In the Sutta Nipata we find a discourse by the Buddha entitled "The Rhinoceros Horn" in which he compares the one horn of the rhinoceros with the sage's solitude. The Buddha praises being alone and the refrain to every stanza of the sutta is: "One should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn." (K.R. Norman transl. P.T.S.)
There are two kinds of solitude, that of the mind (citta-viveka) and that of the body (kaya-viveka). Everyone is familiar with solitude of the body. We go away and sit by ourselves in a room or cave or tell the people we are living with, that we want to be left alone. People usually like that sort of solitude for short periods. If this aloneness is maintained, it is often due to people not being able to get along with others or being afraid of them because there isn't enough love in their own hearts. Often there may be a feeling of loneliness, which is detrimental to solitude. Loneliness is a negative state of mind in which one feels bereft of companionship.
When one lives in a family or community, it is sometimes difficult to find physical solitude, it's not even very practical. But physical solitude is not the only kind of aloneness there is. Mental solitude is an important factor for practice. Unless one is able to arouse mental solitude in oneself, one will not be able to be introspective, to find out what changes in oneself are necessary.
Mental solitude means first and foremost not to be dependent on others for approval, for companionable talk, for a relationship. It doesn't mean that one becomes unfriendly towards others, just that one is mentally independent. If another person is kind to us, well and good. If that isn't the case, that's fine too, and makes no difference.
The horn of a rhinoceros is straight and solid and so strong that we can't bend it. Can our minds be like that? Mental solitude cuts out idle chatter, which is detrimental to spiritual growth. Talking about nothing at all, just letting off steam. When we let the steam go from a pot, we can't cook the food. Our practice can be likened to putting the heat on oneself. If we let off steam again and again, that inner process is stopped. It's much better to let the steam accumulate and find out what is cooking. That is the most important work we can do.
Everybody should have occasion each day to be on her own physically for some time, so that we can really feel alone, totally by ourselves. Sometimes we may think: "People are talking about me." That doesn't matter, we are the owners of our own kamma. If somebody talks about us, it's their kamma. If we get upset, that's our kamma. Getting interested in what is being said is enough to show that we are dependent on people's approval. Who's approving of whom? Maybe the five khandha (body, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness) are approving. Or possibly the hair of the head, the hair of the body, nails, teeth and skin? Which "self" is approving, the good one, the bad one, the mediocre one, or maybe the non-self?
Unless one can find a feeling of solidity in oneself, from the center, where there is no movement, one is always going to feel insecure. Nobody can be liked by everyone, not even the Buddha. Because we have defilements, we are always on the lookout for everybody else's pollutions. None of that matters, it's all totally unimportant. The only thing that is significant is to be mindful; totally attentive to each step on the way, to what one is doing, feeling, thinking. It's so easy to forget this. There's always somebody with whom to talk or another cup of tea to be had. That's how the world lives and the inhabitants are mostly unhappy. But the Buddha's path leads out of the world to independent happiness.
Letting off steam, idle chatter and looking for companionship are the wrong things to do. Trying to find out what people are thinking about one, is immaterial and irrelevant and has nothing to do with the spiritual path. Solitude in the mind means that one can be alone in the midst of the crowd. Even in a large and agitated crowd of people, one would still be able to operate from one's own center, giving out love and compassion, and not being influenced by what is happening around one.
That can be called ideal solitude and means one has removed oneself from the future and past, which is necessary in order to stand straight and alone. If one is attached to the future, then there is worry, and if one is hankering for the past, there is either desire or rejection. That is the constant chatter of the mind, not conducive to mental solitude.
Solitude can only be fully experienced when there is inner peace. Otherwise loneliness pushes one to try and remedy a feeling of emptiness and loss. "Where is everybody? What can I do without some companionship? I must discuss my problems." Mindfulness is able to take care of all that because it has to arise in the present moment and has nothing to do with future and past. It keeps one totally occupied and saves one from making mistakes, which are natural to human beings. But the greater the mindfulness, the fewer mistakes. Errors on the mundane level also have repercussions on the supermundane path, because they are due to a lack of mindfulness, which will not allow us to get past our self-inflicted dukkha. We will try again and again to find someone who is to blame or someone who can distract us.
Ideal solitude arises when a person can be alone or with others and remain of one piece, not getting caught in someone else's difficulties. We may respond in an appropriate manner, but we are not affected. We all have our own inner life and we only get to know it well when the mind stops chattering and we can attend to our inner feelings. Once we have seen what is happening inside of us, we will want to change it. Only the fully Enlightened One (Arahant) has an inner life which needs no changing. Our inner stress and lack of peace push us outward to find someone who will remove a moment of dukkha, but only we, ourselves, can do it.
Solitude may be physical, but that's not its main function. The solitary mind is one which can have profound and original thoughts. A dependent mind thinks in cliches, the way everybody else does, because it wants approval. Such a mind understands on a surface level, just like the world does, and cannot grasp the profundity and depth of the Buddha's teaching. The solitary mind is at ease because it is unaffected.
It's interesting that a mind at ease, which can stand on its own, also can memorize. Because such a mind is not filled with the desire to remove dukkha, it can remember without much trouble. This is one of its side benefits. The main value of a solitary mind is its imperturbability. It can't be shaken and will stand without support, just as a strong tree doesn't need a prop. Because it's powerful in its own right. If the mind doesn't have enough vigour to stand on its own, it won't have the strength and determination to fulfill the Dhamma.
Our practice includes being on our own some time each day to introspect and contemplate. Reading, talking and listening are all communication with others, which are necessary at times. But it is essential to have time for self-inquiry: "What is happening within me? What am I feeling? Is it wholesome or not? Am I perfectly contented on my own? How much self-concern is there? Is the Dhamma my guide or am I bewildered?" If there's a fog in one's mind, all we need is a searchlight to penetrate it. The searchlight is concentration.
Health, wealth and youth do not mean no dukkha. They are a cover-up. Ill-health, poverty and old age make it easier to realize the unsatisfactoriness of our existence. When we are alone, that is the time to get to know ourselves. We can investigate the meaning of the Dhamma we've heard and whether we can actualize it in our own lives. We can use those aspects of the Dhamma which are most meaningful for us.
The solitary mind is a strong mind, because it knows how to stand still. That doesn't mean not associating with people at all, that would lack loving-kindness (metta). A solitary mind is able to be alone and introspect and also be loving towards others. Living in a Dhamma community is an ideal place to practice this.
Meditation is the means for concentration, which is the tool to break through the fog enveloping everyone who is not an Arahant. At times, in communal living, there is togetherness and lovingness and service. These should be the results of metta not of trying to get away from dukkha. Next time we start a conversation, let's first investigate: "Why am I having this discussion? Is it necessary, or am I bored and want to get away from my problems."
Clear comprehension is the mental factor which joins with mindfulness to give purpose and direction. We examine whether our speech and actions are having the right purpose, whether we are using skillful means and whether the initial purpose has been accomplished. If we have no clear-cut direction, idle chatter results. Even in meditation the mind does it, which is due to lack of training. When we practice clear comprehension, we need to stop a moment and examine the whole situation before plunging in. This may become one of our skillful habits, not often found in the world.
An important aspect of the Buddha's teaching is the combination of clear comprehension with mindfulness. The Buddha often recommends them as the way out of all sorrow, and we need to practice them in our small every-day efforts. These may consist of learning something new, a Dhamma sentence remembered, one line of chanting memorized, one new insight about oneself, one aspect of reality realized. Such a mind gains strength and self-confidence.
Renunciation is the greatest help in gaining self-confidence. One knows one can get along without practically everything, for instance food, for quite some time. Once the Buddha went to a village where nobody had any faith in him. He received no alms-food at all, nobody in the village paid any attention to him. He went to the outskirts and sat down on a bit of straw and meditated. Another ascetic came by who had seen that the Buddha had not received any food and commiserated with him: "You must be feeling very badly not having anything to eat. I'm very sorry. You don't even have a nice place to sleep, just straw." The Buddha replied: "Feeders on joy we are. Inner joy can feed us for many days."
One can get along without many things when they are voluntarily given up. If someone takes our belongings, we resist, which is dukkha. But when we practice self-denial, we gain strength and enable the mind to stand on its own. Self-confidence arises and creates a really strong back-bone. Renunciation of companionship shows us whether we are self-sufficient.
The Buddha did not advocate exaggerated and harmful ascetic practices. but we could give up -- for instance -- afternoon conversations and contemplate instead. Afterwards the mind feels contented with its own efforts. The more effort one can make, the more satisfaction arises.
We need a solitary mind in meditation, so we need to practice it some time during each day. The secluded mind has two attributes; one is mindfulness, full attention and clear comprehension and the other is introspection and contemplation. Both of them bring the mind to unification. Only in togetherness lies strength; unification brings power.
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Two Faces of the Dhamma by Bhikkhu Bodhi