Is Buddhist renunciation solitary? Reflections on Shayne Clarke’s new book

I have been thinking a lot about early Buddhist models of renunciation recently. This is partly because of my interest in pratyekabuddhas, who are understood to be ‘solitary’ Buddhas (see previous blog posts), and partly because it is a constant theme in jātaka stories. But most recently the theme is occupying my mind as I read Shayne Clarke’s new book Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms (University of Hawaii Press 2014).

ClarkeCOVER4.inddClarke’s new book is fascinating reading, and has come out of years of careful study of Vinaya texts from all of the schools of early Indian Buddhism, in Sanskrit, Pāli, Chinese and Tibetan. I am reviewing it for a journal, so I won’t go into it in detail here, but broadly speaking Clarke argues that models of solitary renunciation – such as that propagated in the Rhinoceros Horn Sutra – are rather one-sided ideals, and that in reality it seems many monks and nuns renounced alongside family members and/or maintained regular contact with their “former” families, and that this was not considered a problem.

This book is a useful corrective to a field in which the model of solitary renunciation and complete severance of ties is often assumed to be the main or only ideal in early Buddhism. However, the idea that monks and nuns maintain family ties was a not a huge surprise to me, perhaps because I tend to be immersed in narrative materials rather than the more systematic or doctrinal accounts. In the Pāli Jātakas, for example, renunciation is often a communal affair, with husbands and wives renouncing together, families living together in the forest, or even whole kingdoms moving into hermitages that have been conveniently provided by the gods. Even pratyekabuddhas mostly hang out in groups, despite their name. On the rare occasion that a Jātaka character insists on renouncing alone – such as in, for example, the Janaka-jātaka – this is actually rather shocking.

In my recent work on the Avadānaśataka I have also encountered plenty of evidence for the social side to renunciation. In a recent post I noted the ambiguity surrounding the story of the hare, and the suggestion that dwelling amongst friends is actually more important than dwelling alone. The final story of the same decade (no. 40) also suggests that solitary meditation is not really the ideal. In it we hear of a young monk in the community of the past Buddha Kāśyapa, who is so self-confident he fails to try very hard in his practices. One day he is sitting in meditation beneath a tree in the countryside somewhere, when the tears of the tree’s resident deity alert him to the imminent death of the Buddha. He proceeds to lament about his folly in failing to exert himself and declares that he will not be able to achieve excellence now that he has no further chance to see the Buddha. The deity takes him to the Buddha, and he thereupon attains arhatship. It would seem that this young monk might have been better off spending his time at the monastery rather than alone in the forest. Just to add an extra twist, the young monk is said to be the nephew of the Buddha Kāśyapa, so indeed he would have been better off hanging out with his family! Of course these stories are talking about a particularly good form of social contact, namely with a Buddha or Bodhisattva or another spiritual friend, but nonetheless we get a very different message than the idea that one should independently strive in seclusion.

While it is important to acknowledge that the ideal of solitary renunciation is present in Buddhist texts, we must be careful not to assume that this was the only or main ideal. Shayne Clarke’s book adds to the weight of evidence that other ideals and models of renunciation were also accepted by the early Buddhist community. For this and other reasons it makes for very refreshing reading.


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Religious narrative, reviews of scholarship. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is Buddhist renunciation solitary? Reflections on Shayne Clarke’s new book

  1. Your topic of solitary renunciation reminds me of this exchange from an episode of Monty Python:

    First Hermit Still there’s one thing about being a hermit, at least you meet people.
    Second Hermit Oh yes, I wouldn’t go back to public relations.

    The entire sketch is here:

    Look for “Cut to two hermits on a hillside”.

  2. Pingback: A Meaningful Prayer | Cattāri Brahmavihārā

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