Sangha and solitude

In classical Buddhism the Three Refuges are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The third of these is a Sanskrit word used in many Indian languages, including Pali (saṅgha) meaning “association”, “assembly”, “company” or “community”. In Buddhism the term is used more or less narrowly to imply the monastic community, or sometimes more widely to include all people who practice Buddhism correctly, whether lay or clerical. (Wikipedia)

Interestingly, Tara Brach chooses to redefine the three refuges as awareness, truth, and love: “The three facets of true refuge – awareness, truth, and love – come alive as we dedicate our presence to them. As we open to these three gateways, they reveal the one taste of freedom inherent to all paths of awakening.” She goes on to suggest that this implies “a yearning for more belonging” that we can “fully inhabit [as a] refuge of love”. (Reflection: The Three Refuges)

Winton Higgins has some harsh, even sarky, words for those who may decide that the concept of the sangha can be bypassed in our modern world:

After all, they may think, I have access to a plethora of how-to-meditate books and podcasts, and I can even download a meditation app. I can meditate by myself in my own bedroom, where I can also jump online and read or listen to any number of dharma talks. I can listen to dharma podcasts anywhere and any time, even while driving to work. If I want to talk to others about it, I can join an online chat room.

Okay, I understand that in other times and places people needed their sanghas because they had nowhere else to sit in peace and had no other access to the dharma. But it’s not like that any more. Besides, I’m a busy person and can’t afford to be tied down to a fixed weekly commitment (unless it’s for something really important like football training). And finally, frankly, I’m simply not a joiner. Sorry. Two refuges are enough for me.

Winton Higgins, Revamp, Tuwhiri 2021 (p.152)

He goes on to explain that in his view we are dependent beings who discover ourselves in community, in relationship, and that the sangha is best understood as “unmediated face-to-face communication with others who are actually present.” (p.153) Undoubtedly this is correct within Higgins’ own terms, but – leaving aside for a moment the effects of the present global pandemic on our face-to-face possibilities – solitude is an equally vital component of the contemplative life. The Buddha himself, after all, came to awakening in solitude. Stephen Batchelor:

There is more to solitude than just being alone. True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it. When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.

For those who have rejected religion in favor of secular humanism, the notion of solitude may imply self-indulgence, navel-gazing, or solipsism. Inevitably, some may be drawn to solitude as a way of escaping responsibility and avoiding relationships. But for many it provides the time and space to develop the inner calm and autonomy needed to engage effectively and creatively with the world. Moments of quiet contemplation, whether before a work of art or while observing your breath, allow you to rethink what your life is about and reflect on what matters most for you. Solitude is not a luxury for the leisured few. It is an inescapable dimension of being human. Whether we are devout believers or devout atheists, in solitude we confront and explore the same existential questions.

Stephen Batchelor, The Art of Solitude, Yale U.P. 2020, loc. 76

Higgins does, I am sure, understand this, for he writes, in his section on “Intensity as a modern virtue” (p.110 ff):

One of the thinkers that Peter Watson gathers into his fold is precisely Martin Heidegger, whom we met in chapter 4. He also identified care (Sorge) as the mainspring of an authentic human life, one intensely lived. Like the Buddha, Heidegger also introduced the tempering value of letting-go (Gelassenheit).

To live intensely must never translate into wilfulness – into our turning into meddling control freaks as we cultivate receptivity. Were we to fall into that trap, we’d be blocking the sensitive exploration of our experience. Thus Heidegger extols calm, composure, detachment, release – letting things be. This principle comes close to the Buddha’s upekkha (equanimity), one of the four vital ‘immeasurable’ emotional tones of the awakening mind.

(op. cit. (p. 112)

Solitude and Gelassenheit (a wonderful word that Heidegger presumably sourced from the 14th century contemplative Meister Eckhart) are to me indivisible. But what strikes me in this passage is the way Higgins connects this with Sorge (care, concern, even worry, for others) with the process of letting things be. There are echoes here of Tara Brach’s “awareness, truth and love”!

I have long felt that there is an immense freedom in solitude. The heart expands, somehow, in this unaccustomed space, and deliberate thought becomes more free and spacious too. Somehow I find myself able to think recklessly about, feel compassion for, even love, people against the mere thought of whom I’d have felt I had to defend myself had I not had this freedom.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

Solitude greeting solitude, that’s what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another’s aloneness. When we allow our aloneness to lead us into solitude, our solitude will enable us to rejoice in the solitude of others. Our solitude roots us in our own hearts. Instead of making us yearn for company that will offer us immediate satisfaction, solitude makes us claim our centre and empowers us to call others to claim theirs. Our various solitudes are like strong, straight pillars that hold up the roof of our communal house. Thus, solitude always strengthens community.

Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, HarperOne, 2009 (loc. 930)

My own love of solitude was well established long before our lives were redefined by the pandemic neologism “lockdown” – from childhood it has been both a refuge and a source of life to me. Earlier this year I wrote here,

Churches and religious groups seem mostly to be operating on the assumption that once the pandemic is under control, and something approaching normal life is restored, their worshippers will flood back, Catholics to Mass, Quakers to their meetings, everyone to their accustomed place. It may not happen, at least not in the way, or to the extent, that most people appear to expect. The sea change of the pandemic, and the enforced crash course in information and communications technology it has brought, have accelerated a process of secularisation that has been gathering momentum for a long time…

There is no obvious name for what is happening. It seems not to be “secular” in the way religious people might fear, but it isn’t “religious” either, in the way that secularists might assume. It is not eremitical exactly, certainly not in the traditional sense of hermits as ones living in geographical isolation.

Perhaps it is time that silence and practice are allowed to stand untitled: the ground still, and open.

There is much more to explore here, and generous-hearted guides like Winton Higgins and Stephen Batchelor will no doubt have more to teach us as we all come closer to understanding what life will be like on the other side of this present crisis, and we come to face more closely the other crises, social, political and environmental (Higgins is especially good, and deeply hopeful, on this in the final section of Revamp) that are no doubt coming down the pike. Meanwhile, our own practice is our North star. In sitting we can find all we need.

2 thoughts on “Sangha and solitude

  1. Ramsey Margolis

    Eugene Cash suggested that in today’s world it’s useful to reverse the order of the three jewels, or three refuges, becoming sangha, dharma, buddha. Creating community where I live showed this to be an accurate description of what most newbies were looking for: a community in which they were welcome and felt okay, teachings and practices that worked for them, and only then they might ask ‘So who was this Buddha, anyway’?


    1. Mike Farley Post author

      Yes, that’s interesting, Ramsey. I’d forgotten, perhaps, that so many people approach any type of community “looking for a home” as I’ve heard it put. It’s often that way with Quaker meetings, too – people look into the history and beliefs only after they’ve found the community. I’ve always done things the other way about – which says more about me than anything else, I imagine!



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