The Issue of Institutions

I feel most comfortable at the edge of institutions. On the outskirts, I can remain free of the interpersonal drama and bureaucracy that so often exist within institutional structures, but I can still benefit from the things that these structures offer: education, networking, employment, and other opportunities. The edge is a comfortable place to be.

Locating myself at this margin has worked for a long time, but is now being challenged. Monks are ordained by institutions. Scholars receive their degrees, funding, and employment from institutions. Seeing as I am heading in both these directions, it seems that I am on a necessary collision course.

iliff-school-of-theology

Iliff School of Theology, an institution on whose margins I hang out

I don’t like being told what to do. Organized bodies specialize in rules, charters, guidelines, protocols, mission statements, and ethical standards. This all feels rather stuffy and claustrophobic to me. I like to wander freely, think and do what I want, have flexibility, be independent. At least, this is how I’d largely led my life until a few years ago.

Marriage changed things for me. My marriage vows were the first vows I had ever taken. Upon speaking them, I committed myself to something bigger than me, something that spread out, not only to my partner, but even further than the two of us. This process of expansion continued when I received the Zen Bodhisattva precepts, which are vows for living, being, and doing.

I now feel myself being drawn into the institutions I had always avoided. My scholarly and monkish tendencies are one force. My vows are another. And yet another force is our current political climate. I feel compelled to act and be involved when I witness the kind of widespread suffering I see around me today. Hanging out on the edge no longer feels right. So I am gingerly dipping my toe into the institutional sea.

I have started this process by becoming more involved in my temple and at my university. I received training in Sustained Dialogue a few weeks back, which is a model of dialogue that aims to build relationships, be changed by what you hear, and work toward action in the community. Through this training, I hope to help people and groups in conflict come together, understand one another, and move toward change, both on the University of Denver campus and in the greater Denver area.

In what ways are you getting more involved? Or not? And why?

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