Scholar Monks: Deshan, the Old Woman, and Rice Cakes

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.

This is a Chan story from ninth century China (1).

“Deshan Xuanjian was a great scholar of the Diamond Sutra, but he was not a Chan practitioner. He was traveling south in search of the Dharma, carrying his commentaries on the Diamond Sutra with him. In the course of his travels he came across an old woman on the roadside selling tea and rice cakes. He asked her, ‘Who are you?’

She responded, ‘I am an old woman selling rice cakes.’ When he asked if he could buy some refreshments from her, she inquired, ‘Venerable priest, what are you carrying in your bag?’

He said, ‘I am a scholar of the Diamond Sutra, and here I have all my notes and commentaries.’

Hearing this, the old woman said, ‘I have heard that, according to the Diamond Sutra, past mind is ungraspable, present mind is ungraspable, and future mind is ungraspable. So where is the mind that you wish to refresh with rice cakes, oh scholar? If you can answer this, you may buy a rice cake from me. If not, you’ll have to go elsewhere for refreshment.’

Deshan was unable to reply. The old woman then directed him to a Chan master nearby. Deshan burned all his notes and commentaries the next day.” (2)

Books burning in fire
Who is the monk, who is the scholar, and who is the scholar monk in this story? The old woman presents herself as an ordinary person, and the story does not even give her a name. Yet she reveals deep knowledge of the Dharma and tests Deshan with a question he cannot answer (3).

Deshan presents himself as a scholar, but his knowledge is limited. He carries his extensive works with him, and yet he is still seeking the Dharma. One might presume that, despite all his study, he too knows he is missing something. The old woman, upon first meeting him, addresses him as priest, not scholar. What does she know that he does not?

When Deshan burns his notes and commentaries, does he stop being a scholar? His academic studies brought him south in search of truth, brought him to the teacher selling rice cakes on the roadside. Yet ultimately he needs to let go of his commentaries and notes and seek a different kind of knowledge.

How many scholars pile up publications in the name of knowledge, carrying around their C.V. and pointing to it whenever anyone asks who they are? I already feel the pull of the publishing frenzy and the desire to build a monumental CV that rivals the Tower of Babel, and I am only just out of a Masters program!

How many nameless masters are out there, testing the knowledge of these scholars? Who are the scholars? Who are the monks? Who are the scholar monks?

 

Notes

(1) Chan is a school of Chinese Buddhism that emphasizes meditation. Chan comes from the Sanskrit “dhyana,” which means deep meditation, and is most well known by its Japanese name, Zen. See Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 217-222.

(2) In Florence Kaplow and Susan Moon (eds.), The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2013), p. 256.

(3) Reb Anderson describes Dharma as having at least three levels of meaning: “Dharma is ‘freedom from any difference between ourselves and buddha’; it is also ‘the truth that is realized by a buddha’; and it is ‘the transformation of that truth into scriptures and other forms of teaching.’” From Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press, 2001), p. 41.

(4) The image of the burning text in this post is from http://biblioterapiaitaliana.blogspot.com/2015/03/filosofia-spicciola-sui-roghi-di-libri.html

Scholar Monks: Hildegard von Bingen

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.

While writing about Hildegard of Bingen, I have the rare pleasure of listening to some of the music she composed over 800 years ago. I’ve included some here for you to enjoy while you read (1):

 

Hildegard was a 12th century Benedictine nun based near Bingen, a town on the Rhein River in modern-day west-central Germany (2). She was sickly from a young age and was given to the church by her family at age 8. Hildegard grew up living at the church of Saint Disibod under the tutelage of of a female religious practitioner until she was ordained and later came to lead a community of women there.

hildegard-von-bingen

Hildegard in the Saint Rochus Chapel, Bingen. Photo by Bob Sessions (4)

Although Hildegard had been experiencing divine visions since she was a child, she had kept them to herself (3). That is, until she received a vision at age 40 in which she was commanded to write and share her knowledge and experiences. Once she did, a monk sent her work to the Pope for approval and she got the papal stamp of divine authenticity.

From then on, Hildegard’s popularity and influence increased. She founded two abbeys, to the ire of male monks at Saint Disibod, and supervised both. She wrote extensively, including theological treatises, poems, texts on medicine and the body, sermons, and letters. Her letters were sent to many in power – kings, abbots, and bishops – directing them in how to live upright lives. She also traveled throughout the region to counsel and guide religious and political leaders. The nuns practicing under her recorded Hildegard’s visions in writing, art and music and a surprising amount of this work survives to this day. Hildegard may be best known for her musical compositions, which include over 70 chants, a musical play, and her Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations.

hildegard-vision

A depiction of a vision of Hildegard. Note her in the lower right-hand corner receiving divine inspiration. Photo by Bob Sessions (5)

I think there are several things we can glean as scholar monks from Hildegard’s life. First, she did not choose the ordained life. Her family gave her away, and long before that she was already experiencing divine visions. The life chose her. This is a common story among spiritual leaders and those with vocations (I think of Augustine being kidnapped and made bishop!), but perhaps a less common narrative among scholars.

Second, she bucked tradition. She did not allow the constraints of the time on her gender keep her from influencing many lives, including those of people in power. Hildegard used the authority granted her through her divine inspiration to push the boundaries of her time – socially, politically, and musically. And she did this from a spiritual base, looking to benefit others, not to further her own position.

Finally, Hildegard’s expression of her life work was not limited to any particular medium. Writing, music, art, consultation and guidance – all were manifestations of her divine inspiration. She even invented her own language with its own alphabet, a kind of secret code. The creative expression of Hildegard’s inspiration was unbounded.

I feel I have much to learn from the commitment, creativity and courage of Hildegard von Bingen.

 

Notes

(1) This track is titled “Honey and Milk Beneath Her Tongue – Favus Distillans, Dripping Honeycomb,” from Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations: The Complete Hildegard von Bingen, Volume 1, by Celestial Harmonies, 2011.

(2) Much of my biographical information is from “Hildegard, Von Bingen.” In Encyclopedia of Women’s Autobiography, edited by Victoria Boynton, and Jo Malin. ABC-CLIO, 2005. Retrieved from http://du.idm.oclc.org/loginurl=http://search.credoreference.com/ content/entry/abcwautob/hildegard_von_bingen/0

(3) Additional biographical information is from the excellent series on Hildegard from the Holy Rover blog by Lori Erickson at Patheos.com. To start, see “With Hildegard von Bingen” (January 28, 2014), at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/holyrover/2014/01/28/with-hildegard-in-bingen/

(4) Image is a photograph by Bob Sessions, retrieved from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/holyrover/2014/01/28/with-hildegard-in-bingen/

(5) Image is a photograph by Bob Sessions, retrieved from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/holyrover/2014/01/28/with-hildegard-in-bingen/

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.

mlk

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

Scholar Monks: Xuanzang

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.

Xuanzang (loosely pronounced shwen-zahng) lived in Tang Dynasty China during the 7th century (1). The tale of this scholar monk’s life is nothing short of epic. At 26, he had studied the most advanced Buddhist theories and philosophies available to him in China, and found that there were questions that couldn’t be answered. So he decided to break the imperial decree against international travel and set off for India in search of the true teachings.

It took three years of travel before arriving at the Buddhist university of Nalanda in northern India. During his trek, he dodged an attempted stabbing by his guide, traversed deserts and high mountain passes, and refused numerous offers from kings to stay and hold positions in their royal courts, once fasting for three days to convince a particularly stubborn ruler. He was dedicated to moving forward with his quest.

xuan_zang

An image of Xuanzang from the Dunhuang Caves, China (2)

Once arriving at Nalanda, a tremendous center for Buddhist study at the time, Xuanzang studied under the abbot for five years, reading Buddhist texts, studying math, logic, and Sankrit, and writing treatises. On his way back to China he lost some scriptures in a river crossing and waited months for replacements. He continued through Dunhuang, in Western China where this image is from, and arrived back in his homeland after being gone for 16 years.

Back in China, Xuanzang became a topic of interest of the emperor, who endorsed a giant translation project, led by Xuanzang, to convert the nearly 700 sutras and relics Xuanzang brought back from India. Xuanzang trained many in the imperial court in Buddhism, including the crown prince, although he declined an official position, stating that his life’s work was to clarify Buddha’s teaching. Interestingly, he did not write any commentaries on the texts, he translated.

Xuanzang’s legacy is vast. He greatly influenced the development of Buddhism in China, contributing to the founding of numerous new schools of thought and introducing Chinese Buddhisms to hundreds of new texts. The Heart Sutra, a brief and profound text that is considered by Zen to capture the essence of Buddhism, was translated by Xuanzang. It is the most widely chanted Zen text in the world. The Journey West, a 16th century Chinese epic tale involving a monk protected by a monkey king and other fantastic creatures, is based on the life and writings of Xuanzang. For any fans of the anime series Dragonball, a number of the themes of The Journey West would look very familiar.

Some key points, as I see them: Xuanzang was persistent in his single-minded focus to clarify spiritual teachings. He refused multiple offers from many kings and an emperor to take positions of power within their governments. That didn’t keep him from benefitting from the patronage of those governments, though. He went to great lengths to study, gather materials of study, and translate those materials, though not to comment on them. His writings were concentrated on theoretical issues and one exposition of the geographies he traversed in his travels.

What can we learn from this scholar monk? Perhaps, don’t get sucked in by power, but rather direct it for the benefit of many. Don’t lose track of what’s important to you, what drives you forward in your learning and practice. Maintain focus. Seek truth. Study with people you admire.

What are some of your takeaways? Please share any thoughts in the comments.

Notes

(1) All of my information on Xuanzang I take from the fantastic book by Kazuaki Tanahashi, The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala, 2014.

(2) The image of Xuanzang is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xuan_ Zang.jpg

Scholar Monks: An Introduction

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.

One of the main reasons I undertook this blog was due to a significant question of my own, one I had been mulling over for quite some time, and still am. That question is:

What does it mean to be a scholar monk today?

In my various studies and readings, I kept coming across figures from diverse geographies and traditions who fit into this category that I am calling “scholar monks”: Buddhist monks who traveled, collected, translated and transmitted the teachings of Buddha; Jesuit priests who were extensively educated in not only religion but linguistics, history and philosophy; Greek philosophers whose “philosophy” was both an intellectual endeavor and a way of living that prepared one for death; early theologians of the Christian Church who rooted their theological and philosophical writings in practice and liturgy. And in learning of these people whose springboard for intellectual endeavor was prayer and meditation, I began to wonder, what does it mean to live this kind of life today? How different is it now than it was in these snippets of history I have been examining?

Exploring these questions is at least one purpose of this blog. The ongoing series “Scholar Monks” will explore the lives of scholar monks of the past as a way both to honor those who have come before as well as to sort out what their legacy might mean for the present day. My feet are on this ground, here and now. I love studying what is in the past, and also find it critical to transfer that knowledge in some way to the present.

A final note. Much of my personal study has been in Buddhism, particularly in Zen, and much of my professional study has been in Christianity and Neoplatonism, and so my expertise tends to float around these core areas. I fully intend to include figures from these traditions. ADDITIONALLY, and I put this in all caps for a reason, I delight at the opportunity to explore traditions and figures who I know less about and especially those that history has had a tendency to forget.

With regards to the former, I am excited to research scholar monks from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, indigenous, modern pagan, and other traditions, fully aware that the terms “scholar monk” may not even be appropriate for those traditions, and I will do my best to engage in discussing figures from those traditions respectfully. With regards to the latter, I am particularly thinking of women, whom histories written by men commonly forget, and others who live at the margins of society, including people of color and people who do not conform to whatever is “normalized” for that time and place. I hope to enlist the help of a number of guest writers in these efforts.

If anyone has suggestions for a scholar monk they would like featured, please let me know and I will do my best to oblige.