Concerning Monks, Part 1

Perhaps my deep interest and draw to monasticism originates from the fact that the two traditions I most identify with – Christianity as my family and cultural religion and Buddhism as my chosen religion – also contain the largest monastic traditions in the world. These are by no means the only monastic traditions (and I will treat some of the insights from other traditions in future posts), but they are a useful place to start.

In the wonderfully rich Encyclopedia of Monasticism, Mathieu Boisvert analyzes the monastic practices of early Christian and Buddhist monks and finds an essential thread in both: the single-minded dedication to a goal (1). For Christian monks, that goal is union with God; for Buddhists, it is realizing nirvana.

Boisvert also notes some similarities between traditions on how this commitment manifests. Both traditions value celibacy as a means to remove relational distractions from one’s life. Similarly, there is an emphasis on seclusion so one can focus on practice and avoid attachments to worldly things – this includes physical seclusion and wandering from place to place, though becoming internally solitary and cultivating a feeling of being a stranger in the world and to oneself is even more important. Contemplation of death and dead bodies was practiced by both traditions as one means to realize these ends. Monks aimed to experience a “harmonious and undivided mind” on the path to realizing the primary goal, which ultimately led to a falling away of cognition and full contemplation of that goal.

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St. Simeon the Stylite, who sat atop a pillar for 25 years in practice (2)

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Ananda, one of Buddha’s first disciples and personal attendant (3)

Single-minded focus is an important aspect of meditation, and runs contrary to our contemporary value of multi-tasking. But the single-minded commitment that Boisvert points to is greater than a focus of attention. It is a full-bodied, full-minded, and full-emotioned dedication to realizing ultimate truth or ultimate divinity. Full-bodied, meaning it takes work of the body to achieve, working with the body’s mortality, its desires and its limitations, as well as it gifts, such as its capacity to wander. Full-minded, meaning it takes mental dedication to work through cognitive distractions and ultimately through cognition itself. And full-emotioned in that the emotions must be understood and dealt-with in a way that they don’t keep the monk from attaining their goal.

It is important to remember (and remind myself, always) that this commitment is not to anything of the world. Early Christian and Buddhist monks gave up their homes, families, possessions, relationships, and often their names and other parts of their identities, in their aim to realize union or nirvana. The monk is not committed to a career, to financial stability, to recognition.

I am forever practicing this, reminding myself that there is nothing fulfilling in the world, and that I am, indeed, unfulfillable. The Buddhist teachings that there is nothing permanent in the world, including the self, and that life is suffering, elucidate these truths.

As is the tradition in Soto Zen, I will depart with a gassho, in which I bow to you with my hands pressed together. One way it has been described to me is, “buddha bowing to buddha.” Or roughly, the Buddha nature in me bows to the Buddha nature in you, understanding that there is no real me, no real you, and no real separation between us.

Please share any thoughts or comments you may have, or contact me directly if you have ideas for future posts.

Notes

(1) Mathieu Boisvert, “Origins: Comparative Perspectives,” in Encyclopedia of Monasticism, ed. William M. Johnston and Claire Renkin (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000), 2:967.

(2) Image from http://belosticalle.blogspot.com/2016_01_01_archive.html

(3) Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ananda

Scholar Monks: Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” (1)

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably the most notable scholar monk in the history of the United States. He came from a family of ministers and was himself ordained during his undergraduate studies, where the president of the college impressed upon King the power of Christianity to enact social change. King went on to complete doctoral work in systematic theology seven years later and became a minister-scholar. He considered continuing in the academy but accepted a position as a pastor in Alabama instead.

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King soon found himself at the head of a civil rights movement in which his academic acumen and religious leadership skills were exceptionally well suited and effectively deployed. He integrated Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence with Christian social action to undertake powerful social action toward the recognition of the rights of African-American people in the U.S. and the rights of all people within and outside of the U.S.

King’s social leadership contributed significantly to changes in national civil rights legislation in the U.S. Toward the end of his life, he included efforts against poverty and American militarism in his mission, continuing to draw on Christian social gospel principles and nonviolent practices.

As the only American scholar monk, and indeed the only non-president, to have a national holiday that honors him, I feel it important and appropriate to examine King’s life and work within the context of our discussion about scholar monks in the world today. King’s religious beliefs, training, and leadership, and his academic knowledge and abilities were regularly deployed together in his public speaking, preaching, and writings. From what I have read, it seems that King’s higher studies were an extension of his ministry and were deeply integrated into his ministry.

Precision with words and knowledge were utilized by King to do the good work that he deemed necessary as a follower of Christ and God. For King, this good work was the work of social action and social change. Similar to Xuanzang, in a different time, place, and in different ways, King worked toward the well-being of many, for the benefit of others, motivated and guided by his faith and his role as an ordained person.

I think all of us who live by vows, who have committed to a way that is larger than ourselves, have much to learn from Martin Luther King, Jr. His teaching, his work, and his way of life is as relevant as ever in this time of racial conflict, violence, and institutional oppression. Let us continue to consider King’s words, those that I have quoted above and the many others that he spoke and penned, as we usher in a new political era this Friday.

As always, please share your voice and your words through comments here or by contacting me personally.

Notes

(1) These words were spoken during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. All of the biographical information for this post comes from The King Center website: “About Dr. King: Overview.” TheKingCenter.org. Accessed January 16, 2017. http://thekingcenter.org/about-dr-king

(2) Image from http://www.uky.edu/mlk/content/about-dr-king

The Benefits of Being a Monk

There is a New Year’s sesshin each year at Hakubai Temple in Boulder, Colorado. A sesshin is an intensive practice period that mimics monastic life and involves a lot of sitting and walking meditation, work practice, eating practice, chantings, and dharma talks. Dharma talks are given by a teacher, in our case the abbot of the temple, Hakubai Zenji, and cover various themes, including Buddhist doctrine and how to live in the world.

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The lotus pond at Hakubai in summer

The theme of this year’s sesshin was “how to make meaning in a purposeless universe” and the dharma talks followed this thread. The benefits of being a monk came up a couple times in our talks about worldly meaning. I found both references to be puzzling, though relevant to our discussion on this blog, and so I am sharing them with you here in order to think through them.

First, Hakubai Zenji talked of someone slapping you in the face. If you’re a monk, he said, that’s great! You think: look at this, they’re slapping a monk in the face. I took this to mean that since you are a monk, you don’t care what other people think of you, because you are not attached to your worldly person. Of course, this is easier said than done! It may be easy to not get ruffled when someone you don’t know says something nasty to you, but a slap in the face is a bit more intimate.

One of the currents of our talks over the course of the sesshin was that meaning may not be important in the realm of the absolute but that it is important in the relative realm. In Zen, it is said that there is no birth, no death; no beginning, no end; no meaning, no meaninglessness. But clearly in the world of objects, the world of space-time, beings are born and die, things come to an end, and people constantly struggle with meaning and meaninglessness.

When we talk about scholarship, this is an activity of the relative realm. Conceptual knowledge and discourse requires a subject and object, observer and observed. And therefore it would seem that making meaning is also something worth considering in the world of the scholar.

When a scholar is slapped in the face, how do they react? With polemics? A nasty review of the slapper’s next book? From what little experience I have, the Academy cultivates bloated egos, and bloated egos tend to burst when they are slapped. Would the reaction look different if the scholar was not attached to their scholarship? I think so. But getting to that place in an academic ecosystem of intense attachment and identification takes work.

The second statement: one of the benefits of being a monk is that no one expects anything of you. Later on, Hajubai Zenji added that when you are sitting all the time, doing nothing, people think you’re crazy or useless. As I get ready to launch myself into further academic work, I find I keep falling into this pit of other people’s expectations. Publish like a mad person! Sacrifice your marriage for your PhD! Present papers everywhere! I don’t care about any of this stuff, nor am I interested in playing these games. Yet I get sucked in time and time again to believing that the expectations of others are my own. They’re not. I’ll just keep on sitting, doing my best to do nothing, if that’s what needs doing.