"The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone"
A Dhamma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh
April 5, 1998, Plum Village, France
"Knowing how to live alone" here does not mean to live in solitude, separated from other people, on a mountain in a cave. "Living alone" here means living to have sovereignty of yourself, to have freedom, not to be dragged away by the past, not to be in fear of the future, not being pulled around by the circumstances of the present. We are always master of ourselves, we can grasp the situation as it is, and we are sovereign of the situation and of ourselves. There are many places in the sutras where the Buddha says that "being alone" does not mean to be separated from other people. We can be sitting in a cave, but we are not necessarily alone, because we have lost ourselves in our thinking, so we are not alone. In the Majjhima Nikáya there are at least four sutras that talk about the subject of knowing how to live alone, and in the Madhyama Agama there are also sutras that talk about the subject of living alone. Therefore, we know that the subject of living alone is a very important subject in the teachings of the Buddha. We have to know how to do this, how to live in freedom, not being imprisoned by the future and not being carried away by things in the present.
The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone teaches us how to live each moment of our daily life very deeply. When we can live our daily life deeply, we begin to have concentration and wisdom; we can see the true nature of life, and we arrive at a great freedom, and freedom is the essence of happiness. If we are suffering, it is because we are not free, and therefore to practice is to recover our freedom. When we have freedom, we will become solid. Freedom and solidity are the two characteristics of nirvana, so we need a program of freedom and solidity. If somebody is suffering, we know that person is not free; because they are not free, they are suffering, they are being imprisoned by the past, or they are being oppressed by the present, or they are being carried away by the future, and that is why they are suffering. The practice is to re-establish our freedom, and then we will no longer suffer, and our happiness will increase. The oldest writings on the better way to live alone, on how to live deeply in the present moment, are found in this sutra.
For example, someone hears the doctor say, "You have cancer, you may live for six months more." That person feels completely overwhelmed. The fear, the idea that I’m going to die in six months takes away all our peace and joy. Before the doctor told us that we had cancer, we had the capacity to enjoy ourselves with our friends. However, once the doctor told us that, we lose all our capacity to sit and enjoy our tea, or enjoy our meal, or watch the moon, because we are so afraid of the moment when we will die. It takes away all our freedom. If you know that death is something that comes to everybody, you will not suffer so much. The doctor says we have six months left to live, but the doctor also will die. Maybe the doctor knows we have six months, but the doctor does not know how many months he himself has left to live. Maybe the doctor will die before us. Maybe driving home after the examination he will have an accident, and therefore the knowledge of the doctor isn’t so great. He tells us we only have six months left. We may be lucky to live six months, because the doctor may die before us. So if we look deeply we see things, which if we don’t look deeply we wouldn’t see. Looking deeply we can get back our freedom from fear, and with that freedom, with our non-fear, we may live happily those six months.
All of us are equal as far as life and death are concerned: we are all going to die. So it is very equal, it will happen to everybody. Everyone has to die, but before we die, can we live properly? I am determined to live properly until I die. That is a very awakened thing to say. If we are going to die, then we have to live the best we can, and if we can live six months in the best way we can then the quality of that six months will be as if we were living for six years, or sixty years. If our life is filled with being caught in the fetters of suffering, then our life doesn’t have the same kind of meaning as if we live in freedom. So knowing that we have to die, I am determined to live my life properly, deeply. All of us have to die, but if we are able to live with peace, joy, and freedom before we die, then we live as if we are dead already, even before we die.
First of all, the Buddha teaches us that we must struggle to get back our freedom, to be able to live the moments of our daily life deeply. In these moments of our daily life we can have peace, we can have joy, and we can heal the suffering we have in our bodies and in our minds. Living deeply at each moment of our life helps us to be in touch with the wonderful things of life, helps us to nourish our body and our mind with these wonderful elements, and at the same time helps us to embrace and transform the suffering that we have. So to live deeply in the present moment of every day of our life is to live a life of wonder, nourishment, and healing. Living like that we can revive our freedom, and live deeply: we give rise to the truth, we have awakened understanding, and our fears, our anxieties, our sufferings, and our sadness, will evaporate, and we will become a source of joy and life to ourselves and to those around us. According to Buddhism, that is the method of dwelling happily in the present moment. Looking carefully, we will see that this writing on knowing the better way to live alone is the oldest human writing about how to live the present moment, so it is a very important sutra. We should study it carefully, and then apply it in our lives and in the practice. We know that all the teachings related to the teachings on living in the present moment should be studied in the same way.
There was a monk whose name was Thera. His friends probably gave him the name Thera, which means "the elder." That monk liked to live on his own. He always went off on the alms round on his own. He liked to do walking meditation on his own. He like to eat on his own, he liked to wash his clothes on his own. He really liked to do everything on his own. He seemed to like to avoid his friends in the practice as much as possible. All the monks had heard the Buddha praising the better way to live alone, but the way the Buddha used the meaning of "living alone," he meant not to be imprisoned by the past, not to be pulled away by the future, and not to be carried away by what was happening in the present. The Buddha did not mean that living alone means to distance yourself and separate yourself from your friends in the practice. Nevertheless, this monk liked to do things on his own, eating on his own, going to the town on his own, and avoiding other people. The other monks knew that he liked to do things alone, but they felt that there was something not quite right about this way of life. They felt that he wasn’t really practicing according to the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings. So the other monks went to the Buddha and they said, "Lord Buddha, one of our fellow practitioners called Thera, the elder, likes to do everything on his own: walking meditation, eating meditation, working on his own, and we don’t know if living like that that is really truly living alone." And Buddha said, "Where is that monk? Ask him to come here and have a cup of tea with us." So the monks went and invited Thera to join them, and the Buddha said, "I hear you like to live alone. How do you live on your own? Please tell me." And Thera said, "Lord Buddha, I sit in meditation alone, I eat on my own, I wash my clothes on my own, I go into the village for alms on my own." And the Buddha said, "Oh, that is true, then you really do live alone. But maybe the way you live alone is not the best way to live alone, there is a better way to live alone." And then the Buddha recited a gatha: "If you live without being imprisoned by the past, not being pulled away by the future, not being carried away by the forms and images of the present moment, living each moment of your life deeply, that is the true way of living alone." When Thera heard this he knew that he had been living alone just as an outer form, and there was a deeper way to live alone.
The sutra where this story is told is called the Theranama Sutra, it is in the Samyutta Nikáya, and there is also an equivalent sutra in the Samyukta Agama, it is Number 71 in the Samyukta Agama. The essence of the sutra is a poem. The Buddha wrote poems, but the poems of the Buddha were more designed to show us how to practice. The gatha which talks about the art of living alone is called the Bhaddekaratta-gatha, Bhaddekaratta means "the best way to live alone." Many people have mistranslated this title: One master translated it as "practicing for one night." There’s also another master who translated this title as "being present." The correct translation is to say "The better way to practice living alone." This poem says:
Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
in the very here and now,
the practitioner dwells
in stability and freedom.
All of the essence of the Buddha’s teachings lies in these words. We know that stability and freedom are the two characteristics of nirvana, and that is the aim of our practice. The aim of our practice is that every moment of our daily life we can produce stability and freedom: walking, lying down, sitting, standing, we produce freedom and stability. Nirvana is something we can touch right in the present moment, not only with our mind, but also with our body. When our feet are walking in a leisurely way, solid and free, then our feet are touching nirvana. As soon as we have stability and freedom, nirvana is there. The level of freedom and stability tells us whether we have been able to touch nirvana deeply. Do not pursue the past. There are people who are tired of the present and think that the past was more beautiful, and that life was more beautiful before. They always think the past was more beautiful. Therefore, they cannot see the happiness of the present.
Many of us are caught in this way of thinking. The past is no longer there, and we compare it with the present, and we say that the past was more beautiful than the present; but even when we had those moments in the past we didn’t really value them at the time, because in the past we were not able to live in the present moment. We were always running after the future, and now if we were taken back to the past, we would do the same. At that time life was more beautiful, the sun was brighter, the moon was brighter--those are words from a French song. There are people who pursue the past, not because they think the past was beautiful, but because the past has made them suffer, the past was a trauma, a heavy wound for them. We have suffered, we have been wounded, we have died in the past, and those heavy wounds are calling us back to the past, crying, "Come back here, come back to the past. I am the subject, you cannot escape me." That is what the past says to us. We are like sheep running back to the past, to enclose us, to imprison us, to make us suffer. The past is also a very great prison. We hear the words of the past, and we run back to the past, we refuse to live our life in the present moment, we are always going back to the past. So the Buddha says, "Don’t pursue the past."
These are the words of our teacher: "Don’t pursue the past." We should write a poem, how can we write a poem so we are able to do this? Sometimes we are sitting with our friend. Our friend is sitting there, but we feel abandoned by our friend, because our friend is drowning in the past. Our friend is sitting next to us, but our friend is not with us, our friend is imprisoned by the past. Our friend is there, but our friend is not really there. We know that we are sitting there, and we feel that our friend is not sitting there with us. So we find a way to free our friend from the past, and we say to our friend: "A penny for your thoughts. What are you thinking about? Tell me. I’ll give you ten centimes if you tell me." That person may wake up, jump up and smile and be free from the prison of the past.
If we are a monk or a nun, we should know how to do this. We should know the method of being able to release our friend in the practice who is imprisoned and drowning in the past. We have to use our love, our mindfulness, and our friendship, to help that person out of the prison of the past. If we are a monk or a nun, we should know how to use our brothers and sisters in the practice to help us get out of our prison of the past. Therefore, living in a Sangha has these kinds of benefits.