Hermit Writings of S.
The following writings are selected from correspondence with a hermit we will call S. Due to the precariousness of his diurnal existence, he is available only intermittently. Some of the writings date back years. He is clearly well-read, uses British spellings, is Italian by name, and lives a hermit's life today tantamount to being a homeless wanderer, for he travels often, without fixed abode. We know little more about him except what country he lives in at the moment. These writings are offered as of interest to friends and visitors of Hermitary. The writings have not been altered in any way except by minor formatting and the addition of occasional bracketed titles for convenience of reference.
You may do what you like with whatever you receive from us, private property is abhorrent to us, even that of ideas and creativity, it is theft on numerous levels, we have always had an allergic response, rejecting any possessiveness of any kind, though, needless to say, always respecting the property and possessiveness of others. If we are appreciated, we try to be helpful without expectations; if we are abused, we retreat in every way we can.
It is embarrassingly clear that most of what [I have] written to Meng-hu is either obvious or faulty; it tends to show the ignorance and weaknesses of the author more than any novel insight. The importance and intention, if any can be mentioned, of these writings lies in trying to expose, albeit inadequately, the dynamics of "hermiting": the contradictions, the questions, probing into the purpose and the nature of eremiticism, its dilemmas, doubts, diversity, - and yes, to a lesser degree, the pleasures and pains of the vocation, the bright revelations as well as the dark abyss that clings to the hermit like a shadow.
This is a great problem with language for hermits, either spoken or written. Without a personal agenda we cannot easily whitewash or justify our failings or faulty reasoning by the needs of the moment, like someone who justifies, -say killing, in order to protect their property. A hermit shouldn't have property or care that much about it to kill someone over it, even a rodent let alone a human. Nor do we subscribe to the catchall answer to everything today, "it's fun! I like it!" The pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, to the hermit mind, is sheer masochism and madness. So if there are personal motives of any sort for communicating we already feel ourselves in error. Ideal communication would only be for the benefit of humanity; or simply the singing of joyous praise. En route to the Ideal we may use language to seek instruction or assistance for our hermitage or, and as rarely as possible, because ethical factors constrain us to. Everything else is an indulgence, however informative it may be.
The problem is that we will continually slip into indulgences because we are not yet liberated, which means the personality and Mara will drum up all sorts of tricks to get us to slip and fall. Not because they are evil but it is their nature to defend their integrity and interests however illusory they in fact are. It is the nature of a creature to defend its nest; and it is the work of hermits to transform their nature.
There is another cause to our crises which should be remembered, to derail despair, and that is the methods of our own Atman or Buddha-nature or soul or god. When we ask ourselves and probe into the reasons for falling from our practice and precepts, painful as the process is, if we pursue the questioning beyond mere self-criticism, we invariably reveal deeper levels of our vulnerability, which require compassionate attention. Painful as it is each time, as we burn up with shame and self-contempt, rolling up in cold wet blankets of despair, nonetheless we discover, or uncover, more profound perspectives on the nature of the self and self-liberation, then on through to glimpses of the Self Itself and Liberation, too, glowing on the horizon. Our faith and our courage are restored, though it may have taken weeks, months or longer, we are back on track and with a better compass than formerly. As said in an earlier epistle, hermits often climb up via falling down.
We cannot but believe that there may well be other hermits out there in similar crises, perhaps incarnations of ourselves all struggling in the same direction, to whom these confessions may be in some measure useful.
There may be some outer, non-personal reason for these notes to be written and exposed, matters of synchronicity and karma and Divine Intercession for example, but from our narrow limited perspective they are only an indulgence and we suffer setbacks accordingly. Unless these notes are kept here for our own use only; only unsent are they harmless. They are an honest probing, useful to our understanding. They are no less a cause for shame and despair, no less a risk for pride and self-delusion, but the dangers remain tucked in the hermitage where we can look for remedies and antidotes.
Had there come along an appropriate monastery, Christian or Buddhist, we'd perhaps have, certainly reluctantly, joined, compromises and all, but nothing ever came remotely near us. Providence only ever presented an itinerary of solitudes, from childhood one after the other. All involvement in the world petered out or collapsed in disaster, though always returning us somehow to the safety of another solitude. The literature that flew in the windows and stuck on the walls was more often than not hermit literature or easily adopted by hermits.
The Tao is the Way. "It is as many rivers leading into one ocean." It is understandable that having reached the ocean or even within sight of it, one would be tempted to show others the way they got there. It is equally natural for human reason to assume causation where there is only evidence of contiguity. Spurred on by gratitude, loyalty, concern for others, expediency and experience, it is easy to see how people can become dogmatic about method.
It is not by means of yoga that one attains liberation, though it is the practice of many yogis. It is not by means of zazen that we attain enlightenment, though it is the practice of many Buddhist sects. Nor does poverty, chastity and the solitary life guarantee sanctity, though it is the preferred practice of many saints.
Each of us must find which practice is appropriate for us, and instinct tends to be the best guide. Nevertheless it is not the practice itself that matters. Strapped to a bed with a complete paralysis is not an obstacle where one has faith, (which is confidence derived from Metaphysical Knowledge, or transcendent discernment), and the urgent need to attain liberation from this world.
For us, for the most part, poverty is riches, and abstinence enrichment. The freedom from distraction and dependence alone is already so much more rewarding than mere sensual pleasure, with its repetitive monotony and childish thrill, even without the incomparable discoveries of silence and solitude.
Why we need time, long long swaths of uninterrupted time, thick impenetrable blankets of time that no one disturbs, why when we know the illusory nature of time and the instantaneousness of enlightenment, why do we still need time?
For hermits, time is like travelling in the huge horseshoe landscape curving around James Bay, the pre-Cambrian Great Canadian Shield, vast tangled forests sieved through with lakes and rivers. Being among people is like the arduous portage, hiking through thick bush boreal forest with everything you need heavy on your back, tripping over uneven ground, cutting through tangles, losing the way, frightened by sudden encounters with moose or bear, harassed by weather and insects. Then there is the hermitage: we shove off alone in our canoe on a lake like glass reflecting the shoreline of pine and birch, rippled only by fish or loon, quiet, reflective and immaculately breathlessly beautiful. The longer the lake the better, for we can travel unhampered and untroubled, the mind can contemplate, yea, the mind can become this serene liquid movement; and if the lake is long enough we can enter timelessness and peacefulness, so thick and deep and exquisite that apparitions of the Divine, of Mind, of the Soul, can surface like a leaping trout, sparkle in the sunlight, revealing their liberating wisdom, their incomparable beauty, right before our eyes, right in our hearts.
Every interruption to a hermit's solitude, regardless of how useful and discrete it may be, breaks this magical rhythm, plunges us back into the thicket and briars of ordinary mental noise, which may well take weeks or months to repair. Only a very accomplished, or exceptionally blessed hermit will be able to remain quietly in the middle of the lake while conversing with pedestrians on the shore.
It is often our love of the Good, Justice, the higher human virtues that leads us to a philosophy that commands detachment from these very same virtues; it is often our pain, our hatred even, of cruelty, injustice, hypocrisy and destruction that drives us to a practice of detachment from what repels us. Yet this very same spiritual philosophy, in whichever form it takes, also commands Prem, Universal Love and a virtuous practice, rarely substantially different from the one we were practicing. Somehow what brought us to the door must be left outside so that we may enter the door, within which we practice what in fact led us here. It is like betraying the one you love, by not loving them anymore, in order to love them again, later, more perfectly. It is ceasing to hate what we reject in order to eject what is hateful from our hearts.
Loving our enemies is not loving evil. Ceasing to feel passionately about right and wrong is not psychopathy. We do not replace passionate moral attachments with a selfish apathy. We do not kill because we hate murder, but rather because we have neither need nor desire to hurt or harm anything; and compassion replaces hatred for the destructive selfish delusion people are often swallowed up by.
Nevertheless, it feels like betrayal to abandon the feelings that inspired such noble sacrifice in us. It feels dangerous, like playing with fire, to feel impartial towards evil. It is easy to be negligent and cruel behind a mask of detachment and relativism. It is easy to become addicted to anything from sloth to smoking when we turn off the alarm of a passionate ethical code. It is ever so easy for the sophistry of intellect to lure us into deeper error in our actions when we no longer have the watchdog of a powerful moral referee to howl "Foul Play!" and bark us back to the "straight and narrow."
As hermits, remember, we usually have no guru, unless we are among those extra-blessed who come across an elder accomplished hermit in need of an assistant-apprentice. Many of us may abide by the rules of a monastic order but with no one watching over it isn't difficult for mere thinking to rationalise them away. After all we are not interested in obeying rules or precepts for their own sake; none of that is sacred to us. But now we are asked to give up what really is sacred to us: our moral convictions, our passionate ideals, our guiding principles: The Olympian fires of our loves and our hates.
Every moment of every day is a threshold on which we teeter. The door is always before us, though not always so clearly, let alone ajar, it beckons as we totter on the doorstep. The abyss of everything we know is behind us, we can topple back into it as into an old nightmare. Or we can push forward, our hope on an uncertain bliss, if we give up everything, even analogies, and accept everything, especially antipathies.
It is odd how so much of Freud’s terminology, to describe states of the contemporary psyche, has become obsolete, yet the term “ego” endures. Even Eastern Gurus use it unquestioningly, as a self-evident fact. But the ego and egoism imply selfishness and a self-centred fortress. It is heavily theory-laden. For Freud the ego was an aspect of the self and by no means the whole thing. A human being can live with little, or even without, an ego and still possess a flourishing self.
For hermits the ego is only a preliminary nuisance, rarely significant. The self, with a small "s" is another matter altogether. This self can be quite unselfish, even wise, its borders are wide and fluctuating, it’s damn hard to know for sure where this little illusory self is not. It's damn difficult to leave this little self behind for it can wear any mask, don any suit of clothes, speak any tongue however obscure and erudite. This self can be as humble as the pavement you walk upon, and harder to crack.
The ego as a proud and primary persona is a dilemma of Babylon: Success requires it and humility abhors it. Victims prefer a humble victor; they are the majority and could overwhelm the victorious. Some measure of humility, however false, is pragmatic. Ego is what energizes society and so long as the individual is socially successful, their egoism will be accounted a virtue by all but their competitors. Hermits, by leaving society, largely leave the ego behind with it.
The ego does not necessarily block the pursuit of wisdom and liberation but the small self certainly does, because liberation consists in merging with the greater universal Self, use any of the synonyms you like, that we all partake of but usually cannot see because it is hidden by the circus ruckus of our illusory but awfully determined little self. This is the theory. The proof is in the pudding: unless experienced it’s just a theory.
The ego can be used as a battering ram to bust through the fortress of the self. If we care enough about ourselves to desire liberation, even the pleasure principle can become a hacksaw and a hammer to cut through and knock down the walls and bars of our imprisoning personality.
Why care about theories? Why hunt down explanations? They are all part of the world of self. They are part hammer and part wall: they pound themselves and they withstand the pounding.
Hermits have another answer: Solitude, silence, simplicity. Simply observing the rise and fall of phenomena, both the inner and outer manifestations. Minimalising to the maximum life support requirements to free up as much time possible to simply observe, to listen, to wait. The hermitage will dissolve the prison of personality, of temporality and illusion. In time, when everything is ready and ripe, the fruit will appear, if we are so fortunate as to have a hermitage in the first place, all we need to do is to appreciate it, waste not a moment more than necessary, simply live it and observe. If we don’t meddle and mess things up, everything will take care of itself. Every hermit’s experience confirms this.
Why should hermits insist on virtues? Virtues develop only in those who possess them along with appropriate fortunate circumstances, otherwise who would be virtuous? Hermits have existed everywhere and in all times. What they have in common is a choice of voluntary simplicity, or asceticism, and a retreat as far from the society of others as they possible can achieve. They need not be literate or particularly intelligent, physically hardy or proficient in a particular practice. They simply must live alone and as frugally as they can. In their solitude what they search for and how they search for it is up to them. If we distil through all the varied confusion, we could say that hermits intuitively search for some measure of release from the bondage to this world. All of the heights and virtues of eremiticism have been reached by hermits even in the depths of despair. It is not because they climb a virtuous ladder of practice that hermits ascend, though many do in fact practice, but rather because they descend into humility, poverty, solitude. As Lao Tzu said: they put themselves at the very back but are nonetheless placed in front. Verily, hermits are not of this world, and the rules of this world do not apply to them, and they endeavour with all their might to return or to reach the dimension they know they belong in.
What holds a hermit back? The degree to which the society has contaminated their instinct. Most negative karma is not really an obstacle, for it is enough of an impetus itself to hurl the hermit to a hermitage. What gets in the way are other people, especially family and friends, but also social trends and authorities of the day who can deny, damn or disappear the solitary option, just as a crude dictatorship will do to its discontents. Had it not been for fortuitous reading, many hermits today would never have even heard of this singular vocation. Once heard of though, every hermit knows it to be their own.
When the situation is so inhospitable to hermits that they cannot even find any hermitage at all, then all that is left is to build one in the mind. Who can say how often an autism, a catatonic psychosis, even depression are but the crude outer walls of an inner hermitage? Illness and accident, even prison, may also be the only means available to withdraw from society. Necessity is the mother of invention and hermits are known for being resourceful. As far as we are concerned living and participating in society is madness and criminal.
[Hermits in all of us]
Hermits may seem few and far between only because of hasty judgments based on an archetypal ideal image of the classical hermit.
They may appear few if we deny the novice and apprentice struggling with contradictions and stumbling over themselves.
They will certainly be few if we are dogmatic about method and attached to form.
They will appear fewer still if we use the paradigms of Babylon, especially concerning health, sanity, reason and commonsense.
In short, the hermit vocation may also be a destiny, in which circumstances and qualifications have little influence. Just as a person like Thomas Merton, though desiring a hermitage his whole life long, was constantly driven into community, a different destiny. Hermits, even if full of conflicting desires and impulses, and perhaps even lacking the qualities helpful to a hermit, will still be driven to the solitary experience however bumpy and bungled.
Who cares if there are more or less of us out there anyway? We are alone and we strive to be alone, we are driven to solitude by our instinct and not by example. Other hermits’ experience, especially their literature, can be extremely helpful but it is not the cause for our becoming hermits nor even necessary to our success.
The cause is in us, and whatever we need is within us. Even should life present us with the best of what it has to offer, we would still be unhappy here. Injustice, suffering and belligerent ignorance reign in this world, we can never be satisfied here or with what it has to offer. Whatever we take, someone or something else must do without; they are robbed or destroyed. We will do without, we will make do with the least, and we will search our hearts for the answers and the happiness this world denies us.
Why not go from this urban desolation, you ask? It is not a question of unwillingness to compromise. It is compromise, and compassion, that brought us here, got us stuck here and heart broken as our dear hard-earned hermit attire and demeanor deteriorated. The form was lost and the content badly damaged, but, after three years of isolation in this horrendous noise and destructive ugly urban madness, the spirit has resurfaced and reaffirmed itself, something has made it possible to flee again, and given us a place to flee to.
And it's not just the gangs on the corners with their drugs and guns, the boozers on the benches, or the constant wailing of sirens and car alarms and backing trucks and pneumatic drills into concrete, the endless construction and demolition of buildings making a thunder like earthquakes, the racket of people through thin walls and on the streets, all-hours of fighting and arguing, televisions and boom blasters, the piles of stinking garbage, the dumping in the river, -not all this merely that strangles the hope out of you but the ruthless cruelty of landlords and public officials, the corruption and stupidity of bureaucracy that lets the infra-structure crumble, crushing the poorest people first but eventually poisoning everything, the endemic selfishness of the affluent, this is what is unbearable to behold day in and day out. The cloud of pollution without becomes a cloud of gloom within.
Hermits are extremely complex people who yearn for simplicity. In our microcosm we both mirror and reverse humanity: People are basically simple but crave complexity and their struggles and contradictions are always externalised; the world is their problem and if they can change it they imagine some happiness awaits them. Even when they suffer from various trauma, they view the solution or cure in something material, in some alteration in their physical world.
We, of course, do not. All hermits, of whatever variation, consider the fundamental problem to be subjective, a question of perception, including the corruption and suffering in the world are consequences of the deluded mind (which does not mean that they are unreal but are caused and enflamed by ignorance and delusion). And all of us, accordingly, more or less successfully, struggle to polish the mirror, to see and to reflect purity and truth. We believe that only then will we understand both the world and the self, and hopefully be able to somewhat neutralize the damage. If we are wrong, and certainly we are at best only partially correct, no other human philosophy or belief is nearly as reasonable, as promising and accessible as eremitism. Anyone at anytime in the history of humanity and at anytime in our life can stop what she or he is doing and become a hermit. As Seng-Ts’an said “...for here no external conditions obtain...for objective limits are here of no consideration."
It is not the distractions of cities that disturb the hermit as the distance from nature that can be quite devastating. Once we barricaded in a tiny stone coop or sty under an uninhabited farm for weeks. Impossible to stand up straight in, just enough to lie down, light came in through a few spaces in the hay as narrow laser beams, but the whole experience was exhilarating and fascinating. The microcosm became immense, filled with miniature life and drama and significance and beauty. Because we were a part of the earth, like a creature in its burrow, but also like a visiting ghost or angel. Rarely had we felt such love for life as therein. For contour and texture, the bug and the microbe, the twig, straw, dust. Everything beckoned and comforted. Mere conveniences and security will never compare.
Hermits chime with Ste. Catherine of Genoa when she said: "We must not wish anything other than what happens to us from moment to moment, however, all the while exercising ourselves in goodness." We all instinctively know that it is not what happens to us that matters, but how we let it happen to us that is of the utmost importance; not so much the act as the motivation behind the act; not the act itself but our reaction to the act that counts. We also all instinctively realize that we rarely understand the true significance of what befalls us. More often than not, indeed, lots of us have enjoyed the insight that all of what happens to us is in fact benign.
Just to be a hermit is such a blessed state in the first place, so rare and utterly beyond our ken to achieve without massive doses of Blessings and Providence, that all the pain and disappointments combined vanish into insignificance before that brilliance when we merely remember how fortunate we are.
Some of us, sometimes only once, have been graced with the insight that all our suffering and ignorance really doesn’t exist at all, that there is no evil, and we are, in reality, free.
We do not develop the personality. The personality, as with this corporal form, has its own evolution of course, but we tamper with them only in so far as they hinder or assist with our eremitic aspirations. The body and its character have nothing to do with us. This is also a reason why hermits are rarely recognized at home: their character usually does not match the local stereotype. Individuality is not an issue to us, anymore than our genetic makeup or our cultural affiliations. Hermits transcend the personality; they do not perfect it.
There are states of perception, or of Being, which are beyond relativism. Hermits everywhere and of every time have enjoyed this intuition and experienced this illumination. We persevere through our ignorance and folly and periods of bleak despair because we are hermits. We are hermits because "in the three worlds there is no comparison."
[The hermit and the world]
There are two sides to the hermit renunciation of the world, though most of the conversation concerns the struggle hermits go through giving it up, or the struggle to find solitude: in short, the dynamics and difficulties in leaving the world. What is not talked about -- Shantideva is a notable exception; in one poem he details the fickleness and cruelty even friends are capable of towards hermits -- is the all-too common wake-up that we are often reciprocally rejected by the world as well. That we are often considered mad or simple-minded, possessed by daemons or a guilty conscience, social failures and frauds, victims of unrequited love, accidents, war and the competitive world, has been documented.
There can be, we often find, a kind of resentment on the part of the world we have renounced. We can be dreadfully alone because no one wants to see us either. When we meet there is criticism, mockery or the cold shoulder. The very few who may continue an infrequent brief connection, perhaps to bring supplies, probably do so for reasons we’d rather not admit to, such as pity or a sense of responsibility and charity for some one gone clearly over the edge, or a sneaky way of trying to lure or trick us back into the commonplace. Depending on how colourful the hermit is, they may come out of curiosity: an uncommon circus act well worth a few second rate groceries.
We find that unless we can truly love people, whoever they are, our relationship with them will become invariably cynical and painful. On the other hand if we do manage to love them all unconditionally then there will be an inevitable change in their reasons for visiting. Now they expect to be "reimbursed" for their gifts, not with a mere laugh at our expense, but with palatable philosophy and palliative psychology. You can kiss good-bye to our peace and solitude if we give in to this temptation to help others, because before you know it it’ll be we who are screaming for help and howling at the moon in despair.
Either way, positive or negative, nut or saint, there is rarely any good in it for hermits. A few contacts may be required to enable the retreat, but the least contact with people possible is always better. A vow of silence is possibly the safest tactic: we may be obliged to listen but if we do not speak they will tend to leave us alone, and we can keep our heart at peace.
Concerning this perennial problem of "other people" hermits must make every effort to remember, at all times and in all cases, that for hermits other people fall into two categories: the overwhelming majority are ephemeral dream daemons, who, no matter how attractive, will only disturb our samadhi and our solitude; they must be kept at a distance, -physical when possible, emotional always. Regardless of how bound up with them we may formerly have been, no good can ever come from their company, they are lost in the labyrinth and, if given half the chance, they will pull us back in with them.
The other group, extremely few in number, are also ephemeral dream daemons but they act as emissaries for our guardian angels. They serve a very practical purpose for hermits by enabling the hermitage and providing necessities, perhaps a buffer to the outside world, occasionally an appropriate text that may be just the insight needed at the time: Vehicles of Divine Synchronicity. Even other hermits fall into this second category. Hence, we ourselves are sometimes in this category for other hermits.
Both of these groups are usually unconscious of the status and function they possess in a hermit’s life, and the same person can at times alternate in both roles. If hermits can show them all kindness without intimacy while keeping a distance and preserving the solitude, they will fare better and more speedily in their aspirations. If not, god help them, many decades can be lost, wasted digging out of the landslide of their fallen hermitage.
Hermits cannot dally with the world. They will incur a heavy debt and pay a heavy fine each time they squander their privileges. We all make this mistake, some more often and more catastrophically than others; sometimes it cannot be avoided, there is a karma to be resolved or a greater destiny to be fulfilled. Nevertheless if we keep this in mind at all times we will avoid the avoidable and reduce the damage of the unavoidable, while harvesting the maximum advantage from our solitude and for our liberation.
[Hermits and other hermits]
We need not fear other hermits. Rarely, if ever, do we meet another anyway. Each hermit will be guarding their solitude and independence, and will always respect that of others. We may desire to talk with other hermits on matters close to our heart, but we are all aware of the limitations of conversation, even writing, which are more likely to drive us further apart, whereas silence would have united us. An experienced hermit would know that simply sitting together in silence would tell us more about each other, and the ideas that inspire us, than all the words in the world.
We cannot give up the world and then expect the world to do anything for us, or even to respect us. We should expect rejection, ridicule, resentment and so forth. Absolutely never trust any praise or acceptance from the common people; they are fickle, superficial, selfish and only attracted to us from some idiosyncrasy of the moment; it will pass and their pockets are always full of stones to throw at you when it does. Whatever happens to us, in particular if we deem it good fortune, life-saving, joyful tidings etc. whether or not it comes in the form of other people, as proceeding directly from the hands of Providence. Everything difficult or hurtful consider it a necessary and important lesson, a consequence of karma, a required duty or sacrifice, and always sent to us for our own good, whether we understand it or not at the time. If other people are the vehicle of our unhappiness, then let us feel sorrow for them, and gratitude for their, albeit unconscious, sacrifice. When hermits view everything that happens to them as originating in another higher realm, steeped in meaning, relevance and spirituality, they will quickly break the bonds of their local conditioning. Suffering will lose its dreadful countenance, injustice will shed its mask of the angry ogre, the anxieties of ignorance and fear will evaporate to the beating wings of angels like a million Monarch butterflies in flight.
Perhaps the most accessible acceptable lifestyle for hermits without means or hermitages today is humble volunteer work, not because they think it makes any difference or for the adventure some of it offers or for heavenly merit but so as not to work selfishly, to further detachment from place, possessions and persona, and to provide a social camouflage for their inner solitude and secret hermitage. They need to keep a vow of relative silence, talking only what is work-related unless they meet like-minded hermits, there are just too many traps in idle talking. Choosing activities that conflict the least with their non-destructive, non-violent, non-egoistic principles. These are not rules; they are plain good advice. Do not trust Babylon, do not trust desires, do not trust your feelings or your thoughts. Every little indulgence, concession and mistake you pay for instantly whether you see it now or not, you will see it and you will suffer for it.
[More on virtue]
Hermits may tend to excuse and console themselves with their virtues and achievements for faults that remain stubbornly active. As Abbot Anthony warned us " ...have no confidence in your own virtuousness," and Bodhidharma said, "you should realize that all karma, painful or otherwise, comes from your own mind. If you can just concentrate your mind and transcend its falsehood and evil, the suffering of the three realms and six states of existence will automatically disappear. And once free from suffering, you're truly free."
Someone lost in a labyrinth may tend to set up home in the more familiar corners, nevertheless remaining just as lost and vulnerable however much comfort these concessions give. The one who keeps looking for an exit understands that mere alterations and cosmetics do not end suffering nor does familiarity alter ignorance. If Liberation were a relative, gradual, accumulative acquisition then Progressive Evolution would be the theology, as it is for the Religion of Modern Science. Every hermit, whether successful or not, intuitively knows that only by means of a total separation from the labyrinth will we ever understand the real landscape of life. As in Plato’s famous metaphor, we must first get out of the cave, give up theorizing over shadows on the wall, to get any idea at all as to what is really happening.
Liberation is a process akin to swimming: we can do it but we must dive in, we must get completely wet, we must abandon the dry ground of our securities. Liberation is a medium, another dimension, entirely beyond this world of karma.
Our virtues are more dangerous to us, as hermits, than our faults; and our desire for virtue even more so. Faults are readily obvious, by ourselves or by others; they cause us much trouble and pain and shame, which in turn impel us to correct them. As Bodhidharma stated "Every suffering is a Buddha-seed, because suffering impels mortals to seek wisdom!" and "Mortals liberate Buddhas because affliction creates awareness. And Buddhas liberate mortals because awareness negates affliction," so we can say, "our faults, when they cause us suffering, mean us well."
Not only are we happy, as hermits that is, to indulge our virtuous inclinations, we often view it as an obligation. Abbot Anthony warned us "have no confidence in your own virtuousness," because we still dwell in the three realms, our minds are still clouded in illusion. We have seen the red dust, it is true, and we are diligently dusting it off our eyes but much still clings to us and we are still terribly vulnerable to dualistic thinking and behaviour. The ego becomes subtle and refined in protecting itself. "Mara grows fiercely as our Tao progresses higher."
Why is Giving the first of the Six Perfections, do you think? Because it is so very difficult to achieve. To give without collateral damage to the giver or to the receiver or to anything else in between, is practically impossible for most mortals. Most giving, charity, generosity backfires and we know it and we console ourselves that the intention was sincere and good, and that must suffice. But is that true?
For the common people, without some everyday measure of charity and generosity to counter the selfish prevalence, their world would quickly disintegrate. Hermits, on the other hand, have renounced the world and with very good reason. We are only too aware that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" and that everyone justifies everything by "good intentions."
The anonymous Russian hermit-pilgrim warned that it is "better for you to free yourself from the chains of sin than to free slaves from slavery." (He wrote about the limitations of Christian charity). As we deepen our hermit understanding, it grows increasingly self-evident that only a Buddha or a Jesus can save others; all we can do, at best, is to readjust their chains, offer a temporary comfort; at worst, we assist them from their familiar frying pan into a hotter unfamiliar fire.
Our virtues endanger us as hermits even more than our vices. Compassion, wisdom, selflessness, even our poverty, asceticism and freedom can trick us back into the world or trick us into letting the world into the hermitage with devastating consequences either way.
We practice our precepts to keep us on the path, not to become virtuous. Once liberated, we gain all the virtues instantly and we gain the wherewithal to use them.
By being hermits we prevent an infinite concatenation of injustice and suffering which would invariably ensue from our living ordinary lives. This is the greatest good we should expect from ourselves. For example, simply by not eating animal products think how many animals are spared suffering and death merely to placate our palates; or by not working after possessions and power for a lifetime think how much injustice and waste and conflict has been avoided!
Some will argue that merely not doing evil is not the same as "doing good." But true Good is only achieved by a pure heart, a heart so pure as to be unaware that it is "doing good." While much charity and good acts are a mere salve to a conscience heavily weighted with selfish greed.
Pursue this purity, this oneness of mind, and leave everything else to Providence.
Ansari of Herat: "Only the perfectly selfless and enlightened can do good that does not, in some way or other, have to be paid for by actual or potential evils."
Martyrdom may come to us, and we should accept it patiently if it does in whatever form it takes, as aggression, illness, hunger, ostracism, ridicule and so forth, but we should never seek it. What we are looking for, all hermits know, is within us. External conditions do not concern us and we should tamper with them only so long as it is conducive to our meditation. Providence will always provide for us if we turn our local conditions to our inner advantage. The ideal hermitage is in the heart and it is there that we must look for it.
Can we keep it in mind that we are both right and wrong at the same time and most of the time as well? Sophistry is a mischievous daemon to hermits. Remember Bodhidharma’s admonishment: "If you’re not sure don’t act. Once you act, you wander through birth and death and regret having no refuge. Poverty and hardship are created by false thinking. To understand this mind you have to act without acting."
Many of the faults and traps referred to herein we have made of course, and fallen into, and we still do, that is why we can write so accurately about them. Karen Horney, in her classic book Self-Analysis, pointed out how intelligent people will tend to think that having once acknowledged a fault or problem, say a phobia or an obsession, they have somehow got a grip on it, they are somewhat superior to it by virtue of having recognized it. But intellectual honesty and perspicuity are not enough, as Milarepa noted "Just as a hungry person is not nourished by the mere knowledge of food, but desires also to eat it, in the same way those who think about non-reality are not content to know the sense but also want to meditate on it." And "Many trees do not carry fruit. Science is not always truth. Learning all this is not necessarily seeing that. Many things are useless to talk about."
For these reasons we must keep hammering at the point, searching the heart, returning to the source, centring, again and again until all deviant wandering ceases.
The way of life of the hermit, even when most idyllic and accomplished, is a means to Liberation, however the hermit may conceive that Liberation. Indeed it is most idyllic and accomplished proportionate to the degree of inner liberation. If the horse falls behind the cart the process slows and stagnates. The hermitage is the Yin and the hermit is the Yang. The yearning after heaven of the latter and the centring in the earth of the former create the perfect peaceful and dynamic equilibrium, as in the 11th chapter T’tai in the I Ching.
What is it that is needed for emptiness to reach beyond the loss and horror of an Auschwitz or the addictive torture of erotica and the appetites, or the existential anxiety of a mere expendable statistic aging in the terror of contemporary urban anonymity; the ugly mire of apathy, -the vortex of futility and error in every effort; the prison of personality, the ball and chain of temporality, and the universality of injustice? Such questions as what is human reason? What are human faith, belief, love and happiness? Can we trust them? Are they anything more than epi-phenomenal biological functions and Pavlovian cultural conditioning? Human suffering is perfectly understandable but human happiness irrational, merely chemical and invariably fleeting. Since people can find happiness after a few drinks and regardless of how cruel they may be, happiness has nothing noble about it. Can we really understand causation when in comes to human actions when "exceptions" far out number any rule?
No Turning Back
Hermits face such visions of despair everyday. Traditionally, when we can, we defend ourselves with a faith and pursue a belief that some practice or other will in time liberate us. But, even for those few of us who can convince themselves, it is extremely hard to sustain. For those who have gone beyond the pleasure principle, who reject it as a trap to samsara and suffering, they have nothing to fall back on if their practice fails and their faith falters. Existentialism and nihilism are also a root and source of eremiticism, we mustn’t forget this in this age of religious evangelical and fundamentalist revival. But existentialists haven’t their convenient faith-theologies to resort to, at least not without an intellectual betrayal.
For a hermit driven by, on the one hand, a pantheon of noble virtues and ideals in the wilderness of this banal materialistic age, and, on the other, driven from the horrors of injustice destroying every corner of our planet and corrupting every human heart, the need for an unambiguous hypocrisy-free rational ethical and realistic hermit-perspective is of paramount importance.
You can stave off the "pull" to become a hermit but once you have experienced the freedom and wisdom of the hermit life in harmony with nature and free from desire, even briefly and in flashes, you can never again whole heartedly return to this world. Many of us would rather join the homeless on the streets than reintegrate to consumer slavery or even participate minimally with Babylon.
Famously, the Buddha faced this existential vision, (the transience of life, illness, old age and death, the ubiquitous fact of suffering), but he enjoyed a Vedic heritage to work from, one filled with faith in reincarnation and numerous sophisticated practices. More importantly, the future of humanity was as yet unknown, the world was still fresh, wildernesses were everywhere as were yet-to-be discovered, yet-to-be destroyed societies. The destructive, cruel and insane aspects of humans were circumscribed and could at times be remedied or evaded. Who can believe in that any longer? In the last decade, let alone the last century, how much genocide have we sat back and watched helplessly? Technology has made war and oppression more devastating and pervasive than ever dreamt of by pre-WW1 warmongers. Yet in spite of all the efforts and sacrifices of pacifists and the wisest and most capable humans on the planet, wars abound and social and environmental damage has spread like an uncontrollable plague in every direction.
Many are hermits in order to reduce their own negative participation in a very negative world. The Sage's advice to withdraw when the emperor is bad, translates in the modern world, on ethical grounds in particular, that it is all hopelessly insane and we should remain in permanent retreat, and for those with an historic sense, human society has been mostly an immoral violent bedlam, except that in the past it was often possible to escape to "new worlds," deep forests, empty deserts, solitary mountain tops, idyllic islands and so forth. A number of cultures even enjoyed hermit traditions where one could set up near a village with a reasonable expectation of an adequate charity.
Where and How?
Not any longer. Where it exists, charity has been institutionalised with all the restrictions and qualifications that that status entails. It certainly never includes hermits. People are suspicious and diffident especially regarding individuals living in poverty or mendicant. As we all know, today hermits are by and large considered crazy or lazy escapists. Advice to would-be hermits today is invariably to make money to buy and set up a retreat, which is a complete and unacceptable contradiction for many hermits. Isn’t that what everyone in Babylon intends to do? Work hard (regardless of "collateral damage"), save up, and carve out some dream home to retire in? On the other hand, voluntarily begging while millions are starving or refugees or homeless or dying from disease and war, is not an easy option for us. Then, the wild uninhabited places are fewer and fewer by the day, often government controlled and off-limits to hermits: Where to go and how to live there have become the primary problems, not the when or if as in former times.
What To Do Now?
Hermits who renounce and reject contemporary society may accept a bucolic retreat if it comes their lucky way spontaneously, though they may reject it on principle if it is too obviously an advantage of affluence, and, in any case, it can quite easily be lost as many contemporary hermits can attest. On the whole hermits will seek any immediate solution that reduces their participation in this terrible unjust global catastrophe. Any shelter that lets them live relatively unencumbered by social routines and free from hypocrisy and negative social involvement: In a tenement, an institution, a tent, a lean-to, a cellar, a prison cell, a casket if needs be, anything anywhere they can pursue some measure of purity of being and liberation from this nightmare. Those who can enter into some level of samadhi, meditation, and more or less remain there throughout this life will have found one of the safest refuges. Some form of the Zen-ultimatum of "Satori or Suicide!"
For those who can't .... they had better have some strong philosophy to support them before a bitter old-age eats them alive.
The truism "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" is verified again by the pathetic results of decades of aid and welfare and social experiment and technological advances and increased wealth and universal education and health care and so on and so forth. Ubiquitous and ever-entrenched crime and corruption and ignorance and disease and environmental destruction splashes dirty cold water in the face of any optimism. All this has killed any faith that good intentions, intelligence, labour, sacrifice, love and example can turn the tide, nay, it's not even a drop in the proverbial bucket. Since the seventies no one believes in Utopias or Revolution anymore, and very few still have faith in reform. Vengeance and violence, defensive aggression and bunker-strategy are fast becoming the rule of the world.
The only compassionate act for this world that a hermit can trust is to liberate one's self from the selfish ignorance of the illusory ego.
It is not that the Truth is inscrutable but that it cannot be beheld and even less comprehended by a thought-clouded mind, by a feeling-tormented body.
What hermits must remember is that it is not the hermitage that makes the hermit but the other way around. An accomplished hermit though living through the worst hell on earth would dwell as if in heaven and would radiate good will to all.
This is our answer to all questions, this is our purpose, motivation and guide, this is the Faith that withstands faithlessness and despair.
For hermits there can be, or only peripherally and sporadically, no guru, no church or cult, no political party or cultural association, rarely ever even fellow hermits. Hermits are unbending individualists who struggle against all forms of arbitrary authority including their own personality and who seek liberation on all levels without compromise. They all soon discover the fact that any society can rarely, if ever, help a hermit.
It seems as though most writers about hermits tend to brush over the darker aspects as if they feared scaring people off. Hermits are presented as though magically enlightened, superior to inner conflict by nature of being a hermit, if not they should not be hermits, they are "fake hermits" who give a bad name to the vocation.
Most of the literature left by hermits themselves rejects this elitist attitude and regards the spirit in a libertarian light. They regard the hermit lifestyle as a dynamic that every human being can use who seeks some measure of redemption from the penitentiary of society and the limited self. How successful they are depends on many factors. But if you have even heard of the word hermit and feel, however faintly or conflicted, an attraction to the vocation and a reverence for the ideal, then you are a hermit at heart however you may appear to the critical eye.
There is no such thing as fake or phoney hermits. It'd be like faking a quadriplegic; how and why on earth would anyone try that? No, there are hermits who've got stuck in a rut, or who rolled back down the mountain when it became to steep for them to climb. There are those who couldn't get any higher than the foothills for a variety of reasons. It is to their credit that they tried, yea, that they aspired to become hermits for any reason. We must trust that they will have more success in the next incarnation, just as we all must trust that tomorrow we'll do better than yesterday. That someday all this comparative doing will be done with and we'll just become, just know, just be ... serene hermits.
If we can quiet the mind to practice the right Tao, we will find out that Mara grows fiercely as our Tao progresses higher hence the need to discern Mara’s true aim.