Discourse on Living Alone

I was recently introduced to a Buddhist sutra that is reputed to be one of the oldest that exists. As it goes, the sutra is based upon the story of a man, a monk, who lived as a hermit. Several of the monks who were closer to Buddha approached him and said “Hey, that dude over there won’t work with anyone, he won’t live with anyone, and he won’t interact with anyone. He appears to have it all together. What’s the deal?” Obviously I’m paraphrasing, and the story based upon a tradition that was orally passed down for at least 200 years before it was written. I think that the reason this story strikes a chord with me is because I’m a lot like the hermit in question. So, the Buddha responded, “Assemble the monks. I will tell you of the Better Way to Live Alone.” Below is a relatively recent translation of the sutra, with my comments and interpretation as well. Also, here’s the direct translation:  “The Sutra on Knowing a Better Way to Live Alone”, titled the Bhaddekaratta Sutta and translated from the Pali by Thich Nhat Hanh.

The Sutra

“I heard these words of the Buddha one time when the Lord was staying at the monastery in the Jeta Grove, in the town of Shravasti. He called all the monks to him and instructed them, ‘Bhikkhus!’

“And the bhikkhus replied, ‘We are here!’

“The Blessed One taught, ‘I will teach you what is meant by ‘knowing the better way to live alone.’ I will begin with an outline of the teaching, and then I will give a detailed explanation. Bhikkhus, please listen carefully.’

“‘Blessed One, we are listening.’ The Buddha taught:

“‘Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
In the very here and now,
The practitioner dwells
In stability and freedom.
We must be diligent today.
To wait till tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person who
Dwells in mindfulness
Night and day,
The one who knows
the better way to live alone.’

“Bhikkhus, what do we mean by ‘pursuing the past’? When someone considers the way her body was in the past, the way her feelings were in the past, the way her perceptions were in the past, the way her mental formation were in the past, the way her consciousness was in the past; when she considers these things and her mind is burdened by and attached to these things which belong to the past, then that person is pursuing the past.

“Bhikkhus, what do we mean by ‘not pursuing the past’? When someone considers the way her body was in the past, the way her feelings were in the past, the way her perceptions were in the past, the way her mental formation were in the past, the way her consciousness was in the past; when she considers these things but her mind is neither enslaved by nor attached to these things which belong to the past, then that person is not pursuing the past.

“Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘losing yourself in the future’? When someone considers the way his body will be in the future, the way his feelings will be in the future, the way his perceptions will be in the future, the way his mental formation will be in the future, the way his consciousness will be in the future; when he considers these things and his mind is burdened by and attached to these things which belong to the future, then that person is losing himself in the future.

“Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘not losing yourself in the future’? When someone considers the way his body will be in the future, the way his feelings will be in the future, the way his perceptions will be in the future, the way his mental formation will be in the future, the way his consciousness will be in the future; when he considers these things and his mind is not burdened by and daydreaming about these things which belong to the future, then that person is not losing himself in the future.

“Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘being swept away by the present’? When someone does not study or learn anything about the Awakened one, or the teachings of love and understanding, or the community that lives in harmony and awareness, when that person knows nothing about the nobles teachers and their teachings, does not practice these teachings, and thinks, ‘This body is myself, I am this body; these feelings are myself, I am these feelings; this perception is myself, I am this perception, this mental formation is myself, I am this mental formation; this consciousness is myself, I am this consciousness,’ then that person is being swept away by the present.

“Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘not being swept away by the present’? When someone studies and learns about the Awakened one, the teachings of love and understanding, and the community that lives in harmony and awareness; when that person knows about the nobles teachers and their teachings, practice these teachings, and does not think, ‘This body is myself, I am this body; these feelings are myself, I am these feelings; this perception is myself, I am this perception, this mental formation is myself, I am this mental formation; this consciousness is myself, I am this consciousness,’ then that person is not being swept away by the present.

“Bhikkhus, I have presented the outline and the detailed explanation of knowing the better way to live alone.”

Interpretation

It shouldn’t be difficult to get a deeper understanding of the meaning and intention of this teaching by pulling it apart, and trying to understand each of the pieces. The recurring elements of the teaching can be taken as a)The Five Skandhas, and b) Past,  Future, & Present. Let’s first take a look at these, then we’ll apply the crucial elements to them.

The Five Skandhas

The Five Skandhas, enumerated, are:

  • body – the physical, corporeal entity.
  • feelings – sensations and emotions.
  • perceptions – observations, insights.
  • mental formations – thoughts, imagination.
  • consciousness – the state of interaction of the subject with the world at large, such as awake, asleep, alert, intoxicated, drowsy, relaxed, etc.

In classical Buddhism, these elements are the totality of our interaction within our physical world. These are the means by which we negotiate our daily lives, the touch points upon which we interact our way through the daily grind for the duration of our life span. However, there’s more to the picture. In short, these elements give us a “picture” of what we’re dealing with but can’t approach the Big Picture. Beyond the limits of these corporeal, physical, and mental elements is a Greater Mystery, referred to as Big Mind, or Buddha Mind. This greater aspect is approached by neither embracing nor denouncing the Skandhas. The Skandhas are here for a reason, but they point the way beyond their limitation when approached a certain way. That certain way is what this teaching points toward.

The Temporal Elements

The next thing to consider as we dissect the sutra is that each of the Skandhas is addressed in terms of a temporal tense, or a position in time relative to the subject. These are, obviously, past, future, and present. Buddhism, in its essence, treats these in an innovative way – one that we are beginning to incorporate into much of modern psychology:

  • past – a memory, or mental formation, of events that occurred before the current moment.
  • future – a mental projection, which may eventually become accurate or inaccurate, regarding events or a series of events that are expected to occur in some form after the present moment.
  • present – the current action of life’s process, from the viewpoint of the subject, by perceiving the immediate surroundings.

Interestingly, and constantly reinforced throughout all aspects of Buddhism, is that the past and the future – from the viewpoint of the present – are only thoughts. They may be compelling thoughts, but they are no more than mental formations in the present moment. Does this mean that the past did not happen, or that future events will not occur? Absolutely not. Does this mean that they can be dismissed or minimized? Certainly not. If we do not learn from the past we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Indeed, it could be argued that if we are repeating our mistakes, we have not learned from the past. Then again, where would we be if we did not plan for the future?

However, the onus of the teaching focuses on how the thought process is used in the present moment. The only way to leverage this process is by anchoring oneself into the present moment, and taking a close look at how that process is applied.

The Teaching Reiterated

Each of the temporal elements is addressed by way of each Skandha. Then come the most functional elements: burdened by and attached; and neither enslaved by nor attached. What do these mean? What is the burden of this enslavement and attachment? A few examples would suffice.

Burdened by and Enslaved to the Past

Do you ever catch yourself with these attitudes?

  • Things aren’t like they used to be.
  • I just don’t feel the way I used to.
  • I used to be more healthy than I am now.
  • Things were better back then.

It may well be that these statements are true. However, dwelling on them, mentally living in the past, has a way of obliterating the present. Herein lies the teaching.

Burdened by and Daydreaming About the Future

Here are some examples of my errors in this realm.

  • I don’t like it here. I’m going to engineer myself into a better place.
  • When I attain or accomplish ‘something else‘, things will be much better.
  • I’m planning for a vacation far away from this mess. I won’t have to deal with all this when I get there.

The sutra calls this daydreaming. I tend to call it mental confabulation. Either way,  indulgence therein is a vain effort.

Swept Away by the Present

So, if the objective – if there can be one – is to live in the present, what’s to avoid there? In a word, delusion. Deluding oneself about the present is the perennial offender. As stated, here are the examples:

  • I’ve got it all together.
  • I’m better than that person.
  • I’m glad that’s not my karma.

Once again, it may well be that these things can be seen as having a degree of truth. However, the attitude alone sets one apart from the surroundings. It’s wise to keep in mind that “…we too shall pass.” Arrogance and aloofness don’t necessarily benefit anyone or anything. The support of a community (sangha) is an essential foundation for spiritual development.

Bringing it All Together

The content of the sutra doesn’t address whether a person is alone physically, either in solitude or in a state of loneliness. There’s a big difference between being alone and feeling like you’re “all by yourself.” The core of the teaching seems to address a state of being “unfettered”. It’s what is called “mindfulness”, and it has the attributes of stability and freedom. Indeed, when one releases the baggage of the past as well as the projections of the future, and untethers the thought process in the current moment, they may come to see a state that could be called “alone-ness”. Interconnection becomes apparent, and the “better way of being alone” has no prerequisites. Life, no matter what the external circumstance, is fully engaged without psychological resistance.

As I’ve reflected on how to apply the sutra in my life, it takes on a practical aspect. I live in the city, and the amount of activity, noise, and constant development of raw land into subdivisions takes its toll on my psyche. I feel “hammered” every day by these surroundings. The lesson I am applying to this situation is that no matter what the external circumstances, I can look for and find internal balance and equanimity. There can be “peace in the eye of the storm” if that’s what I focus on, over and above the turbulence – whether the turbulence is external or caused by internal dialog and attitude. I find a line from The Matrix coming to mind:

Commander: “…Morpheus, not everyone believes the way you do.”
Morpheus: “My beliefs do not require them to.”

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