QUESTION: Is there any value in being a hermit?
SHORT ANSWER: Yes, huge.
LONGER ANSWER: The hermit does not have the distraction of the deluded world. In nearly all the great religions there are hermits. In the theistic religions, being a hermit is the best way to give total attention to God. Buddha's advice was, keep good company, but if you can’t find any, then dwell ‘lonely as rhinoceros’. By good company, he did not mean sociable drinking companions, he meant people who were truly holy and inspiring.
Being a hermit is a bit like fasting. When one fasts, after a few days you start to think, "Why ever do we waste so much time on the whole food thing?" You experience a kind of cleanness and clarity. The same is true with being alone. Being alone is having a people fast. Modern people in Western countries almost never experience what it is for the stomach to actually be empty, so the inside of the body is never clean and never stops working. Having a people fast is similar. The inside of the mind becomes empty and gets to have a rest. Natural functioning is restored.
Alone one will learn many things that it is virtually impossible to learn when ceaselessly in company. The whole Buddhist path is framed within a knowledge that one could always leave society and go into the forest or the hills and be alone. Nowadays this is more difficult. There are simply too many people on the planet. When one can find the possibility, however, take it.
When alone one can see all one's games and compulsions more clearly, both to do something about them and to get perspective upon one's foolish nature; one can feel the space and enter into a kind of free fall of faith and communion with nature and the divine; Buddha was enlightened when he was alone.
One learns how much of one’s energy has been wasted on the manipulation game - trying to hook others and avoid getting hooked oneself, or searching for somebody who can hook one into a mutually desired phantasy. To break this habit is a real liberation.
Being in the company of good sangha and being alone are more similar than either is to being in the company of worldly people. As a sangha we have deep respect for one another which enables them to have the ekagata (singleness) that Buddha teaches as the core of practice. In worldly society people are continually manipulating and pressuring one another in order to salve their own social anxieties and cling onto their image of how things should be.
To be liberated is to be alone. It is to be alone even when in company. It is not to be needy. When one can really be free in such a way a vastness opens up. Hermits who live in such vastness bring salvation to the world. They are a door to heaven, unfastened, swinging in the breeze.