Aranyaka Order

An Invitation

A new “Order”? Don’t know about that. Maybe a de-order. An un-ordering. An attempt to authentically respond to the deep disorder of our present global consumerist catastrophe.

Araṇya means something like “wilderness” in Sanskrit. A place beyond the control of “civilized” manipulation, beyond the pressures for social approval and acceptance. A place of adventure – stepping into what is beyond the known, beyond what can be known, a direct encounter with nature – our nature.

Araṇyaka means something or someone who belongs to this boundless place.

I first encountered the term, as referring to a community of people, in Reggie Ray’s study of early Indian Buddhism called “Buddhist Saints in India.” He was questioning the standardized notion of Buddhist culture being comprised of only two essential social categories – the monk/nun and the layperson. Instead, he postulated that since quite ancient times there was another group – the āraṇyaka, who were a kind of homeless renunciant focusing on meditation practice, and often living outside the bounds of the settled town, in the open commons of the forest or desert or mountain. They were, like the monks and nuns, full-time spiritual practitioners. But unlike those more well known professionals, they were not attached to a monastic institution, or to liturgical ceremonial duties, or to the concern for financial support that usually surrounds those duties. And they were not responsible for maintaining clerical records and histories – and so were written out of them by those who were.

These renegade wanderers would likely maintain that they were following the original idea of the bhikṣu – the mendicant life-way of the historical Buddha and his immediate followers – and early texts seem to indicate that this was likely the original tradition. But as the religion of Buddhism was developed and accepted into normalized society, it’s “professionals” were settled into institutions with buildings, regulated into officially ordained and hierarchically controlled “orders”, and given duties that would more obviously benefit their affluent patrons. Some, however, stayed out in the less safe and secure wilds, and disappeared into the misty peaks.

There was, of course, a spiritual movement of renunciation – of living apart from conventional society – long before the historical Buddha, and to which the Buddha was an heir. In India those who joined this way were called śramaṇa (among other terms), and we can also find such movements in many other cultures and many other times. There is great variation and experimentation in these movements, and, although by necessity they lived in simplicity, the asceticism and celibacy often associated with them was by no means necessarily the norm. Whole families can live this way, and networks of mutually supportive, loose knit communities, woven into the margins of the dominant empires.

What about now? We all know our culture is in trouble. In this latest stage of civilization, we’ve pursued our unending thirst for comfort, convenience, and entertainment – wrought through subduing nature with our technological prowess – to the point of ecological suicide. Our grasping for control is finally tearing apart the intricate fabric of our planet’s sustaining natural balances. What can we do at this late hour? Can we escape our trajectory?

Many have begun to notice that despite all our impressive efforts at material control, our minds stay stubbornly uncontrolled, and our hearts gasp for some new breath. Some of us have been drawn to spiritual practice, to the disciplines and teachings with roots back in those śramaṇa days. But also we want to keep the crutches and comforts of our doomed civilization at the same time. Does this work? Is spiritual transformation just a matter of changing our beliefs and some mental habits, or is a whole revolution being called for – of our bodies, behaviors, way of life?

If we are really discovering, through our contemplative practices, that coming fully alive to the present moment is actually our ultimate fulfillment – then what need do we have to continue clinging to the consuming, energy-devouring lifestyle habits that our culture has trained us to embrace (promising contentment but delivering only brief excitement, while tearing apart the foundations of our ecosystem)? If we really understand that all we need for happiness is here right now – isn’t it time to let go of those conventions of material and recreational pursuit that we know are destroying our life-nourishing world? And, even if we have yet to fully awaken to the beauty of what we really are, wouldn’t it be useful to start living in the simple way that naturally flows out from such a realization?

Big changes in one’s life are scary, though – especially when you feel alone. A community of like-minded adventurers makes it much more doable. Thus this invitation – a call for a sangha of modern renunciants, a network of mutually supporting simple-livers who express their spirituality not just in meditation practice or ritual or philosophy, but in radically changing their relationship to the wider society in all their daily activities.

So here’s some suggested guidelines. First, it might be good to ground oneself in the traditional “Bodhisattva Precepts” (see the lunar ceremony in “Liturgy”) as a general ethical framework. Then the following modern updates of the dhūtaguṇa (qualities of renunciation) might be considered:

1) Giving up a regular income, and instead relying on donations (of food and materials whenever possible, of money when necessary). Besides giving us much more time to devote to our practice and whatever volunteer work moves our hearts, this practice also lets us remain with minimal financial resources, so as not to be tempted to spend! (almost every purchase that’s not totally necessary is causing some harm to the earth, and reducing resources for those without). Without excessive funds, plane trips and most car trips – two of the major causes of the climate crisis – would be reduced or eliminated. Also – no need to pay taxes that fund wars. (As for gift giving and receiving, keep in mind that besides the cultivation of human community that the gift economy nurtures, what nature freely offers is part of it, too – celebrate foraging!) [paiṇḍapātika]

2) Giving up the purchasing of clothes, using only the minimum clothes needed for warmth and functionality, and obtaining those from what is discarded by others. (And same goes for whatever other minimal possessions we need). In our present consumerist culture there is a constant stream of perfectly good clothing (and most other useful items) heading to the landfill, which we can interrupt. If freeboxes aren’t a thing in your area, you can help start them. In the meantime, besides tapping into our personal social circles, there are many free-exchange websites to investigate. [pāṃśūkūlika, traicīvarika]

3) Eating in a ceremonial way, at least for the first meal, whenever possible – in order to stay in touch with gratitude, be fully attentive to this sacred act of survival, and to avoid over-indulgence. The “oryoki” form from Japanese Zen monasticism is one such practice (see the Liturgy section for our version of the chants), but creative new versions could work beautifully as well. [khalupaścādbhaktika, ekāsanika]

4) Committing to a sitting meditation practice first thing upon waking every day, and last thing before sleeping. Keeping our priorities clear, and not over-indulging in sleep. [naiṣadyika]

5) Residing in whatever home or shelter is offered, whether for the night or a long term situation, without seeking to arrange luxurious dwellings. So much of our time and energy is often spent on our dream residence – but our lives are quickly passing, and a nice house is not going to help us clarify our true nature. [yathāsaṃstarika]

6) Living in the wild. Whenever possible, refreshing ourselves by camping in nature, freeing us from the mental habits of conventional society, and surrounding ourselves with the inspiration of nature’s creativity – arising from the same source as our own pure awareness. But also we might keep in mind that we can always return to nature’s pure awareness, whatever might be our physical surroundings, and some sign of nature’s inspiration can be found in almost any environment. We can touch the āraṇya – the wild, the original, the unfabricated foundation – even in the city. [āraṇyaka, vṛkṣamūlika]

7) Living on the margins. Squatting abandoned buildings, camping in empty lots or parks, joining a homeless community, living wherever conventional society has turned away from. But, more crucially, finding a strategy for living that has evaded conventional acceptance and popularity, whose creativity flourishes in the gaps between societal norms; a celebration of the liminal that can free us from the tight strictures of an unbalanced and dying conventional society. All of the above. [ābhyavakāśika, śmāśānika]

To be an Aranyaka, there is no need for ceremonial ordination (although ceremonies can be joyful and helpful), and there is no one in authority to ordain you. If you live this way, to whatever degree you can, and in whatever particular expression you find, you are such a person. Let’s find each other, encourage each other, support each other. And from this practice – help bring freedom to all beings.