day like that, or part of a day.

I really feel as if I have a taste for the hermit life. When I was young I actually spent several years like that, alone almost all the time, day after day. It wasn't always easy and pleasant, but I loved it. I knew at the time that it would be hard to keep on living like that, and I knew also that it was a time in my life that was terribly important for me, even though nothing came of it, nothing at all. I just lived, time went by.

It may seem odd that I am extolling the virtues of solitude. Coming from me, a married person with children and probably hundreds of close friends with whom I am always in touch. It seems like a contradiction. But I suppose no more a contradiction than the rest of my life. The fact is, as I see it, my love of solitude and my loving other people depend on each other. In my solitude I find an inner richness that seems to include everyone and everything, and there wells up in me a kind of abundance that wants to flow out to others. I am sure that I wouldn't appreciate my family and friends nearly as much as I do if I weren't given to solitude. And when I really feel love for my family and friends – which is frequent – there is a quality to that love that is very close to solitude. It somehow touches me at the same source, it feels in many ways the same. It is as if Big Mind is manifesting more strongly when I feel love, just as it does when I am alone and feel the love that being alone fosters.

The truth is, spiritual practice is the practice of solitude. Meditation and prayer are supremely solitary acts. Of course there is communal prayer and meditation too: ceremonies, rituals that involve joining our voices together, and some form of teamwork. But when you really get down to it, the basis of all of that is the quiet that we feel that opens us out, empties our lives and lets reality flow in. Even though we might practice meditation all together in a room each one of is is really sitting alone.

Someone once asked Baizhang, what’s the best thing of all. He answered (and this is given as case 26 of Blue Cliff Record), “sitting alone on Daxiong Peak.” His name, Baizhang, is the name of the mountain on which he lived, and it is the same as Daxiong Peak. So he was saying, “the best thing, the most rare and wonderful thing, is sitting alone as myself – as and where I am truly alone and lofty.” Solitude feels just like that, like sitting alone on Daxiong Peak. The best thing of all. Climbing peaks is like that too. That’s why I like to do that, why looking at the sky or the sea or at a distant open landscape is so satisfying. We feel the aloneness of it and of everything.

But also the specialness of it isn’t something exclusive or rare the way a diamond or an expensive painting can be rare. Dogen has a fascicle called “Kajo, Everyday Life,” and in it he quotes Rujing his teacher who quotes Baizhang’s saying about sitting alone on Daxiong Peak. Rujing says, “Don’t be surprised by this saying. We too should be like that, and we must surpass Baizhang in his lofty aloneness.” But then he says, “If someone asked me what is the best thing I would say ‘nothing,’ or ‘bringing my bowl to the temple and using it to eat rice.'” Dogen commenting on this comment says, “Drinking tea and eating rice is exactly the same thing as sitting alone on a mountain.”

I’ve been thinking about this because lately I have finished reading a volume of Thomas Merton’s journals called “Learning to Love.” These were written in 1966 – 67, just a year before his untimely death. It’s very interesting what happens to Merton in that year. Maybe you know that for many years before this Merton had been becoming increasingly restless living in Gethsemani monastery. He was at odds with his abbot and getting more and more disgusted with the trivialities of the life there. It was all a little complicated of course – he recognized that part of the problem was his own restless heart, that, in a way the abbot was fine, and that even if he weren't, if he, Merton, were truly alive spiritually the abbot’s character wouldn't have bothered him as much as it did. He also knew that all the monks were sincere and wonderful people. Yet at the same time the endless details of monastic life, all the interpersonal hassles and rules and regulations and inevitable small – mindedness drove him up a wall.

So he fixed on the idea of being a hermit. The Rule of St. Benedict, which is the monastic rule for all of Christian monasticism, says that being a hermit is the highest form of spiritual endeavor. But it is advanced practice. Monastic life, the rule says, is set up to train monks to eventually become hermits. “A simple rule for beginners,” is what Benedict called his text. But for probably a thousand years there had been almost no hermit tradition in the Church, and Merton, who was very much involved in Monastic renewal, wanted to change this. He wanted to be an example, a modern hermit. He agitated with his abbot for years over this question. Finally he had a hermitage built near the monastery and he was allowed to go there once in a while, then over the years gradually a little more, and finally, in late 1966 he was able to live there full time. He was ecstatic about it.

About six months after he moved in he had a terrible back injury and had to have an operation. He went to the hospital in Louisville for the procedure, and, to shorten the story, he feel in love with the young nurse who was taking care of him. Really in love with her, immensely in love. Although the relationship was definitely in part based on physical attraction, Merton apparently kept his monastic vows, although it does seems there was a certain amount of kissing and hugging involved. He considered leaving the church and marrying her, but felt that that was impossible. They’d meet secretly, exchange letters and phone calls, until eventually they were found out and the abbot gently clamped down and Merton could no longer have any contact with her.

The interesting thing about this is that throughout his struggle with this affair Merton never felt that he was drawing away from his lifelong desire for solitude. He felt as though his falling in love with M. (this is how she is identified in the dairies) were somehow a mysterious completion of his solitude, a bringing out of its most profound implications. There were times of course when he doubted this, and doubted himself and his path – doubted his own self scrutiny. But mostly he affirmed their love, even though he came to realize that they could never live it out in the way people ordinarily do. Here is a passage from the diary he wrote for her:

“Up in the quiet chapel, dear, you came to me insisting on being present and most real. It was as if your voice itself was speaking with the urgency of a love that cannot be defeated or frustrated, that demands absolutely to be attended to, no matter what. They insist that loving you and loving Christ are as different as day from night. To me they are the same, at this level at least, because it is in Him that I truly find you. It is at Communion that we are most one in our love. It is true that all our love has not been completely unequivocal, but I no longer know where one draws lines… “(p 304 “Learning to Love,” Harper San Francisco, 1997).

and later he writes:

“What is my life? My solitude? The determination to be lucid and quiet and to wait, and to nourish the unspeakable hope of deep love which is beyond analysis and is so far down it has no voice left. Down there we are one voice: the voice of your womanness blends with the man I am, and we are one being, completing each other, though we can no longer express it by taking each other in our arms. How deeply can we believe this? I think our capacity to believe it is inexhaustible…” (p 306)

Merton’s writing about solitude and its meaning is clear and serious. It was his lifetime’s contemplation: what does it mean to be truly alone? This to Merton meant: what does it mean to live a life in union with God? Here is a long passage that represents his last understanding of solitude:

“Solitude as act: the reason no one really understands solitude, or bothers to try to understand it, is that it appears to be nothing but a condition. Something one elects to undergo, like standing under a cold shower. Actually, solitude is a realization, an actualization, even a kind of creation, as well as a liberation of active forces within us, forces that are more than our own, and yet more ours than what appears to be “ours.” As a mere condition, solitude can be passive, inert, and basically unreal: a kind of permanent coma. One has to work at it to keep out of this condition. One has to work actively at solitude, not by putting fences around one’s self, but by destroying all the fences and throwing away all the disguises and getting down to the naked root of one’s inmost desire, which is the desire for liberty – reality. To be free from the illusion that reality creates when one is out of right relation to it, and to be real in the freedom which reality gives when one is rightly related to it.

“Hence the need for discipline, for some kind of technique of integration that keeps body and soul together, harmonizes their powers, brings them out into one deep resonance, orients the whole body toward the root of being. The need for a “way.” Presence, invocation, mantram, concentration, emptiness. All these are aspects of a realized solitude. Mere being alone is nothing. Or at least it is only a potential. Sooner or later he who is merely alone either rots or escapes.

“The ‘active life’ can in fact be that which is most passive: one is simply driven, carried, batted around, moved. The most desperate illusion and the most common one is just to fling oneself into the mass that is in movement and be carried along with it: to be part of the stream of traffic going nowhere but with a great sense of phony purpose. It is against this that I revolt.” (p 321)

This talk written by Norman Fischer. Edited by Tim Burnett.

® 2001, Norman Fischer