Monday, March 19, 2018




Zen monks are sometimes asked if their silent style of living ever becomes lonely. Some admit to loneliness, others say solitude and isolation are a part of temple life, and you take it or leave it.  

        Individuals who enjoy solitude know that the experience can be a positive one, with little or no feelings of sadness or monotony.

        Of course, some novice monks are only biding their time undergoing a limited period of self-restraint until they can get back to a normal life of television, romancing, and drinking.

        There’s the story of a visitor who was being given a tour of a certain Zen temple by the master. On their rounds they found the meditation hall empty and silent, as was the kitchen. Walking in the garden they passed a group of novice monks engaged in a lively conversation.

        The visitor asked the master what deep topic the monks were discussing so earnestly.

        The master said, “They are probably talking about having to be silent.”

In the digital age, it’s easier than ever to avoid spending time alone with our thoughts. We can just whip out our smartphones and dial up someone, or else play electronic games, or else go to a saloon and watch television.

But being alone doesn’t have to be the same thing as being bored or lonely. In fact, when the word “alone” was coined in medieval times, it referred to a sense of completeness in one’s own being,

The philosopher Elbert Hubbard said, “He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.”

Getting comfortable with solitude can be challenging, given that our associations with it these days tend to be negative. Invariably, solitude is considered peculiar behavior, even weird. People associate going it alone with antisocial conduct and risk taking.

But needing time alone doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you or that you’re a recluse.

We need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.

Being alone discourages dualism, and instead encourages calm.

And that leads to being in the present moment.

When we are in the present, we soak in all of our surroundings. There’s no particular goal or endpoint, no good or bad. There is just the thing in itself.

We can be ourselves.

Claude Debussy said, “Silence is the space between the notes.”

Think about that.

Silence is the space between the notes.

His words were like a description of a Japanese brush painting.

What is not there is as important as what is there.

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Historically, Buddhist monks were allowed to own only a few possessions: their robe, a bowl, chopsticks, a needle to repair their robe, a toothbrush, and a razor to shave their head.

Today a monk may possess more, depending on the monastery and on the whims of the master.

Maybe even a smartphone.

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Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.  --Thomas Merton


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