The Ascetic’s Hermitage

Kindly take note that the major content in this blog has been freely paraphrased from the exceptional literary work of Kazi K. Ashraf, The Hermit’s Hut Architecture and Asceticism in India, University of Hawaii Press 2013. It is my belief that the comprehensive conclusion of this blog series necessitates an allusion to the environment in which an ascetic dwells, a crucial element for the advancement of one’s spiritual development and purification.

Upon uttering the proclamation “Architect, you shall not build your house once more,” Siddhārtha Gautama proclaimed his arrival at the pivotal destination of awakening and attained the attributes of a mahāsamana, a highly disciplined ascetic. Siddhārtha, comparing his ascetically charged physique to a structure, delineates the incomprehensible and indescribable instance of realizing the status of the Buddha. The utilization of metaphor in the depiction of the engineering of the ascetic body serves as a testament to the profound interconnection between architecture and ascetic discourse and practices. The notion of a structure has already permeated the consciousness of asceticism.

The abode of the superascetic consisted of residing beneath a tree, within a cave, or within a modest shelter. This gave rise to a continuous debate and struggle within various ascetic circles regarding the nature of dwelling, its minimal requirements, and its implications in the life of an ascetic. These deliberations, which continued for centuries after the Buddha, formed the core of ritual and regulatory texts for monks. The earliest group of Buddhist monks, who were prescribed with an ideal life of wandering and alms collecting, encountered the exigency of dwelling during the rainy seasons of northern India. They were urged to interrupt their wandering to take up temporary residence for the rainy period. This practice of taking temporary shelter from the rain led to the formation of stable and permanent monasteries. Even the Buddha himself was assigned lodging and an address. Although he moved from city to city, teaching and preaching, he nonetheless stayed in particular compounds in each city and lived in a dedicated building. From what we know, such buildings were simple and unassuming compared to the elaborate houses in the city. However, the house of the Buddha, known as the gandhakuṭī or the fragrant hut, received focused attention from monks and laypeople and remains a source of didactic and philosophical reflection in Buddhist asceticism.

Habitation, whether in a domicile or a hut, plays a crucial role in the pursuit of asceticism. The narratives of asceticism are deeply influenced by the characteristics of an archetypal hut. In the story of Vimalakīrti in Mahāyāna Buddhism, the transformation of a mansion represents the profound and intricate concepts of “emptiness.” The tale describes how the merchant Vimalakīrti, who possesses ascetic powers, learns of the impending arrival of a Buddha’s emissary to his grand house. In response, he removes everything from the house, leaving it empty to accommodate multitudes. While Vimalakīrti and the transformation of the house are likely allegorical, in the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra, the story of the house’s magical change from fullness to emptiness becomes a discourse on the privileges and motivations of asceticism. The potential impact of a wealthy man transforming his mansion into a plain, empty house on the concept of dwelling was unexpected. Vimalakīrti’s vacant house is not a hut or hovel, but it bestows a resolute significance on all such structures, pertaining to a specific kind of individual: the hermit, the ascetic, or the recluse. Thus, Vimalakīrti’s emptied abode signifies a profound level of asceticism, where the dwelling symbolizes the intrinsic essence of spiritual discipline.

Since the first human ventured out from home to gain a deeper understanding of himself and his relationship with the world, buildings belonging to hermits and ascetics have dotted the horizon. These simple structures, including huts, hovels, shacks, and other reductive forms, have played a critical yet paradoxical role in cultural imagination. While asceticism is commonly associated with renunciation and reduction, it also involves an architectural project that has immediate implications for spatial rootedness and material embellishment. In fact, the ascetic hut, despite its inherent image of plainness and reduction, has been implicated in the development of grand and monumental architecture. The magisterial cathedrals of Gothic Europe, the exquisite temples and gardens of Buddhist Japan, and the elaborate Hindu temples of India have all evolved, in one way or another, from a meditation on reductive dwellings. The minimal, ascetic hut is, rather intriguingly, a source for an amplified architecture.

During the Buddha’s post-enlightenment travels, he would frequently be accompanied by a retinue of followers as he journeyed from city to city, imparting teachings and engaging in discourse. Typically, he would take up residence in a forested area near a city or in a spacious garden, such as the one located at Jetavana—of many a Sutra fame. On occasion, the garden or grove, which often belonged to a wealthy patron who was sympathetic to the Buddha’s teachings, would be exclusively dedicated to the Buddha’s use. As a result, the site would be transformed from a pleasure garden into a retreat for the purpose of meditation and spiritual contemplation. Additionally, the expansive site would serve as a dwelling place for the group of individuals who accompanied the Buddha, including both seasoned elders and newly initiated disciples. On occasion, the Buddha’s mystical expertise would also effectuate a transformation, transporting the audience of a particular sutra to new and majestic surroundings.

In concurrence with the ascetic-arhats and bodhisattvas, the ascetic pratyēkabuddhā is also recognized. I draw particular attention to this as a significant portion of our esteemed readership would fall under this category. The pratyēkabuddhā is a distinguished member of the enlightened individuals, but one who arises from the concept of strong individualism that was evident in early Buddhism. The term pratyēka denotes “single, individual, personal, private” and characterizes the practice of a monachos, a solitary monk, in contrast to the cenobite, who derives significance from a community of practitioners. The paccekabuddhā (pali) harnesses his powers independently and by living in seclusion; he is, as described by Edward Conze, “a Buddha for himself alone, who, unlike the Arhat, as ‘one self-begotten’ (svayambhū), attained enlightenment through his own efforts without guidance from others, but who, unlike the Buddhas, does not proclaim the truth to others.” The excessive form of self-absorption and individualism of the paccekabuddhā prompted the Mahayanists to seek other forms of enlightened figures, such as the aforementioned bodhisattva, which brought an end to the individualistic practice. The figure of the paccekabuddhā is mentioned to highlight the tension within Buddhist asceticism itself concerning the various ways of defining a perfected being and achieving that status.

Mount Gandhamādana, with its Nandamūlaka-slope situated in the northern Himalayas is mentioned as the favourite place of residence for Paccekabuddhas. Buddhaghosa says about them: “One should know that the Gandhamādana lies beyond the seven mountains, the Cullakāḷa, the Mahākāḷa, the Nāgapaliveṭhana, the Candagabbha, the Suriyagabbha, the Suvaṇṇapassa and the Himavanta. In that place there is a slope called Nandamūlaka, the dwelling place of the Paccekabuddhas and three caves: the Gold-Cave (Suvaṇṇaguhā), the Jewel-cave (Maṇiguhā) end the Silver-Cave (Rajataguhā). Here, in the opening of the Jewel Cave, is the tree called Mañjūsaka, which is one yojana high and one yojana wide. Whatever flowers there are in the water or on the ground, the tree makes them all flower together on the day a Paccekabuddha arrives. Around the tree there is a platform consisting of all sorts of jewels. There the weeping-wind throws away the rubbish, the even-making wind levels the sand, which is made of all sorts of jewels, the Sprinkling-wind sprinkles water brought from Lake Anotatta, the Sweet-fragrance bringing-wind brings fragrances from all fragrant trees in the Himalayas, the Gathering-wind gathers and strews flowers, the Spreading-wind spreads them to all sides. There are always seats prepared, upon which—on the day of the arrival of a Paccekabuddha and on the day of uposatha—all Paccekabuddhas, having gathered, sit down. (Ria Kloppenborg, The Paccekabuddha: A Buddhist Ascetic; A Study of the Concept of the Paccekabuddha, pg. 63-64)

Other places mentioned in connection with the Paccekabuddha’s way of life are Isigili and Isipatana, the place usually called Migadāye, the deer-park near Benares where the Buddha preached his first sermon and proclaimed the four noble truths. Isigili, one of the five mountains near Rājagaha, is mentioned in the Majjhimanikāya (M III 68–69), where it is related that five hundred Paccekabuddhas dwelt on the mountain in a cave. They were sometimes seen entering the cave after their almsround, whereupon people used to say: ’The mountain swallows the seers’ (isī gilatī). This became the name of the place, Isigili. The Papañcasūdanī adds that when the seers returned from their almsround, the mountain would open like a huge pair of doors and let them enter. (ibid, pg. 66)

The Manorathapurāṇī relates the presentation of huts to Paccekabuddhas as a shelter for the rainy season by a pious woman, said to be a former existence of Mahā-gotamī: “Five Paccekabuddhas, (coming) from the Nandamūlaka-slope, descended in Isipatana and walked for alms in the city. Then they came back to that same Isipatana. Saying: ’We shall ask for manual labour for the building of a hut in view of the approach of the rainy season’, they dressed in robes and entered the city in the evening … At once they (i.e.,Mahāgotamī and her servants) entered the forest, put together the wooden material, were each of them thoughtful and made (for each of the Paccekabuddhas) a hut surrounded by a cloister-walk, etc. In it they placed a bed, a chair, drinking- and wash-water, etc., and having made the Paccekabuddhas consent to live there, they presented the excellent alms-gift” (A-a I 338–9). (ibid, pg. 68)

In his ascetic abode, the individual of severe self-discipline gradually manifests a novel physical form (a body created by the mind: manomayakaya, emphasis mine), acquires extraordinary abilities, and attains the ultimate understanding of past lives, culminating in the ultimate cessation of reincarnation. The perfected ascetic proclaims, “Birth has ceased, the sacred existence has been lived, all that needed to be accomplished has been achieved, and there is no further pursuit here.” It is also a place of spiritual refuge. During an important moment of self-discipline, Siddhārtha, who was on the verge of becoming the Buddha, assumed a seated yogic position beneath the shelter of a fig tree. Legend has it that a severe storm arose while he was meditating, resulting in the skies remaining dark and the weather being rainy and cold for seven days. Undoubtedly, this environmental turmoil served as a test for Siddhārtha’s meditation. In response, the serpent-king Mucalinda emerged and wrapped its coils around Siddhārtha’s body, extending its magnificent hood over his head, declaring, “May no cold, heat, flies, mosquitoes, wind, heat, or crawling creatures bother the Lord.” The hood of the legendary serpent-king Mucalinda, which shielded the Buddha during his enlightenment, is not merely a fictional story, but rather a subtle reference to dwelling. A relatively ordinary artistic piece from a capital in Gandhāra portrays a drooping acanthus leaf gently covering a meditating Buddha; it is indeed a delightful and revealing depiction of that interconnected relationship.

The distinctive rationale and vernacular of a said ascetic dwelling may be deduced from a given pavilion configuration. One observer enunciated regarding this particular structure that one is presented with a type of dwelling that is extremely rudimentary, comprising of a structure of upright pillars, connected at their highest point by horizontal beams onto which a thatched roof is attached. The walls are constructed from interlaced mats.

The comparison to today’s featured image at the beginning of the blog is worth noting. The image portrays my personal humble hermitage, where I devote countless hours each day to meditation and contemplation. During this summer season, I also dedicated numerous hours to sitting on the front porch of my hermitage, intently observing the daily development of a litter of feral kittens that were born beneath my garage.

The natural world possesses an inherent ability to serve as an optimal sanctuary for meditation. I can affirm the concept of these “cosmicized” huts, which may manifest in various forms as representations of ascetic physicality, sacrificial energy, and a highly invigorating transcendent framework. Yes, the experience of residing in a hermitage offers an environment characterized by ample space, profound silence, and complete solitude. Such an environment can facilitate the realization of one’s inner truth, a truth that is most effectively discerned within the wilderness of one’s heart. In the midst of the noise, turmoil, and unease that fill the world, the seclusion of the hermitage allows us to align with the guidance of our Inner Teacher. This supernal presence promises to grant us the precious gifts of auspicious aloneness and tranquility.

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