Seclusion isn’t being alone—it’s being independent; no longer tossed around by the pushing and pulling of circumstances. It is not getting tangled up in beliefs. As we read on, you’ll see that the Atthakavagga Buddha is a philosophical skeptic. This makes sense, as many Hellenistic Greek thinkers inspired by Buddhism became skeptics as well.

 

By Johnathon Lee

Plato compared life to people in chains watching shadows dance on a cave wall, thinking that they’re seeing the real thing.

The enlightened person breaks their chains, goes outside, and sees what’s casting the shadows.

The Guhaṭṭhakasutta is the second entry in the Atthakavagga, an early collection of Buddhist teachings. This Sutta, similarly to Plato, compares ignorance to being in a cave.

Even when we’re stuck alone in the cave, we’re not really alone. Our thoughts and desires can be bad company, adding their drama to the shadow play. Buddha discovered, like many others in the Axial Age, that chasing shadows doesn’t lead to lasting happiness.

Here’s the Sutta:

Trapped in a cave, thickly overspread, sunk in delusion they stay. A person like this is far from seclusion, for sensual pleasures in the world are not easy to give up.

The chains of desire, the bonds of life’s pleasures are hard to escape, for one cannot free another. Looking to the past or the future, they pray for these pleasures or former ones.

Greedy, fixated, infatuated by sensual pleasures, they are incorrigible, habitually immoral. When led to suffering they lament, “What will become of us when we pass away from here?”

That’s why a person should train in this life: should you know that anything in the world is wrong, don’t act wrongly on account of that; for the wise say this life is short.

I see the world’s population floundering, given to craving for future lives. Base men wail in the jaws of death, not rid of craving for life after life.

See them flounder over belongings, like fish in puddles of a dried-up stream. Seeing this, live unselfishly, forming no attachment to future lives.

Rid of desire for both ends, having completely understood contact, free of greed, doing nothing for which they’d blame themselves, the wise don’t cling to the seen and the heard.

Having completely understood perception and having crossed the flood, the sage, not clinging to possessions, with dart plucked out, living diligently, does not long for this world or the next.

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This Sutta is as relevant now as it was 2500 years ago—if not more so. Our collective wellbeing and ethics are in the crapper. The uninhibited, outspoken entrepreneur and the celebrity are our cultural ideals. Take what you want. If they don’t give it, then buy it. If you can’t buy it, then take it by force. Why? Because it’ll make you happy.

Except it won’t.

Happiness comes from having a sound character. Without that, all of the riches and pleasures of the world will end up causing more suffering—for you and everyone else. Several studies back this up, with lottery winners often slipping into major depression (or their pre-lottery state of mind) in as little as two years after their promotion to the jet set.

”Seclusion” is one of the main Buddhist goals in these Suttas. It’s akin to jhana or meditative absorption.

Seclusion isn’t being alone—it’s being independent; no longer tossed around by the pushing and pulling of circumstances. It is not getting tangled up in beliefs. As we read on, you’ll see that the Atthakavagga Buddha is a philosophical skeptic. This makes sense, as many Hellenistic Greek thinkers inspired by Buddhism became skeptics as well.

The Atthakavagga Buddha doesn’t go so far as Socrates by claiming that he knows nothing, but most of what he knows has to do with unbinding and living a good life without worrying about what comes after.

That’s one of the reasons why the Atthakavagga isn’t studied much in Theravada: it contradicts later dogmatic teachings on kamma, right view, and rebirth. The Atthakavagga Buddha would probably disagree with the Buddhas of more popular Suttas and Sutras.

That’s okay; this Buddha isn’t concerned about fitting into a school. Community helps motivation, clarity and solidarity, but we each have to walk the Path on our own.

We can share information, but we can’t share knowledge: that comes from firsthand unbinding.

Most importantly, others help us practice morality, which is almost the whole of the Way. Seclusion is independence—not isolation. We can’t face our inner challenges without other people being assholes around us. A Buddhist alone can’t master themselves. It’s when the hermit encounters the “other” that they come to know themselves.

The Buddhist introvert wades right into the swarm, learning to float among the floundering. We can’t run away without running from Bodhi.

What we can do is learn to be free of social anxieties even as we’re elbow-to-elbow with others. One method is being mindful of contact. Contact is a moment of experience—interior or exterior. A sense organ interacts with a sense object, and qualia (conscious experience) emerge. Qualia change because sense organs and sense objects change.

These words are interactions; they’re not things-in-themselves. Reducing them to their parts demystifies them. If I look for happiness in something made of parts, then my happiness is going to made of parts too. It’s going to change with those parts.

If my happiness depends on something outside of me, then part of it is going to remain outside of me. If it’s made of parts, then it’s not going to be complete.

Most of us get into Buddhism because we feel incomplete. We’re fragmented, and we’re looking for happiness and meaning in the broken pieces. But you’re not broken.

You’re already whole. The Path is just a means to remembering that.

 

Photo: Pixabay

 

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