I've been contemplating lately on the role of so-called, "Hermit monks" which can still be found in remote areas of the world. We know that monasteries are the traditional venue for Buddhist monks looking to further dedicate their lives to studying and living the Dharma but what of the role of hermit monks? Well I found an excellent documentary on the lives of Chinese Buddhist, mountain, hermit, monks titled, "Amongst White Clouds." It's about an hour and a half but so worth it:
The majority of these hermits appear to be well practiced in the Dharma and veterans of monasteries and thus able to better practice in a solitary environment. They are not aesthetics in the traditional, pre-Buddhist sense of total denial of food, etc., which Buddha advised against. They eat just enough to remain healthy like most monks, maintain a shelter and do from time to time visit other hermit monks to bolster each other's practice. I hesitate to say that this path is for the average Buddhist who isn't well practiced in the Dharma. For as one of the hermit monks on the mountain states, "Most of the monks here already understand the practice methods, they don't make mistakes. But you must understand the practice. If you don't, you make mistakes and that's nothing but torture."
These hermit monks seem to have reached a point in their practice where they really can't help but wander off into the woods. Historically it was quite common in Buddhist traditions (especially Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Ch'an or Zen) for monks to wander off to a cave or isolated hut for long periods of deep contemplation. In some branches of Tibetan Buddhism this occurs, however, after about a decade of traditional, monastic Buddhist practice. In some branches of Tibetan Buddhism it is required of monks to do solo retreat for three years and three months.
There are rare cases, however, where younger monks have been recognized as unique in their knowledge, karma and practice of the Dharma to where monastery life is not much of a challenge. In some rare cases it is a distraction for them to further their practice. So sometimes the abbots of those temples send them off to do a solo retreat. This usually is done with an older hermit monk at first but just long enough to get acclimated to the environment/way of life and then they're on their own. Thus the quote about Buddha having a teaching for the heart of every being whether they are an abbot, a senior hermit monk, a younger hermit monk, a novice monk or a lay person.
These men (and one woman--a nun) in this documentary have come to the place where solitude is required to enable their level of near constant meditation and mindful living. Isolation is a very strict, strong and effective teacher in that it forces one to confront that in the end you can't rely upon anyone else for your liberation. Even your fellow monks and practitioners. In practicing the Dharma in isolation one is forced to be with one's thoughts with nothing much to distract oneself from them day and night. The neurotic mind has little to manipulate out of the hermit monks life as silence and raw, naked, confrontation of nature exposes it's futility. Everyday actions take on new meaning when one has no one or no thing to rely upon to distract one from not just practicing Buddhism in general but total, complete, consuming submersion in mindfulness.
Some say they they wander off because they are near enlightenment and therefore where ever they go they are where they need to be. The lessons of mindfulness, of total immersion into mindfulness have carried them outside the monastery walls to reside in the monasteries of old--the forests and mountains. These locations are Earth's first sacred sites and some of the most pure, inspiring and liberating places. It was under a tree, in solo retreat after all where Buddha finally realized liberation.
For these practitioners the spirit of the monastery/sangha travels with them where ever they go. The monastery is everywhere to them including deep in nature where birds, monkeys and other animals are their teachers and fellow practitioners. As well as the trees, caves, waterfalls and rivers. And from time to time many of these hermit monks meet up with one or more other hermit monks in the area to discuss their practice with each other and stay on track. In this documentary the monks in these Chinese mountains are roughly an hour and a half to one day's hike away from each other.
I don't see them as radicals, rebels, misfits or heretics but rather as highly evolved spiritual beings who have reached the point of no return in their quest for final liberation. They seem to have come to the conclusion that monasteries can sometimes become havens for stagnation where it can be easy for some to become lulled into a state of spiritual materialism and spiritual laziness. Not unlike the tendency for some students at universities to stay in school for the socializing and status instead of the learning and growing aspects. So It's as if monasteries are universities for Buddhism where most monks are working on their undergraduate degree.
Whereas hermit monks are doing graduate and post-doctoral work, which is often undertaken independently that usually involves study outside of said universities, in the field so to speak and that means these "students" don't interact with the undergraduate students as much. I would venture to guess that a good majority of these hermit monks come back down after a few years of solitary practice to teach at a monastery. Not unlike a post-doctoral graduate returning to their university to teach undergraduates as a professor. Some, however, have been up their for numerous decades are will most likely die on those mountains and in doing so merge into parinirvana.
In "Amongst White Clouds" I really was inspired and educated by the hermit nun up on the mountain who quoted the Lengyan Scripture, which says in part, "Though there are words to speak, none of these are real. Talk and talk, like flowers falling from heaven--It's all worthless. So there is really nothing to say." This was an appropriate statement because it seemed many of the hermit monks didn't have much to say but their shining eyes and broad smiles sure did. One monk said after the camera man asked another question (and I'm paraphrasing a bit) "I've been talking all day with you and still you want more words?"
This same nun said, "All of the great masters, if they hadn't endured some hardship they wouldn't have opened their wisdom gate." I really connected with that particular insight as my hardship with mental illness is in large part what led me to Buddhism. Of course I'm not a Buddhist master but either way there is great wisdom to be adopted by all who follow the Dharma in that statement. No creation, no destruction.
Finally, consider these thoughts from the man [Red Pine] who wrote the book on these hermit monks, which inspired another man to do this documentary, "Amongst White Clouds":
I’ve never heard of any great master who has not spent some time as a hermit. The hermit tradition separates the men from the boys. If you’ve never spent time in solitude, you’ve really never mastered your practice. If you’ve never been alone with you practice, you’ve never swallowed it and made it yours. If you don’t spend time in solitude, you don’t have either profundity or understanding — you’ve just carried on somebody else’s tradition.