In the second part of this interview with Will Buckingham on the ThinkBuddha blog, we discuss the place of nature in the Buddha’s life, his relationship with politics and the modern resonance of these subjects
WB: The part of the book that is perhaps the most heartfelt is the section on wilderness, and the passages about the Buddha’s love of solitude. Although you don’t underestimate the hardships of the life of the Buddha’s early disciples, there almost a Romantic longing for a kind of solitude to which many of us no longer have access. Does solitude still have an important role in your life, and in Buddhist practice more generally? And to what extent do you think this deep solitude is still possible?
One of my most delightful discoveries in researching the book was reading the Theragatha, which records accounts by the Buddha’s disciples and includes descriptions of their lives in the wilderness in wonderfully evocative nature poetry. There are also a few accounts of the Buddha’s own time in the wilderness, and we know that he loved to spend time there.
On the face of it, that echoes Romantic nature poetry, but there are differences. People in the Buddha’s culture mostly feared nature in the sense of wilderness and clung to the islands of cultivation and population. Its dangers included wild animals, tribesmen and robbers, but above all the wilderness was the abode of dangerous spirits who also attacked humans, sometimes robbing them of their lives or their sanity. For the Buddha or his disciples going to the wilderness meant facing its terrors and conquering their minds. To feel at home there they needed to triumph over their cultural conditioning, renounce fear, and make peace with the spirit world by mastering the untamed aspects of the mind. Inner and outer wilderness are impossible to separate.
In modern Britain wilderness exists only in small enclaves and we don’t populate nature with spirits, nature is no longer a primary reality and we don’t associate living in nature with meeting primal terror. I think you are right to point to the Romantics as an intervening presence, but the primary reality for Wordsworth was his own burgeoning subjectivity, which he discovered in a nature which both challenged and echoed it. To the extent that we are the Romantics’ heirs we inherit that and go to nature to witness its splendours, rather than facing its terrors, and discover our true selves rather than overcome our minds.
Solitude is rather different. In the Buddha’s world the household existence was an all-encompassing lifestyle and for people like the Buddha adopting the homeless life of a religious wanderer meant freedom from its constraints. The Buddha stresses this non-attachment and homelessness more than he stresses solitude and spending time in the wilderness, but they were all important.
As for me, I’ve spent reasonably long periods on retreat, including some long-ish solitary retreats in exotic locations like Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Solitude, I find, strips away the supports to my normal sense of myself and then I experience what is beneath them – or perhaps the absence of something. When the social self disintegrates it is profoundly helpful to find oneself in nature if one is to avoid a sense of alienation. But the real issue is the mind and how one guides one’s experience at those times.
These days, I’m a family man with a two-and-a-half year old son, so solitude, wandering and time in nature seem a long way from me. I’m not complaining. My current life brings other consolations and challenges that also chip away at the fixed self I work so busily to construct.
WB: You talk to some extent about the Buddha’s political position in the Ganges valley during his life-time. He was a figure who eventually commanded considerable political power, if only through the sheer number of his followers, who was often sought out by the rulers of the day, and was inescapably a part of a wider political world — one that was often shockingly violent. Does it make sense, in some way, so see the early Buddhist community as a political movement? If so, what kind of community was it? And how, if at all, might thinking about the political context of the early Buddhist community be of importance to contemporary Buddhist practitioners?
The Buddha seems to have been widely regarded as an important holy man and he tried to affect his society, but I think he was more interested in cultural influence than political power. That pattern is repeated in Buddhist history and may be a good model for modern Buddhists.
Ordinary people in the Central Ganges Valley region were strongly predisposed to respect holy men and women, especially a ‘Buddha’ who had extra potency and cosmic significance. Such a being was a ‘safe refuge’ because they offered blessings in this life, protection against hostile spirits and sustenance after death. The Discourses indicate that the Buddha was broadly happy to accept this role, and we often see him acting shamanically or answering questions about the rebirths of deceased relatives. But he saw the role as a means to an end. He often undermines literal and mythological ways of thinking by teasing out the values implicit in people’s beliefs and using them to suggest his key messages. He wanted people to take responsibility for their actions and behave ethically, see that states of mind are important for oneself and others, and acknowledge the inescapability of old age, disease and death. All that, rather than a particular political agenda, would produce a better society.
This is often what we find Gautama telling householders, including the kings he befriended. He commented on social issues, such as caste inequality and we find hints of a social philosophy that demystifies kingship and praises collective assemblies. But his concern was encouraging wholesome qualities and an outlook on life that was free from ideologies such as the ritual based ideology of Brahminism.
Despite what some people say, we can’t really look to the Buddha as a model for social activism. But the Buddha, and the community he founded, exemplified a way of being that embodied his teachings and message, and that is essential contribution that Buddhists who want to change the world can make. That doesn’t exclude social activism, but it needs to underpin it.
Another part of the model is that the Buddha did this while engaging fully with his surrounding culture, rather than standing aloof, and that required both flexibility and clarity about their essential message. We need to avoid either to sticking to a rigid position or valuing engagement to the point where the Dharma’s distinctive message is lost.