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Under what conditions did Buddha encourage forest dwelling? AN 6.52/8.86 vs AN 10.99/MN 17


#1

I was just reading this thread about AN 6.42 and AN 8.86. In short, these Suttas extoll the benefits of wilderness dwelling, going as to far to say that it’s better to be a forest dweller falling asleep than a city dweller in samadhi (the idea is that the former will develop samadhi, while the latter will become distracted and lose Samadhi).

What I find curious is that this attitude seems antithetical to AN 10.99, where the Buddha warns AGAINST someone dwelling in the forest unless he/she has experience with samadhi first. Furthermore, in MN 17, Buddha says that it’s better for a Monastic to live supported by a town/city/village with mindfulness and samadhi than to live in a jungle thicket without mindfulness/samadhi. Here, the Buddha acknowledges that it’s entirely possible for a wilderness dweller to be incapable of good samadhi/sati, while it’s also possible for a non-wilderness dweller to develop Samadhi/Sati (and even see their defilements come to an end).

It seems to me that the Buddha is giving contradictory advice about the essentialness of wilderness dwelling. Am I missing something here?


#2

It’s not easy to fall asleep in a forest inhabited by tigers and other predators. Your nightmares could be stalking you. This isn’t backpacking in the national park. This is a land with man-eating predators.

Staying alone, the forests seem to rob the mind of a mendicant who isn’t immersed in samādhi --MN4 Fear and Terror

When I walk in meditation through a dark city alley, it is scary. I feel I could get mugged. But falling asleep in a wild forest would be quite the accomplishment–I’d have to be happy being eaten as a meal for a hungry animal. Now THAT would be equanimity. So I hang out in town because I’m a wuss practicing to be equanimous.


#3

The Buddha was a teacher, an educator. I read these suttas as his advice regarding what is the preferable environment to practice the Noble Path according to the level of the students.

While living in seclusion (e.g. remote lodgings in the wilderness and the forest, lives close by a jungle thicket) is preferred by the Buddha himself and preferable for his advanced disciples (the similes of " a bull elephant with a height of seven or eight cubits plunged into the lake and played around while washing its ears and back"), it is not for beginners not ready for the hardship (simile: “a rabbit or a cat jumps into the lake rashly, without thinking, will sink down or float away.”)

The Buddha was pragmatic, not dogmatic. His instructions are dependent on the intended students. Relative, not Absolute. Conditioned Origination is the law. It all depends. Conditional.

It also helps to understand the overall framework of the Noble Path. In suttas AN 10.61 & AN 10.62 the complete outline of what it takes from a beginner to cultivate and purify the mind from start to finish is clearly lay out. (Ajahn Brahmali gave talks on AN 10.61 several times in recent years. Highly recommend listening to his exposition.) The rationale behind living in seclusion is to focus on meditation practice. Meditation practice on the ten-stage scheme of AN 10.61 occurs around dealing with the 5-hindrances, the four focuses of mindfulness, and seven enlightenment factors. Prior to such intensive meditation practice, the beginners must cultivate mindfulness with clear comprehension, restraint of the senses, and strong ethical behavior in mind, speech & action.

Rabbits & cats need to develop the strength of an elephant first. They survive better in groups.


#4

And MN 17 seems to go further than that, saying that it’s possible for a monastic to spend their entire life near a city/village and make progress. It’s not a question of “some people aren’t ready for dwelling in jungle thickets”, but rather “some ppl just plain shouldn’t dwell in jungle thickets, ever.”


#5

In MN-17 the Buddha discussed 6 cases. I suppose you are referring to the last one.

Please read carefully the last two cases. Here the Buddha was not so much addressing the student’s ability, but rather “the conditions” that either contributed to their failure or success, and what they should do about the situation.

As for the similes about the elephant, rabbit and cat, they came from AN 10.99, not from MN-17. Not all suttas, despite somewhat related, address the same issues.


#6

This might be connected to a general contradictory attitude towards asceticism in the EBT. Oliver Freiberger wrote a short paper in that direction.

If you consider that the texts come from different transmission lines then it’s relatively easy to imagine that parts of the texts come from city-vihara dwellers, praising the city-vihara life. Another transmission line would be from more ascetic forest dwellers like Mahakassapa, praising ascetic forest dwelling at great length.

This might not completely apply to the suttas you mentioned, but these two voices are there and in my opinion represent a tension between these two (simplified) groups.


#7

In my experience, paying special attention to who is speaking to whom can help the suttas become more cohesive. If I recall correctly, there’s a text that mentions the Buddha’s ability to read people’s temperaments. Considering this, it would make sense for him to individualize his teachings, and not give everyone the same lesson.


#8

Well, that’s consistent with my point. The Buddha is saying that some people thrive in “jungle-thickets” while others thrive elsewhere. He’s saying that no environment is inherently better or worse than another. My point is how this seems hard to reconcile with AN 6.42/AN 8.86, which seem pretty clearly to promote the superiority of the forest life.

@Gabriel – Thank you for that article. For the inner skeptic in me, it does make sense to think there were rival interpretations of asceticism amongst early Buddhists.

@tonysharp — Yeah, that could be another explanation. It makes intuitive sense to me to think that different people are going to thrive under different conditions, and the Buddha taught accordingly.


#9

In the suttas the Buddha sometimes used “permutation of factors” to discuss various cases.

In MN-17, to decide whether to stay or to leave the current situation (conditions that affect the mendicant’s spiritual training), the factors considered are:

(1) current outcome of “meditation training” - success or failure.
(2) where they live, close by a jungle thicket or not. This really means live in seclusion or close to other people.
(3) acquisition of necessities of life that a renunciate requires - easy or hard to come by.

In the last two of the six cases, another factor was introduced, displacing the factor of whether they live in seclusion.
(4) Steady benefactor: lives supported by a village …(or) town … (or) city … (or) country … (or) an individual.

Because monastics depend on support of the lay people, this is about leaving or staying with their benefactor or sponsor.

It might appear that one needs to be a statistician to go through the factorial analysis. Such detailed analysis is frequently attributed to the teaching style of Venerable Sariputta and the Abhidhamma. It can be a bit confusing.

The reason for living in seclusion is to engage in intensive meditation training. It might appear as advocating “asceticism” & “living in hardship by will power”, but it is not the case. Remember the first sermon given by the Buddha to the five ascetics was the “Middle Way”, not the “Four Noble Truths”. To the five ascetics it was important to stress that one should move away from extremes of asceticism and hedonism. The Buddha advised his advance pupils to live in seclusion and adopt a simple frugal life style. For example, AN 8.53 Brief Advice to Gotamī .


#10

The Middle way has the Four Noble truths as the guiding principle, in Right view.

Gotamī, you might know that certain things lead to passion, not dispassion; to being fettered, not to being unfettered; to accumulation, not dispersal; to more desires, not fewer; to lack of contentment, not contentment; to crowding, not seclusion; to laziness, not energy; to being hard to look after, not being easy to look after. You should definitely bear in mind that these things are not the teaching, not the training. SuttaCentral

As an aside, what if you are progressing adequately but with many difficulties. Would it be correct to renounce under such circumstances?


#11

I think you’ve misread the sutta! The Buddha gives an important condition about the city dweller: it’s not just any city dweller but rather one who “enjoys possessions, honor and popularity” and who “neglects retreat” who will inevitably lose their samādhi.

This sutta is clearly warning about the dangers of attachment to reputation, and I think it’s a mischaracterization to summarize it as essentializing forest-dwelling as-such.


#12

Good point! I think the first time I heard this Sutta, it was in the context of emphasizing the importance of forest dwelling, which probably biased my own reading.


#13

The Buddha made a categorical distinction between human society and wilderness dwelling, recommending the latter as a progression and a subject of meditation:

“a monk — not attending to the perception of village, not attending to the perception of human being — attends to the singleness based on the perception of wilderness. His mind takes pleasure, finds satisfaction, settles, & indulges in its perception of wilderness.”–MN 121

There is also the regular exhortation to go to the foot of a tree.

But as AN 10.99 says, concentration is a necessary prerequisite.


#14

It would be wonderful to be able to retreat into forest dwelling, which isn’t harmful to one’s life and health, and where almsfood could be obtained. Attachments and unconscious societal views are more of a hindrance to setting off in the first place.