Monastic Life – Chapter 28: The Ascetic Ideal

Buddhism has long been famous for its celebration of the virtues of solitude and renunciation of the world. One of the most famous, and one of the earliest, expressions of these ideals is to be found in a poem known as the Rhinoceros Horn Sutta. It is the third sutra in the Sutta Nipata, a work of 1,149 verses (together with some prose passages) regarded by scholars as one of the most ancient collections of Buddhist poetry.

The text derives its name from the refrain, *One should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn.’ Some translators of this text have found this phrase puzzling and have chosen instead to translate it as *One should wander solitary like a rhinoceros.’ However, the commentaries make it clear that it is the horn of the rhinoceros that is the proper simile of solitude. Unlike the African rhinoceros, the Indian rhinoceros has only one horn, and was perhaps unique in this regard among the animals of India. The horn of the rhinoceros was thus taken to stand as a symbol of that which stands alone, without companions.

The speaker of the text is unidentified, but early commentaries state that it was spoken by a pratyekabuddha (Pali: paccekabuddha), a *solitary enlightened one ’. This term appears to apply to a particular type of monk in the early communities who preferred not to live communally with other monks, but who practised in solitude, often in silence. They achieved the same nirvana and passed through the same stages as the other disciples of the Buddha, but did not rely on the teachings of the Buddha (at least, according to some renditions, during their last lifetime). They were said to achieve enlightenment during the time when the teachings of a buddha were not present in the world.

And having achieved enlightenment, they did not speak of the path to others. Thus, they seem to have been regarded as particular devotees of solitude even in a tradition that extolled the virtues of the solitary life.

That the text is identified at such an early point with this rather mysterious group suggests that even Buddhist monks found the solitude recommended in the text to be somewhat extreme, thus attributing the words to a representative of what was regarded as the more reclusive elements of the brotherhood. There are those who hold the perhaps romantic view that the sangha began as a group of lonely wanderers, developing only later into a more sedentary and satisfied community that regarded the solitary life as suited only for the rare ascetic. The Rhinoceros Horn Sutta (Khaggavisana-Sutta) may provide an insight into at least the ideals, if not always the practices, of that early sangha.

Laying aside violence in respect of all beings, not harming even one of them, one should not wish for a son, let alone a companion. One should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (1)

Affection comes into being for one who has associations; following on affection, this misery arises. Seeing the peril [which is] born from affection, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (2)

Sympathizing with friends [and] companions one misses one’s goal, being shackled in mind. Seeing this fear is acquaintance [with friends], one should wander solitary as a

The consideration which [exists] for sons and wives is like a very wide-spreading bamboo tree entangled [with others]. Like a [young] bamboo shoot not caught up [with others], one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (4)

As a deer which is not tied up goes wherever it wishes in the forest for pasture, an understanding man, having regard for his independence, should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (5)

In the midst of companions, where one is resting, standing, going [or] wandering, there are requests [from others]. Having regard for the independence [which is] not coveted [by others], one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (6)

In the midst of companions, there are sport, enjoyment and great love for sons. [Although] loathing separation from what is dear, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (7)

One is a man of the four quarters and not hostile, being pleased with whatever comes one’s way. A fearless bearer of dangers, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (8)

Even some wanderers are not kindly disposed, and also [some] householders dwelling in a house. Having little concern for the children of others, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (9)

Having removed the marks of a householder, like a Kovilara tree whose leaves have fallen, a hero, having cut the householder’s bonds, should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (10)

If one can obtain a zealous companion, an associate of good disposition, [who is] resolute, overcoming all dangers, one should wander with him, with elated mind, mindful. (11)

If one cannot obtain a zealous companion, an associate of good disposition, [who is] resolute, [then] like a king quitting the kingdom [which he has] conquered, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (12)

Assuredly let us praise the good fortune of [having] a companion; friends better [than oneself] or equal [to onself] are to be associated with. If one does not obtain these, [then] enjoying [only] blameless things, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (13)

Seeing shining [bracelets] of gold, well-made by a smith, clashing together [when] two are on [one] arm, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (14)

‘In the same way, with a companion there would be objectionable talk or abuse for me.’ Seeing this fear for the future, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (15)

For sensual pleasures, variegated, sweet [and] delightful, disturb the mind with their manifold form. Seeing peril in the strands of sensual pleasure, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (16)

‘This for me is a calamity, and a tumour, and a misfortune, and a disease, and a barb, and a fear.’ Seeing this fear in the strands of sensual pleasure, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (17)

Cold and heat, hunger [and] thirst, wind and the heat [of the sun], gadflies and snakes, having endured all these, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (18)

As an elephant with massive shoulders, spotted, noble, may leave the herds and live as it pleases in the forest, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (19)

It is an impossibility for one who delights in company to obtain [even] temporary release. Having heard the word of the sun’s kinsman, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (20)

Gone beyond the contortions of wrong view, arrived at the fixed course [to salvation], having gained the way, [thinking] ‘I have knowledge arisen [in me]; I am not led by others’, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (21)

Being without covetousness, without deceit, without thirst, without hypocrisy, with delusion and faults blown away, without aspirations in the whole world, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (22)

One should avoid an evil companion, who does not see the goal, [who has] entered upon bad conduct. One should not oneself associate with one who is intent [upon wrong views, and is] negligent. One should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (23)

One should cultivate one of great learning, expert in the doctrine, a noble friend possessed of intelligence. Knowing one’s goals, having dispelled doubt, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (24)

Not finding satisfaction in sport and enjoyment, nor in the happiness [which comes] from sensual pleasures in the world, [and] paying no attention [to them], abstaining from adornment, speaking the truth, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (25)

Leaving behind son and wife, and father and mother, and wealth and grain, and relatives, and sensual pleasures to the limit, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (26)

‘This is attachment; here there is little happiness, [and] little satisfaction; here there is very much misery; this is a hook.’ Knowing this, a thoughtful man should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (27)

Having torn one’s fetters asunder, like a fish breaking a net in the water, not returning, like a fire [not going back] to what is [already] burned, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (28)

With downcast eye and not footloose, with sense-faculties guarded, with mind protected, not overflowing [with defilement], not burning, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (29)

Having discarded the marks of a householder, like a coral tree whose leaves have fallen, having gone out [from the house] wearing the saffron robe, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (30)

Showing no greed for flavours, not wanton, not supporting others, going on an uninterrupted begging round, not shackled in mind to this family or that, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (31)

Having left behind the five hindrances of the mind, having thrust away all defilements, not dependent, having cut off affection and hate, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (32)

Having put happiness and misery behind oneself, and joy and dejection already, having gained equanimity [which is] purified calmness, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (33)

Resolute for the attainment of the supreme goal, with intrepid mind, not indolent, of firm exertion, furnished with strength and power, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (34)

Not giving up seclusion [and] meditation, constantly living in accordance with the doctrine in the world of phenomena, understanding the peril [which is] in existences, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (35)

Desiring the destruction of craving, not negligent, not foolish, learned, possessing mindfulness, having considered the doctrine, restrained, energetic, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (36)

Not trembling, as a lion [does not tremble] at sounds, not caught up [with others], as the wind [is not caught up] in a net, not defiled [by passion], as a lotus [is not defiled] by water, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (37)

Wandering victorious, having overcome like a strong-toothed lion, the king of beasts, one should resort to secluded lodgings, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (38)

Cultivating at the right time loving-kindness, equanimity, pity, release and [sympathetic] joy, unimpeded by the whole world, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (39)

Leaving behind passion, hatred and delusion, having torn the fetters apart, not trembling at [the time of] the complete destruction of life, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn. (40)

[People] associate with and resort to [others] for some motive; nowadays friends without a motive are hard to find. Wise as to their own advantage, men are impure.


From The Group of Discourses (Sutta-nipata), vol. 2, rev. trans. K. R. Norman, Pali Text Society Translation Series No. 45 (Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 1992), pp. 4-8.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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