Concerning Monastic Solitude

M. Katarina Shibuya (Imari)


I am a superior who came from another community. When I arrived at my post, what I sincerely wished for the community was to be even more deeply formed in “solitude. To “stand alone before God” is the foundation of the spirituality of Benedict. When I began thinking about a formative approach to this spirituality, I met an elderly Catholic artist. He has a studio both in Japan and Germany, and he lives half of his time in Europe and the other half in Japan. When I met him I understood that the fundamental stance of his existence is solitude. This solitude shines. His personality reflects the light of solitude. Because solitude between people usually keeps a wall or distance between them, relating in the midst of solitude only contributes anxiety and incompatibility. This man’s solitude however, enfolds the other person in solitude. In short, his deep solitude gently creates sympathy with the other person’s heart. The deeper this kind of solitude is, the more it can touch the other person’s heart and become one with the other person. It was my intuition that this is our monastic solitude. Solitude and communication ought to be recognized as exactly the same thing. This man has been practicing zazen for twenty five years. He was able to combine the mystical thought of the German mystic, Meister Eckhart with Zen. His solitude was born of long years of searching and from his personal experience of God.

Later I asked him to teach Zen to our community. We began in January with sesshin, which is a particular Zen practice. He comes as a volunteer for a week, three times a year. Community participation is free. Twelve or thirteen nuns who are interested do zazen for 20 or 25 minutes everyday. Impressions such as these emerged: “It became easier to concentrate my mind,” “I don’t find myself distracted at the divine office or at lectio.” “My heart became peaceful.” Zen is concerned with a world beyond words, so what happens here at the core of one’s existence does not rise to the level of consciousness. That is, the reforming change takes place in the area of the deep unconscious. On the community level it is felt that the core of the monastic spirit is progressively enlivened. The frequency of going out, useless socializing, and the number of telephone calls to the outside have all diminished. This shows the beginning of a movement in the direction of monastic interiority.

Well then, what is Zen? According to a phrase of Master Dogen, a 13th century founder of typical Japanese Zen, the object is “Falling off from mind and body” meaning that which clings to mind and body falls off. “Falling off from mind and body” indicates that one is completely free of any restraints. That is the ideal delightful situation of mind and body. Even though we have justify the world, we ourselves have become “the world,” and within the self all sorts of conceptions and passions are whirling around. These are rooted in the ego. By completely throwing away thoughts from “the world” we go beyond the ego, and discover the beautiful and original self created by God. This is the working area of Zen. In other words, we break through the surface of our mind which has been heavily covered over by “the world” and we arrive at the center of our soul and discover our self in the image of God, this image which the ego could not move. People who have encountered this are transformed in purity. There is a sentence that expresses the basis of Master Dogen’s Zen: “To learn Buddhism is to learn the self. To learn the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to prove (fulfill) ten thousand precepts.” This phrase contains two different concepts of the self. The self of “learning the self” is the self made in God’s image. The other is the ego. Thus, we can interpret the phrase in the following way: “If one seeks the beautiful self made in God’s image, then he must forget his ego. If one forgets his ego and attains to nothingness, truth will advance and enter within you.”

However, even if we have arrived at this stage, it is not yet Cistercian solitude. What we can expect of Zen is only as far as this point. That is because in Zen there is no existence of the “I and Thou” God. Zen is a process through self denial, of being able to see God who is in one’s inner depths. Accordingly, the perimeters of the traditional Christian solitude “alone with the One God” are widened by Christ’s Spirit. I am the one who “stands alone before God.”

We don’t just “grind our teeth and bear it.” For us, Zen is existential frolic, a kind of sport in which we fight the self. This refreshes mind and body and takes us beyond time and space. Solitude does not separate us from everything; it makes us one with all things. This broadens and overlaps the Augustinian solitude expressed as solus cum solo Deo (alone with God Alone). From solitude we are united with God and within this unity with the universe and all that lives, the way of love opens up.