The Urban Hermit
- By Fa Dong Shakya
- Dec 05
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As anyone versed in Chan’s history knows, the hermitic life is a common one passed through by many of China’s most famous Chan teachers. In fact, all mystical traditions commonly find their members, at some time in their life, retreating from society.
For the mystic, living a reclusive hermitic life is more typical than not. Stonehouse (石屋, or “Shiwu”) was renowned as an archetypal hermit poet, so was the famous Chan Master, Han Shan (寒山, or Cold Mountain). We may also recall that grandmaster Hsu Yun spent three years in a cave as a young man; the Buddha, on his path toward enlightenment, spent years as a hermit according to legend; and Bodhidharma, it is said, spent nine years meditating in solitude in a mountain cave.
Perhaps no works have better expressed the allure of the hermitic life than Bill Porter’s popular novel Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, or Edward Burger’sAmongst White Clouds. Anyone serious about treading Chan’s path finds a strong allure to removing oneself from society, for it’s a clear and obvious way to give us the time we need to delve into Chan uninterrupted.
Making this leap, however, requires that we possess the desire to detach from society, to detach from our sense of social-identity that has been cultivated through our interactions with family members and friends. Such a full and complete retreat means we become, essentially, invisible to others, removing ourselves from their feedback that had created and reinforced our sense of social and personal identity.
Some Chan recluses have chosen a slightly different path, yet one that results in the same effective isolation: rather than living outside of the world in a mountain cave or hut, they choose to become wonderers – travelers. For many centuries this was an encouraged Chan practice and even today, we see its remnants in all Chinese Buddhist ordinations as monks receive bowls with spoons or chopsticks and a bag in which to wear the bowl around their neck. Upon ordination, it was expected that a large number would become wondering monks, receiving whatever they needed to eat in their alms bowls from strangers passing by. They are also given a prayer cloth that allows them to perform prostrations without getting their robes soiled wherever they may find themselves. Today there are still monks who travel this path, but the numbers are much fewer than in past centuries.
Hermit or anonymous traveler, it is that very physical detachment from familiarity that engenders freedom from the entanglements we all acquire as we’re growing up. Despite the isolation and uncertainty, the hermit gains the ability to see himself or herself from a new perspective, in a new way. The same effect can happen when we enter a monastery or when we go on a spiritual retreat: our usual identity is discarded and we have the opportunity to meditate on what is left: our True Nature, our Buddha Nature.
While it’s easy to head off to the mountains for a weekend of solitary camping, few of us can drop everything to go live in a stone hut or a cave for an extended period of time: our lives are too urbanized, too entangled with the social accoutrements of modern life. We have jobs, we have families and all the associated attachments and obligations that come with them: mortgages, phone bills, children to drive to school…. We don’t have the circumstances of life to join Han Shan in his mountain cave.
Or do we?
Most of us are trapped by our lives, no matter how gentle the grasp; nevertheless, there are, in fact, things we can do that allow us to reconstruct the hermit experience in the midst of our crowded lives, even in the busiest of urban settings. The hermit seeks detachment through isolation. The traveling monk seeks detachment through anonymity. The monastic seeks detachment through ascetic and other practices. All have the same goal: detachment. All we have to do is find a way to get it through whatever environment we find ourselves in. It is not an option to abandon our children, or the care we must give our family. Doing so would be an act of pure self-interest which is counter to the Chan way, counter to living within the Buddha Dharma.
So, what can we do?
When we encounter a person we know, be it a friend, parent, spouse, a son or daughter, we can look at them as if they are a completely open book to us, as if each time we meet them it is for the first time. We can avoid projecting upon them the preconceived notions of who we imagine them to be based on our past experiences with them. We can form a new and fresh relationship at each and every encounter with them. In this way, not only are they always new, as a “stranger” passing by as we travel through life, but when we can see them not as people with fixed attributes but as beings without our projections forced upon them, we also give back to them their humanity. We quickly discover, also, that when we withdraw our projections from them, their projections upon us bounce off as well, for there is nothing for them to attach to.
Regardless of what path we take up the mountain, it is an equally steep climb whichever one we find ourselves on. One path is no “easier” than another; it’s what we bring to it that makes all the difference and propels us up the slope. While society tends to romanticize the life of the hermit, or the wonderer, or the ascetic, little is ever said about the ferocious energy that goes into the practice of Zen. The energy that must be exerted by the mystic is no different for a hermit, wonderer, ascetic, gardener, computer programmer, mother or father, nurse or fireman.
When I find “Zen Mind” slipping away as it easily does when living in a busy city as I do, I find that a trip to parts of my own urban world that are unfamiliar to me, and where no one knows me, can bring it right back. I may also go for long walks in places previously unexplored by me, where I recognize no one. Travel to new places where everything is fresh and unknown forces upon me the detachment that returns the clarity of Zen Mind. I go to city parks at times when no one else is there, or during times of the year when they are less popular. I leave my cell phone at home and my iPad is nowhere to be seen. It is possible to find both isolation and detachment even in the midst of the most urban environments, and this is just as great a place to re-ignite Zen’s journey of Self discovery as any other.
Eventually, with attention directed toward detachment, we realize that what we are looking for is there wherever we are, wherever we go; that it’s not dependent on living as a hermit, a wondering monk, or a monastic.
It’s only dependent on our effort to detach. And that’s something that can be done anywhere.
Before the cliffs I sat alone
the moon shone in the sky
but where a thousand shapes appeared
its lantern cast no light
the unobstructed spirit is clear
the empty cave is a mystery
a finger showed me the moon
the moon is the hub of the mind