Reflections on Sociality and Solitude

Thursday June 29, 2006


I promised a few reflections upon sociality and solitude, in the wake of my visit to Narborough. In that post, I wrote, “For myself, I love both solitude and sociality: I am never happier than when I am on my own… but then I am never happier than when I am with others…” So I thought that I should explore this a little more.

Stephen Batchelor has written an interesting article on the subject of friendship and solitude on his Tricycle blog. He takes as his text the passage from the Kalyanamitta Sutta in which the Buddha is relating to King Pasenadi an exchange with Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin. The Buddha explains:

“Bhikkhu Ananda approached me, made obeisance, and sitting at a suitable place, said to me: ‘Venerable Sir, friendship with the good, companionship with the good, inclination towards virtue can bring about half-fulfilment of the practice of the Life of Purity.’
“On this being said, Great King, I said thus to Bhikkhu Ananda: ‘Don’t say so, Ananda; don’t say so Ananda! Friendship with the good, companionship with the good, inclination towards virtue can indeed, Ananda, bring about complete fulfilment of the practice of the Life of Purity. Ananda, it is to be certainly expected of a bhikkhu who has a good friend, a good companion and an inclination for virtue that he will cultivate the Ariya Path of Eight Constituents and that he will practise it repeatedly.’ “

This quote has been taken by some – for example by Sangharakshita, the founder of the Western Buddhist Order – to be evidence for some kind of hidden teaching of friendship in the Buddhist scriptures. Against this claim, Stephen Batchelor says that:

On the basis of the Pali texts, a much stronger case can be made for self-reliance and solitude rather than community and friendship as non-negotiable Buddhist values. There is an amusing passage in the Udana (4.5) where the Buddha (yes, the Buddha) complains of being “hemmed in by monks and nuns, in discomfort, not at ease.” So after lunch, he tidied his lodging and “without informing his attendant or taking leave of the monks, he set off alone, without a companion.” He then settles at the foot of a tree in the forest, where he is joined by a harassed bull elephant, who likewise feels oppressed by the demands of his herd. The two then commiserate with each other over their common misfortune. So much for good friendship as the entire spiritual life.

In one sense I think that Stephen Batchelor is right: the Pali texts themselves do not back up some of the claims that are made about the place of friendship in Buddhist practice, and the emphasis of the canonical texts is much more strongly upon solitude than on friendship. 1 But to limit the discussion to textual exegesis seems to miss the the more urgent existential question: what place does friendship have in the practice of the dharma ?

And here, I think I would take a kind of middle position between those who attempt to turn this brief exchange between the Buddha and Ananda into some kind of doctrine of friendship, on the one hand, and those who champion the virtues of solitude. My own position is that both sociality and solitude are seen as important. Stephen Batchelor himself must know, as an attentive reader of Heidegger (see, for example, his Alone with Others) that, to put it in Heideggerese, Being-with is equipromordial with Being-in-the-world (if you have the stomach, you can find this in Being and Time, p. 148). What the hell does this mean? you may well ask. Well, I take it to mean – so condemn me for my lack of subtlety you scholars of Heidegger – that we are not, first and foremost, solitary beings who then come into contact with others, nor are we social beings who then withdraw into solitude; but that both sociality and of solitude run right through us. To put it in more poetic – if also more clichéd terms – if solitude is the warp of our being, then sociality is the weft. Or if sociality is the warp, solitude is the weft. Neither is more fundamental. We cannot afford to ignore either aspect.

Of course, temperamentally we may all differ. It may be that some are more inclined towards solitude whilst others are more inclined towards sociality. But at the same time, it seems to me that the Buddhist path must be one of both sociality and solitude, in whatever balance suits our temperament; and that, to return to a kind of Heideggerian jargon, an authentic way of being must be both a way of authentically being alone and a way of authentically being with others, with neither of these taking precedence over the other. Because perhaps the best kind of friendship is the one in which one can also maintain one’s solitude; and perhaps the best kind of solitude is one which admits others into its circle.

1. The non-canonical and commentarial texts are a different matter, however. There is, for example, good evidence for something approaching a teaching on friendship in the Jataka tales, as John G. Jones points out in his study, tales and Teachings of the Buddha (although Jones also points out that the Jatakas exhibit a “sustained misogyny”), and there are also passages in Buddhaghosha on the qualities of a spiritual friend.

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#1 · Ben Gray

30 June 2006

Excellent post! I enjoy your clarity of thought and it was very easy for me to follow your train of reasoning. I think that in many areas of life we must keep a healthy tension. Making money vs. spending money; spending time alone vs. spending time with others; etc. I know very little about Buddhism and enjoy reading your blog.

#2 · Dave

30 June 2006

I don’t know (and don’t particularly care) how the Buddhist scriptures or Heidegger come down on this, but your own conclusion, with its image from weaving, strikes me as exctly right.

#3 · Pramila

20 July 2006

‘Sociality and solitude’neatly blended two themes that are central to Buddhism – how to make space for oneself and other ‘selves’. Very reassuring to know that dear Buddha himself had ‘I -vant-to-be-alone’moments!
I also think there is a subtle connection between the theme in this article and the article on ‘metta bhavana’ which I would like to explore, if anyone else is interested.

#4 · Will

20 July 2006

Do explore the thought, Pramila. I’d be very interested in hearing. Perhaps you could add it as a comment to the more recent of the two topices (the one on metta).

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