Newsletter... 6-25-02


The Hermit Through History: Easy to Track but Harder to Understand


Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times Book
Review, is the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The
Untold History of the Jewish People."

Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses
By Isabel Colegate Counterpoint: 284 pp., $25

"A man that Studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the Hous[e]
Top," wrote Thomas Traherne, a 17th-century English vicar, "and like a
Pelican in the Wilderness."

What men and women seek in the solitary life of a spiritual hermit, however,
is not happiness in the ordinary sense. "[T]he flight to the desert seems to
have been rather a flight of the mind to God," explains Isabel Colegate in
"A Pelican in the Wilderness," a bright and highly literate study of
asceticism in both the East and West. Nor do the rigors of life in a cave or
on a hilltop always reward the hermit with ecstasy or enlightenment.
"Despondency," she observes, "is the big beast that stalks the solitary."
Colegate, best known as a novelist ("Agatha," "The Shooting Party" and
"Winter Journey," among others), places herself squarely within the rich
literary traditions of English travel writing while, at the same time,
plumbing the spiritual depths of the hermit's life. She moves deftly through
several thousand years of history, always keeping an eye on the curious role
of the recluse. But she concedes from the start that the idea of the
hermit's life is one that few of us will ever fully understand, much less
act on.

"The holy hermit has been there since time immemorial, somewhere up in the
misty Chungsan hills of China, or wrapped in yak-skins in a cave among the
Himalayan snows, or wandering through the crowds by the Ganges at Benares,
or quiet in his hut in the deepest Russian forests," writes Colegate.
"[T]he idea so beautifully expressed by Bellini or Durer or any other of the
many painters who have depicted St Francis in the wilderness or St Jerome in
his cave ... gives rise to notions of solitude, closeness to nature, a life
of study and contemplation, which have an immediate appeal even to those who
know that the nostalgia they feel is for a life they would never in reality
choose for themselves."

"A Pelican in the Wilderness" has less to say about the daunting and often
dreary reality of the hermit's life than the way the very idea of the hermit
has impressed itself on the Western imagination, including her own. Thus,
along with famous hermits ranging from the Desert Fathers to Thomas Merton,
she invokes Kipling and Keats, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even J.D. Salinger,
who inspires her to muse on "the modern phenomenon of [the] celebrity

Colegate sees Salinger not merely as an eccentric recluse but as an earnest
spiritual seeker. The clue is the so-called Jesus Prayer, a meditative
prayer from Orthodox Christianity that figures importantly in Salinger's
"Franny and Zooey" and suggests to Colegate that Salinger "was trying to
find a system of thought which would make him dislike the world less than he
did." She expresses her solidarity with her fellow novelist by protesting
the "indignation and outrage" that have been heaped on Salinger.
"The reasoning behind this must be the thought that no one would be a writer
or an actor or a musician--or indeed prominent in any way--unless their
chief object was to be famous," writes Colegate, "and that therefore they
should lay themselves down gladly as a sacrifice on the altar of human

Yet Colegate allows that the "celebrity hermit" is nothing new--St. Simeon,
who lived atop a column in the Syrian desert for some 36 years, apparently
succumbed to what Colegate calls "the lure of fame, perhaps the holy man's
most subtle temptation." Indeed, the 5th century anchorite would not have
been out of place in an era of TV evangelism: "He seems to have provided a
more or less continuous show," she writes. "He remained standing from
sunrise to sunset, shouting sermons; he was famous for the number of
genuflections he could do; an observer counted up to 1,244 before giving up.
The crowd would cheer him on."

Colegate insists that modernity has not been kind to hermits. "[I]n the
modern Western world solitude is undervalued," she argues. "To wish to be
alone is thought odd, a sign of failure or neurosis." Then, too, the hermits
who have long sought refuge in various idyllic places around the world have
been ousted by drug-runners, guerrilla fighters and urban sprawl. And even
those who succeed in finding a place of refuge suffer from "the age-old
problem of the hermit who leaves the world only to find that the world
follows him."

Still, "A Pelican in the Wilderness" demonstrates that the primal impulse to
get away from it all is too durable to be wholly eradicated. After surveying
the sites where Celtic mystics sought solitude during the Middle Ages,
Colegate pauses to point out that one can still see the 7th century
structure that once housed a monastery on an island off the coast of
Scotland--"but it now belongs to Tibetan Buddhists."


Zen Hospice Project has an opening for a Volunteer Coordinator...

Would you like to incorporate your spiritual practice, openness, and ability
to stay present into your work? Do you have a sense of what it means to
cultivate wisdom, compassion, and community through service? Would you
welcome an opportunity to support and guide volunteers engaged in the
service of caring for the dying? Are you able to care for the living in the
face of dying? Would you like to become part of an organization seeking to
change, improve, and inspire End-of-Life care?

Zen Hospice Project has an opening for a Volunteer Coordinator at our Guest
House Residence, a five-bed residential hospice in San Francisco. We are
looking for someone who understands what it is to be of service, to have an
open heart and mind, and to cultivate community. The Volunteer Coordinator
provides practical, emotional, and spiritual support for the volunteers at
the bedside, as well as for the hospice residents and their families. This
job requires the ability to listen and communicate effectively, to
self-motivate, and to understand the interdependence of working within a

This is a full-time position –requiring some weekend and on-call hours –and
offers the possibility of flex hours to fit the needs of the volunteers and
the Guest House Community. Ideally, we are looking for someone with
experience in hospice care as well as training and supporting volunteers. We
offer a competitive salary, commensurate with experience, and a generous
benefits package.

Zen Hospice Project is a small non-profit, non-sectarian, Buddhist
organization dedicated to innovations in support, education, and End-of-Life
Care services. Experience with Buddhism is a plus, but having an open mind
and a regular spiritual practice are most important. Please browse our
website at to learn more about our mission statement,
programs, and services.

Please submit your resumé along with a one-page cover letter explaining why
you would be a good person for this position to:, or fax
it to Kate at 415-863-1768, or via mail: Kate Sadowsky, Zen Hospice Project.
273 Page Street, San Francisco, CA 94102.

Deadline for submissions is Friday, July 8th. We will reply to all resumés


The Historical Spectrum of the Bodhisattva Ideal

by Tadeusz Skorupski

The Middle Way
(volume 75:2 p. 95) August 2000

The concept of Bodhisattva is present in all forms of Indian Buddhism, but
it is not accepted or interpreted in the same way by all Buddhist
traditions. Considerable doctrinal discrepancies developed within the early
schools and later between the early schools and the Mahayana schools. In
fact, the Bodhisattva's identity and career constitute one of the
fundamental disagreements and dividing points between early and Mahayana
forms of Buddhism. The controversy over the Bodhisattva's nature and role
still persists and divides the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and
Southeast Asia from the Mahayana traditions of Tibet, China and Japan.

The major stages in the development of the Bodhisattva concept from the time
of its appearance in early Buddhism to the time of its becoming a universal
ideal in Mahayana Buddhism can be demarcated with some certainty provided
one is aware of certain lacunae in our knowledge of three crucial factors.
First, the precise historical chronology of specific ideas advanced in
different sources is somewhat complex because of difficulties involved in
dating Buddhist texts and historical events. Second, certain ideas
formulated about the Bodhisattva in later texts were imputed retrospectively
and superimposed on the more primitive form of the Bodhisattva concept.
Third, the vital factors, both historical and doctrinal, which induced the
emergence of Mahayana and its formulation of the Bodhisattva ideal remain
unknown or obscured. Thus, for instance, we cannot locate the precise origin
of the Bodhisattva concept and we do not possess the vital information on
the intellectual and social milieu in which the Bodhisattva ideal of
Mahayana was formulated. In addition it is also important to remember that
the various ideas and formulations about the Bodhisattva do not readily
mould together into one historically and conceptually coherent image. As we
shall see, the content and structure of the Bodhisattva ideal and career did
not evolve in neatly cut monolithic blocks that were eventually fitted
together into a well-designed edifice. On the contrary, as Buddhist history
progressed the doctrinal speculations about the Bodhisattva's identity and
career developed in different directions to the extent that the
Bodhisattva's identity and role, even in its mature Mahayana version,
contains certain conflicting elements.

The Term Bodhisattva

As the term 'Bodhisattva' does not occur in the Vedic texts, the early Hindu
or Jaina literature, it is generally assumed that it is of Buddhist origin.
Etymologically the term is given different interpretations, such as a being
(sattva) whose essence is enlightenment (bodhi), or a being destined to
become enlightened (Buddha-to-be). According to some Buddhist masters in
India, the term Bodhisattva is a compound which combines two words which
constitute the two principal goals of the Bodhisattva career, namely
enlightenment and living beings. The emphasis is not so much on the person
pursuing the Bodhisattva career but on the principal aims of the career

In early Buddhism, the term 'Bodhisattva' is very much linked with the
person of Shakyamuni Buddha. Depending on the sources, it refers either to
his last life on earth up to the time of his enlightenment or to all his
previous lives. In Mahayana Buddhism the use of the term with reference to
Shakyamuni is retained, but at the same time it is reworked and reformulated
into a universal ideal which is not restricted exclusively to the past lives
of the Buddha, but reoriented into a practical proposition to be embarked on
now or in the future.

Two Currents of Buddhist Doctrine

Within the context of human history the Buddha is unique both as teacher and
spiritual leader who was born once and lived one single life. Within the
context of the basic Buddhist doctrines and the notion of karma, the Buddha,
like all living beings, is believed to have experienced many lives before
reaching the state of enlightenment. However, when one takes a closer look
at the various sources dealing with the Buddha's progressive steps leading
to his enlightenment, one can detect two doctrinal orientations which
postulate that Siddh>rtha approached the tree of enlightenment through two
different routes and in two different capacities: one route trodden as an
ordinary but exceptional human being and one traversed as a Bodhisattva.

The first doctrinal orientation, which is tangibly present but not
pronouncedly or consistently affirmed, is that the Buddha attained
enlightenment as a man in one single lifetime, and without any prior career
as a Bodhisattva. It is evident in the early texts that from the time of his
birth to the moment of his enlightenment, he was not aware of his previous
lives as a Bodhisattva or of his immediate destiny. Having become
dissatisfied with his life as a prince, he left his home and family and
became a mendicant. For six years he sought and struggled to find the truth
through studying with several teachers and by practising austerities and
meditation. When he finally gained the state of enlightenment, he asserted
that he had discovered the Dharma and destroyed the bonds of karma. He also
declared that his discovery of the Dharma had been achieved with no aid from
other people or transcendent agency. Some sources do say that at the time of
his enlightenment the Buddha perceived his previous lives and the coming and
passing away of other living beings. However, they do not state or insinuate
that through such visions he understood his progress to enlightenment as a
Bodhisattva. The purpose of referring to such visions is to indicate that he
understood the complex workings of karma. Since the concept, and in
particular the career of Bodhisattva, are a back-formation, it is
appropriate to postulate that initially he did not make any explicit
connections between his attainment of Buddhahood and his previous lives as a
Bodhisattva. The fact that the Dharma was discovered under the Bodhi tree
clearly suggests that the Buddha followed a course of practices which were
not based on, at least explicitly, or motivated by the very Dharma he
discovered and subsequently taught to his followers.

In terms of doctrine and practice the earliest ideal taught by the Buddha
was not that of a Bodhisattva but of an arhat, whose aim it was to gain
deliverance from the toils and suffering of karmic existences through
extinguishing moral defilements and ignorance. The Buddha taught the Dharma
and his followers applied it in their lives in order to free themselves from
Samsara. When the Buddha died, he disappeared like an extinguished flame and
his disciples were left to take care of their own destinies by relying on
the Dharma. The teaching on karma as a universal law binding all beings to
rebirth is prominent in early Buddhism, and it does not allow any
exceptions, including the Buddha himself up to the time of his

The second doctrinal orientation, which eventually became domin-ant, is
based on a limited number of early texts which speak of the Buddha's last
life or all his previous lives as a Bodhisattva. Although such texts
ostensibly continue to describe the Buddha's past existences as results of
karmic retribution, at the same time they overshadow and permeate them with
a notion of 'prophetic' or 'predestined' progress towards Buddhahood. In
other words, the Buddha's previous lives are not portrayed or treated as
merely a blind and haphazard voyage in the ocean of karmic rebirths but as
motivated steps leading towards enlightenment. This is clearly evident in
the available biographies of the Buddha, which are formulated on the pattern
of a Bodhisattva and project the Buddha's person as unique and superior to
all other beings.

The significance of distinguishing the above two currents of doctrinal
orientation rests on the evidence which discloses a certain tension in
Buddhist texts between the Buddha as a human being and as a Buddha or a
Bodhisattva. It is in fact a tension between his mundane and transcendent
dimensions that eventually split Buddhism into two major branches: the
Sthavira schools, which placed more stress on the Buddha's mundane
character, and the Mahasamghika schools, which stressed his transcendent
character. Although the early schools differ on this fundamental issue, the
Buddha's identity in all sources and traditions is never drastically
demarcated exclusively as either human or transcendent. It is so because
these two tendencies are frequently mingled together and also because all
traditions portray the Buddha as unique and endowed with bodily and moral
attributes which set him apart from all other beings.

Two Early Prototypes of the Bodhisattva Career

The variable application of the term 'Bodhisattva' either to the Buddha's
last or previous lives eventually triggered off the formation of two
distinct patterns of the Bodhisattva career. The first one, based on the
events of his last life, became formulated into a unique series of events
which were perceived as true and common to all the Buddhas. The second one,
based on the Buddha's previous lives, became formulated into a structured
path which evolved over a long period of rebirths and incorporated certain
specific practices. It is this second pattern that provided an inspiration
for the Mahayana formulation of the Bodhisattva ideal.

The first of the above two patterns provided a basic scheme for the
appearance of all Buddhas in this world. Although initially, no doubt, the
Buddha's last life in terms of how he lived and what he did was particular
to him alone, fairly soon his life events were integrated into a
biographical model common to all the Buddhas. In the Mahapadana-suttanta of
the D?gha Nikaya, the Buddha tells his disciples about six previous Buddhas
and recounts the major life events of the Buddha Vipasyin as a Bodhisattva.
The narrative starts with the descent from the Tu´´ita heaven into his
mother's womb and concludes with his enlightenment and the proclamation of
the Dharma. After recounting each event, the Buddha states that it is a
universal rule (dharmata) that such an event inevitably takes place. This
fixed sequence of life events recounted with reference to the Buddha
Vipasyin was incorporated with some modifications into Shakyamuni's
biographies and treated as a universal or cosmic scheme common to all the
Buddhas. Such series of life events shared by all the Buddhas is further
reinforced in other sources, such as the Buddhava?sa, which basically
tabulates the lives of 25 Buddhas, from D?pamkara to Gotama. All their life
events follow the same pattern except for such differences as their personal
names, the lengths of their lifespans, the names of their birth places,
parents, disciples, and so forth. The significant thing about this fixed
pattern of life events is that it merges the events lived as a Bodhisattva
and as a Buddha. The events starting with the descent from the Tu´´ita
heaven and concluding with the attainment of enlightenment belong to the
Bodhisattva phase, and the events from the moment of enlightenment onwards
to the Buddha phase. While the Mahapadana recounts Vipasyin's life up to the
proclamation of the Dharma, the Buddhava?sa carries the narratives of the
past Buddhas up to the time of their nirvana. It is not clearly stated in
the early canonical text, but it is deducible that in his last life the
Bodhisattva is free from karma. It is so because of the fixity (dharmata) of
this scheme. In the Mahayana texts, the appearance of Buddhas in the world
is said to consist of 12 events which are referred to as the 12 deeds of the
Buddhas. They start with the descent from the Tu´´ita heaven and conclude
with Parinirvana. These 12 events are not interpreted as stages leading to
enlightenment but as a routine way of performing the Buddha activities in
the world. In the tantras, one way of benefiting living beings is to enact
these 12 deeds in meditational visualizations.

The second pattern of the Bodhisattva career based on the Buddha's previous
lives has absorbed considerable innovations. In the first instance we have a
series of narratives about the Buddha's previous lives but without
suggesting any coherently structured pattern or intentional engagement as a
Bodhisattva. The various stories of his previous lives, as, for instance,
compiled in the Jataka, served as elevating narratives which portrayed the
Bodhisattva as an extraordinary being. However, gradually the Buddha's
previous lives were framed into a programmed pattern which included the
following major innovations: an initial aspiration to become a Buddha, a
prophesy, a specified length of the career and certain practices.

Some late 'canonical' sources, such as the Buddhava?sa and Mah>vastu, have a
narrative about a remote past life of the Buddha which provided a foundation
for innovations. In that particular life he was Sumedha, and enunciated an
intense aspiration before the Buddha D?pamkara and received from him a
prophetic confirmation ofbecoming a Buddha in a distant future. This
narrative constitutes a major innovation which transforms and endows the
Bodhisattva career with a sense of purpose and destiny. Although the
Buddha's past lives continue to be viewed as having evolved due to his
karma, at the same time the texts assert that he followed a specific course
of karmic rebirths for a clearly defined purpose, namely the attainment of

Concerning the length of the career, the sources say that the Bodhisattva
career extended over a period of three or more aeons (asamkhyeya), plus 100
supplementary cosmic periods (kalpa).3 This factor determines the length of
the Bodhisattva career and demarcates its commencing and concluding stages
in cosmic time. Thus, it is not a haphazardly evolved process but a wilfully
embarked career on some specific and prophetically marked occasion. In terms
of Bodhisattva training, the texts introduce two major innovations, namely
perfections (paramita) and stages (bhumi). This double innovation
progressively led to producing a body of practices structured in an
ascending or sequential order which culminated in the attainment of
enlightenment. Thus, while in the earliest sources the term 'Bodhisattva' is
stark naked and free from theoretical and practical elaborations, the later
texts imbue the Bodhisattva career with a structured body of practices. In
fact, they impute retrospectively into the Bodhisattva career a prior
knowledge of Buddhist doctrines and practices which were to serve as guides
on the way to enlightenment. In other words, the Bodhisattva career began to
be formulated in conform-ity with Buddhist teachings which were discovered
and taught by the Buddha himself after his enlightenment or which were
formulated after the Buddha's death. This unique progress towards Buddhahood
as a Bodhisattva is linked with Sakyamuni Buddha in all Buddhist traditions,
and is the only Bodhisattva career doctrinally recognized by Theravada
Buddhism. The Pali tradition, however, does not approve of the Bodhisattva
ideal as developed by the Mahayana.

The Jataka stories do not place stress or discourse on knowledge or wisdom,
as do Mahayana sources, but predominantly on the Bodhisattva's deeds. The
state of enlightenment was certainly the goal, but the actual path leading
to it was demonstrated through concrete lives and not through theoretical
discourses. The Bodhisattva is shown as a person of deeds who acts wisely in
accordance with circumstances. It is only in selected sources such as the
Mahasamghika Mahavastu and the Pali Cariyapitaka that the Bodhisattva's
career begins to assume a structured pattern which included the bhumis and
paramitas. However, even in those texts the emphasis remains on concrete
lives rather than on theoretical discourses or even practising meditation.

When one takes a global view of the canonical sources appertaining to early
Buddhism, the Bodhisattva concept and career became considerably developed
but not moulded into a tightly structured body of theory and practice. They
were not integrated into the early Buddhist theory and practice but treated
as part of the Buddha's unique career. The Bodhisattva career as such was
debated, but at the same time it was viewed as something that took place in
the past and not as a concrete possibility. In fact, the large number of
jataka stories and the relevant speculations remove the Buddha and his
Bodhisattva career from earthly realities and transpose them into the realm
of elevating legends detached from tangible history, time or space.

Continued in The Middle Way August 2000 p. 101 (volume 75: 2)