SOLITUDE: Solitude And Community by Maurice Friedman

Solitude And Community by Maurice Friedman

From A Heart of Wisdom

If a person were in such a rapturous state as Saint Paul once entered, and he knew of a sick man who wanted a cup of soup, it would be far better to withdraw from the rapture for love’s sake and serve him who is in need.

A long time ago in China there were two friends, one who played the harp skillfully and one who listened skillfully.

When the one played or sang about a mountain, the other would say, “I can see the mountain before us.”

When the one played about water, the listener would exclaim: “Here is the running stream!”

But the listener fell sick and died.  The first friend cut the strings of his harp and never played again.

When a man is singing and cannot lift his voice, and another comes and sings with him, another who can lift his voice, then the first will be able to lift his voice too.  That is the secret of the bond between spirit and spirit.

The motto of life is, “Give and take.”  Everyone must be both a giver and a receiver.  He who is not both is as a barren tree.

The Hindu search for superconsciousness and for enlightenment raises the question of whether the essence of the true person is to be found in consciousness or in the whole person.  Is it found by leaving the world that is given to us – the social world, the world of nature, the world of the senses?  Or is it found by remaining in relation to the life of the senses and to other people?  Is the goal of life enlightenment and individual spiritual salvation or is it a way of life that does not attain individual perfection yet affirms and redeems the human world?  When inwardness and inner spiritual development are seen as the goal of life, external actions tend to become relativized.  As a result, the problem of ethics is never a problem of “What ought I do in this situation?” but of “What is the spiritual stage I have reached and what is the right way for me to act in terms of this spiritual stage?”

Many religions confront us with the question of whether the highest and most authentic existence is not that in which not only lust but also the total post-Freudian attitude toward sex as a wholesome and natural thing must be overcome in favor of the use of this energy for spiritual enlightenment.  Gandhi suggests that the highest stage is the stage of chastity.  But one finds the same in Saint Paul who says, “I wish you could be chaste, even as I, but if you cannot contain, it is better to marry than to burn.”  All over the world, in fact, there are mystics who suggest that the highest way is the way that overcomes the “vulgar sexual act” and directs its energy toward God.  They believe that the goal of spiritual perfection demands all of your energies – not just on the level they now are, but transformed and elevated through concentration and devotion – to become the basis of a whole new state of spiritual being.  One cannot leave aside any part of one to do this.

On the other hand, there is an implied dualism here, not only between spirit and flesh, but also between individual consciousness and the social world, which is considered, if not an evil world, at least a lesser world.  The two of these factors work together to induce us to concentrate attention on the inner, on inward spiritual perfection, the realization of our spiritual essence.  This constitutes a great issue in the history of religions, one that excludes the possibility of any common “essence” that could be extracted from all religions.  Does one hold that the true goal of spiritual existence is this sort of inner perfection in which one relates to the world either as a hindrance or as a steppingstone to this perfection?  Or does one believe that what is asked of one is a completion of the world that will forever leave oneself imperfect?  Hasidism holds that there is a third alternative to giving oneself over to the phantasmagoric play of the satisfaction of the senses and of lust, one the one hand, or leaving that behind and trying to move altogether into an individual sphere of chastity, on the other – namely, serving God with the “evil” urge.

The great modern philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, defined religion as what one does with one’s solitariness.  My teacher, Joachim Wach, in his book, Sociology of Religion, says that, world-over, religion is a phenomenon of groups, whether it be the original disciples clustered around the master, the brotherhood, the sect, the denomination, the church, or the Imam, the wider Islamic brotherhood.  The history of most religions confirms this.  Early Buddhism was intensely concerned with the career of the Arhat – the individual seeking release from an existence of suffering through attaining Nirvana.  Yet, even so, early Buddhism was centrally concerned with the Sangha, the brotherhood of monks, and each individual monk was obliged not only to seek for his own salvation but to follow the Buddha in going out to “turn the wheel of the doctrine.”

Even the early Christian anchorites who lived in the desert, often a great many miles from anyone else, had a real sense of brotherhood and an intense concern with one another.

This does not get us to the heart of the issue, however.  Most of those today who are concerned with attaining one or another type of “altered consciousness” are not concerned with getting away from the company of other human beings entirely.  In his famous Naylor Sonnets, the well-known economist Kenneth Boulding, who was a mystic before it became a contemporary fad to be one, asks:

Can I have fellowship with them
Who fed on locusts

And on husks of swine,
Slept without tent,
Went naked as a sign,
And made the unforgiving
Earth their bed,
When I with gentle raiment
Have been clothed,
And have sat down to dine
And slept comforted?

Boulding concludes that he can join the Christian anchorites only in the “fellowship in the deserts of the mind.”  Since Boulding wrote those sonnets, “inner space,” as we like to call it, has become a notoriously group phenomenon, whether in the communes and drug experiments of the 1960s, the flowering of growth groups and the Human Potential movement, or the various neo-Oriental cults that have arisen.

If religion were what one does with one’s solitariness alone, as Whitehead says, then an all-important part of our existence would be cut off from religion, and religion would necessarily be an expression of the exception or fragmentation of life rather than its wholeness.  Yet much that we have identified with religion down through the ages – prayer, mystic ecstasy, contemplation, samadhi, nirvana – seems to be just what Whitehead claimed.  But it seems to be this way becaue the modern mystic, in contrast to the mystics of the ages, tends to isolate the mystical experience from its full communal, social, and traditional context and just thereby misses its essence.  In searching for the mystic experience, we may lose the concrete uniqueness and the social significance of the mystical life.  The ancient Hindu took the social orders with its castes and caste duties, for granted; it was as much a part of the dharma as the individual himself.  The modern neo-Hindu leaves out that order in favor of the individual aspect of the experience alone.

The familiar metaphor of life as a dream is illuminating if we examine it in depth.  The Hindu concept of existence as maya is often translated as “illusion.”  But we are in no position to understand this concept if we imagine that somehow the world of the senses, namarupa name and form, good and evil, are all relative, while we remain in our individual selves absolute.  The fact is that our consciousness of self is just as relative as the world.  What is more, we cannot even grasp this notion of relativity except in relation to some higher consciousness to which we are awakened.  Therefore, enlightenment is always compared in one form or another to an awakening from a dream.  Our dreams are not unreal but, relative to our waking lives, they are, or seem to be, less real.  Similarly, our waking lives are not unreal; yet relative to samadhi, a higher mystical consciousness that we can attain, they may seem relatively unreal.

None of this implies that for the ancient Hindu the social is any less real than the individual; quite the contrary.  Yet the perspective that this metaphor of the dream lends us may, nonetheless, be misleading.  It takes for granted consciousness, whether it be individual consciousness as for Descartes (“I think, therefore I am.”) or the fuller consciousness of Brahman is Atman and Thou Art That, as the touchstone of reality.  What we are comparing is the relative reality of levels of consciousness.  But the full existence of the person in community is not a matter of consciousness alone.  The contact with others through which our touchstones of reality come into existence can give us no knowledge of those others as they are minus our relation to them.  Yet it is, for all that, a contact with real otherness that communicates the limitedness of the very consciousness which in our world views and mystic ecstasies seems to us unlimited.  In our human life together we build a common reality that comes from just this meeting with otherness, this transcendence of consciousness.  Hence this reality can never properly be grasped from the analogy of the greater reality of the dreamer than the dream, focusing as it does on consciousness alone and leaving out the limits of consciousness that are vouchsafed us in our contacts with other existing beings.

The self in its integrity, its uniqueness, and its individuality is indispensable to religious experience, not, however, as the subject and center of that experience but as the sharer and participant in a religious reality that transcends it.  There are depths within the self that largely lie unexplored, and it is for this reason that an emphasis upon the need of centering and inwardness, or what the Quakers call “the inward light,” is not amiss.  Yet it is not simply by voyaging inward – to the archetypal depths that unfold to us when we attain individuation or even to the nondualistic, nonindividual Self of the Upanishads, that the self becomes a sharer in religious reality.  For to do this leads to that other paradox that is the counterpart of Lao-tzu’s “By never being an end in himself, he endlessly becomes himself,” namely, that in transcending and denying the self and going inward, one ends up in absolutely affirming the Self.  At this point the dangers of self “inflation” against which Jung warned are real indeed.  Nor is the ground that the self has thereby attained as shoreless and infinite it first appears.  Without the life of dialogue, without the genuine meeting with otherness that cannot be removed into the self (or even the Self), some part of the wholeness of human existence, and with it the address to us of the divine in the particular, will deny itself to us.

“Husband is not dear because of husband but because of Self within the husband.  Wife is not dear because of wife but because of Self within the wife,” says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.  In the nondualistic (advaitin) interpretation of the Hindu Vedanta, this approach to the interpersonal certainly does not exclude furthering the self-realization of the other as well as one’s own.  But the unity of the two is in the depths of identity, not in the “betweenness” of the relationship.  One goes inward to find the Self; one does not find it, except through analogy, in meeting.  Uncurtailed personal existence, Buber asserts, is found not in “You over there am I,” but in “I accept you as you are”:

When taken seriously in the factual, waking continuity of intercourse with one another, the ancient Hindu “That art thou” becomes the postulate of an annihilation of the human person, one’s own person as well as the other; for the person is through and through nothing other than uniqueness and thus essentially other than all that is over against it.  And even if that supposed universal Self should remain in the ground of the I, it could no longer have intercourse with anyone.

Buber recognizes, of course, that the saying “That art thou” is solely intended in the original teaching for the relation between Brahman and Atman, the Self of being and the self of the human person.  Later ages, however, have extended it to the relation between person and person.  When this is done, the love between husband and wife serves as a parable of unification but is no longer in itself a touchstone of reality.

The man who adheres to the teaching of identity may, of course, when he says “Thou” to a fellow man, say to himself in reference to the other, “There are you yourself,” for he believes the self of the other to be identical with his.  But what the genuine saying of “Thou” to the other in the reality of the common existence basically means – namely, the affirmation of the primally deep otherness of the other, the affirmation of his otherness which is accepted and loved by me – this is devalued and destroyed in spirit through just that identification.  The teaching of identity contradicts the arch reality of that out of which all community stems – human meeting.

We are confronted here with basic differences in the understanding of reality, meaning, and value that are, in the last instance, religious in nature.  Buber makes the above critique in the context of his philosophical anthropology with its teaching that one should, in the words of Heraclitus, “follow the common.”  No nondualist Vedantist would concern himself with Buber’s criticism because for him true personal existence and the true We of community are found precisely on the road that Buber holds annihilates them.  To say this is not to reduce everything to the merely relative but to recognize a fundamental issue in our understanding of the human.

Early Buddhism held to the teaching of anatta, or no self, yet also taught the necessity of the path of the Arhat, the disciple who escapes from the suffering of existence by entering Nirvana.  Later, Buddhism, especially in the metaphysical doctrines of the Mahayana, denied that there is any individual self to be liberated through entrance into Nirvana while in the popular Mahayana religious ideal, the Bodhisattva takes the vow not to enter into Nirvana until all sentient beings are delivered form the sufferings of existence.  The most awesome exemplar of this vow is the Buddhist monk Santideva.  He has been called the Thomas à Kempis of Buddhism, but his goal is actually far broader than his medieval Christian counterpart.  While Thomas à Kempis aimed at individual salvation and mystic peace through the imitation of Christ, Santideva aimed at a total practical (not metaphysical) selflessness that has never been surpassed:

In reward for all this righteousness that I have won by my works, I would fain become a soother of all the sorrows of all creatures.  May I be a balm to the sick, their healer and servitor, until sickness come never again; may I quench with rains of food and drink the anguish of hunger and thirst; may I be in the famine of the ages end their drink and meat; may I become an unfailing store for the poor, and serve them with manifold things for their need.  My own being and my pleasures, all my righteousness in the past, present, and future, I surrender indifferently, that all creatures may win through to their end.  The stillness lies in surrender of all things, and my spirit is fain for the stillness; if I must surrender all, it is best to give it for fellow-creatures.  I yield myself to all living things to deal with me as they list; they may smite or revile me for ever, bestrew me with dust, play with my body, laugh and wanton; I have given them my body, why shall I care?  Let them make me do whatever works bring them pleasure; but may never mishap befall any of them by reason of me.

The nearest Christian equivalent to this is Saint Francis’s prayer:

O Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master
Grant not so much that I seek
To be consoled, as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love.

The last three lines of the prayer, however, fall short of the spirit of Santideva.  In the sublimest sense of the term they are still self-regarding:

For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Lao-tzu too comes surprisingly close to Santideva: “Only he who is willing to give his body for the sake of the world is fit to be entrusted with the world.  Only he who can do it with love is worthy of being the steward of the world.”  Both Lao-tzu and his much later disciple, Chuang-tzu, understood that “in all human relations, if the two parties are living close to each other, they may form a bond through personal trust.”  They also understood how words cannot take the place of such personal closeness and trust: “What starts out being sincere usually ends up being deceitful.  Anger arises from no other cause than clever words and one-sided speeches.”  Lao-tzu, as we have seen, teaches openness to the heart of the other, the flowing interaction of the Tao that leads to what I call “the partnership of existence.”

Confucius, too, for all his contrasts with Lao-tzu, pointed to “reciprocity” as the cardinal virtue in the relations between person and person.  “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself.”  He did not, to be sure, understand this as flowing spontaneity but rather as courtesy, consideration, loyalty, respect.  Lao-tzu said:

If I keep from meddling with people, they take care of themselves,
If I keep from commanding people, they behave themselves,
If I keep from preaching at people, they improve themselves,
If I keep from imposing on people, they become themselves.

Confucius, in contrast, teaches that real love entails placing a demand on the other for the sake of the relationship: “How can he be said truly to love, who exacts no effort from the objects of his love?  How can he be said to be truly loyal, who refrains from admonishing the objects of his loyalty?”  Confucius was not a stranger to the Tao, but he also taught the importance of structure and propriety, justice, and filial loyalty:

Someone said, What about the saying, “Meet resentment with inner power [te]“?  The Master said, In that case, how is one to meet inner power?  Rather meet resentment with upright dealing and meet inner power with inner power.


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