If you’re reading this, you’re not alone. At minimum, you’re attached to the internet, hearing the voices and seeing the faces and reading the words of people all around the world—probably every day, and probably closer to all day, in some form or another. All of which raises the question: do you know how to be alone?
In his Eight Awakenings of Great Beings, Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, states that the third awakening is “to enjoy serenity in seclusion.” When I read that phrase, part of me thinks, Oh, wouldn’t that be nice? I would love some serenity. And I could definitely go for some occasional seclusion—not of the pandemic variety, where I’m just stuck at home looking at a screen, but of the other kind, where phones aren’t dinging and little red dots aren’t beckoning, and maybe, just maybe, there’s the sound of a bird in the background. That sounds amazing.
In the text, the explanation reads, “If you are attached to crowds, you will receive suffering, just like a tree that attracts a great many birds and gets killed by them. If you are bound by worldly matters, you will drown in troubles, just like an old elephant who is stuck in a swamp and cannot get out of it.”
We can read this to say we’re supposed to leave secular things behind, climb into the mountains, and meditate alone in a cave. But we’d be missing the point. The message isn’t that we have to isolate; it’s that to know serenity, we have to change our relationship to what’s around us. Crowds aren’t the problem—it’s the attachment to them, to being part of them, to not being by yourself. Even “worldly matters,” which tend to get a bad rap in Buddhism, aren’t the problem. It’s that we can’t imagine an alternative to them, that there might be something more, so we become trapped. Either way, the issue is we don’t know how to plant our feet firmly on the ground, so we get swept up (or sucked under).
When do you feel solid, like no wind can knock you down? I imagine it’s different for everyone, especially if we take the question out of the context of practice. Maybe it’s when you’re doing something artistic, or when you’re with the person you trust the most; maybe it’s when you’re standing up to something, or for something. Those are all great—we should notice those things in our life and, starting immediately, give them more space, more value. But in a Buddhist context, we usually don’t have to look any further than vow. Vow is what grounds us. Vow is unshakeable (and if it still isn’t unshakeable, then it shows us a glimpse of what unshakeable might mean).
Few things are more powerful than a crowd. Our tastes, our desires, our concerns—we can’t begin to separate them from the culture, from being part of this society at this moment. We want what we want because we’re supposed to. That doesn’t make it less real, but when we can’t track where our own desires are coming from, then we’re like that tree attracting too many birds. And it’s not just about what we want—it’s also about what we think matters. Every day, we’re told that a celebrity divorce is as important as a war, or that a tweet has rocked the world. We might roll our eyes, but then we click to learn more.
When we’re rooted in something like vow, it doesn’t make that stuff go away. It doesn’t make us better, or separate. But it does create a space—right where you’re standing—where there is no chaos, no push or pull, because you know why you’re there and where you’re headed. That place is where we find serenity. Not as a quiet place, or a peaceful retreat, or an escape, but as ourselves, touching the earth, breathing this breath. If we can do that and just stand, then someone else looking for serenity might even come and stand next to us, to get a little cover from the storm. Awakening to serenity is waking up to that. And it’s right here.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.