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Author Biography: Patrick Henry was a professor of religion, specializing in early Christianity, at Swarthmore College for seventeen years. He is now executive director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Saint John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He is the author of The Ironic Christian's Companion: Finding the Marks of God's Grace in the World and co-author with Donald Swearer, of For the Sake of the World: The Spirit of Buddhist and Christian Monasticism.
The root meaning of the Latin and Greek words translated as "rule" is trellis. Saint Benedict was not promulgating rules for living; he was establishing a framework on which a life can grow. While a branch of a plant climbing a trellis cannot go in any direction it wants, you cannot know in advance just which way it will go. The plant is finding its own path, within a structure. The space in which it moves is open, though not without boundaries.
Why is it that Buddhists find the Rule of Saint Benedict, even if they have never read it before, strikingly familiar? It has something to do with this trellis image. Dharma is usually translated as "teaching," but one root meaning of the word in Pali and Sanskrit, the classical Buddhist languages, is "to support." In some ways, then, the Dharma is a kind of trellis that supports the awakened life. Both the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Dharma of the Buddha are, as Norman Fischer says, "general guidelines for an inner journey."
One of the Buddhist authors, Judith Simmer-Brown, had read the Rule before and had not been impressed. "It was when I was an undergraduate. I was turned off and had no interest."
But that was then and this is now. "When I started to read again," she says, "I recognized a familiar objection arising-Oh no, this is monasticism, I am a laywoman, a wife, a mother-and I felt anew that this was not something I could relate to. But then as I got into the Rule I recognized Saint Benedict's sophistication, his intuitive understanding of the importance of structure and boundary. He was trying to communicate something that can't be communicated at all through theology or doctrine, something more like meditation instruction. I suddenly understood that this text resonates with our Buddhist community, even though we use the language of householders, of people living lives in the everyday secular world, not the monastic model of a vowed, celibate life. When I began to see this level of the Rule, I realized I was stepping over a lot of history and prejudice on my part about monasticism into something that felt completely familiar. The Rule speaks of disciplines and practices, and can be instructive to anyone who wonders how to establish a domestic environment that nurtures the contemplative development of everyone in the family. The Rule mirrors my community back to me."
The monastic life is structured to implement renunciation. As Joseph Goldstein put it, "I think that's why the Buddha said, 'The monastic's way is easy.' The layperson's way is hard. In American culture, renunciation isn't reinforced at all. It's not considered a virtue." Judith Simmer-Brown gave a circumstantial account of the layperson's plight: "It's hard to avoid leakage from a commitment when it's so easy to fall into all kinds of habitual patterns and self-indulgence and there's not a natural feedback from the world. How is it possible to sit down to a meal, eat it, appreciate the aesthetics of sitting down and eating a meal together, and show respect toward everything on the table and everyone at the table? How do you interact around issues of conflict, how do you begin and end the day, how do you work within the schedule of the year and month and week so that you can balance your life? The claustrophobia of domestic life and a job and parenthood and being married and being in a religious community-in short, the demands of every part of my life-are really a kind of monastic discipline. Contemplation can be practiced anyplace you find yourself."
Still, while there are fewer distractions in the monastery, renunciation is not easy there either. When Norman Fischer was at Gethsemani in 1996 he spent time with some of the abbey's monks. "I was astonished," he said, "to find them talking about the same problems, joys, sorrows, confusions that we know in our Buddhist monastic setting, which is more fluid than theirs. The basic issues are the same: How wonderful it is to live in the midst of a bunch of spiritual practitioners and how terrible it is; how these people are your best friends and your worst enemies."
The point of our conversation was not, however, comparative miseries or delights. Rather, we wanted to see whether Buddhists reflecting on the Rule of Saint Benedict might illuminate the text as a source of spiritual renewal for all sorts of people. We believe that time spent thinking seriously about spiritual discipline, maybe even about constructing a "trellis" for oneself or one's community, is time well spent.
Quite frankly, we hope to sneak up on you. Anecdotal responses to the Rule convey the authors' surprise as they ponder a text about which they thought they would have nothing to say. What they bring to their reflections is experience. They know that one doesn't figure things out in the abstract ahead of time. They know further, as Joseph Goldstein remarked, that "spiritual motivation itself changes in the course of practice," and, in the words of Norman Fischer, that "even if we can draw interesting maps of the path, we cannot prescribe the exact route for anybody else who happens to come along. It's a way of life, a practice. Our culture thinks truth has nothing to do with structures and boundaries, but Benedict knew that truth is not manifested without a way of life that allows you to realize it." The experience that the Rule is pointing to was summed up by Benedict when he wrote, in the chapter about the practice of humility, that the monk or nun will come quickly to that love of God which in its fullness casts out all fear [7.20]. And yet the pattern of life is not the goal-Benedict says the Rule is only a beginning [73.2]. The goal is the learning that one does all the time in this pattern of life. The trellis doesn't close off options. It multiplies them. And the trellis is always helpful, always expanding to grow with us. Indeed, Benedict knew what Zen Master Suzuki Roshi knew: that the spiritually advanced are never proud, never disdainful, but always exhibit "beginner's mind."
The fundamental humanity of Saint Benedict, the balance between nothing harsh or burdensome and anything which seems rather strict [PROLOGUE 8], resonates with the extraordinary variety of practice and forms of life not only in Christianity but also in Buddhism. Norman Fischer registered surprise: "I found the Rule of Benedict to be more useful than some of the texts in my own tradition because Benedict is so practical and kindhearted and personal." There is not just one monastic pattern to apply to a complex world, but a complex monastic pattern to start with. Judith Simmer-Brown notes that "Tibetan Buddhism has a very rich array of possibilities for how you might pursue your practice. Some people are very devotional, some very analytical and intellectual. Tibetan Buddhism is a five-ring circus. We recognize five basic temperaments that govern the way one applies practice to one's life. You learn about these temperaments, and how yours fits the model. It's called the mandala principle, the center and four gates."
There are different temperaments and there are different levels of commitment, and just as we do not presuppose that a reader has only one particular temperament, so we do not make judgments about a reader's degree of commitment. What are sometimes called "lay monasticism" and "householder practice" are certainly not new, but as vehicles of awakening they are "really a big experiment," as Joseph Goldstein said. "At a conference some months ago I met a psychiatrist, a very busy guy, who told me that in the last twenty years not a day had gone by when he hadn't sat in meditation for two hours, one in the morning and one in the evening. I was really impressed." Such impressive dedication can be intimidating as well as inspiring, but the key is, as Joseph continued, "putting one's central energy into a life that revolves around awakening."
The experience of awakening, central to Buddhists, allows these authors to come to the Rule at a slant and illuminate a truth about the Rule that is easily obscured. Monasticism is often interpreted by Christians as primarily a response to sinful human nature. Asceticism and renunciation are seen as drastic attempts to stifle (literally) our hellbent tendency to defy God, to wreak havoc on others and the world. But such language in the Rule is balanced by a positive assessment of human nature that is grounded in the Wisdom tradition of scripture, which Benedict cites frequently. The Rule of Saint Benedict certainly does not deny the reality of sin, but the Rule is not obsessed with it. Buddhists, unencumbered with Christian preconceptions, see how positively Benedict assessed our humanity. Benedict built the trellis to help human goodness grow-indeed, to help the experience of God that is already abiding in our hearts to unfold.
Buddhist reflection on the Rule of Saint Benedict underscores the fact that Benedict did not assume we were fundamentally miserable sinners. He knew that people need correction, but we need correction because we have strayed from the norm-and the norm is not defiance of God. It is this: You want to seek God and you know how to do it. Benedict had confidence in human potential, in human goodness. Many Christians, when they recite Psalm 8, which says we are "a little lower than the angels," emphasize "lower." Benedict would have put the stress on "a little."
Benedict was certainly not naive about human nature; he lived in the chaos of the collapsing Roman Empire, and according to his biographer, Saint Gregory the Great, some monks Benedict had disciplined tried to poison him. The Buddha's generally positive assessment of human nature was likewise devoid of illusion; it was the recognition of suffering that set Gautama on the road to enlightenment, the very meaning of the title Buddha. But neither the Buddha nor Benedict was gloomy, and Buddhists reflecting on the Rule help to illuminate the ancient and tenacious-though often submerged-Christian understanding that our fundamental nature is not darkness but light. Benedict, like the Buddha, wants us to wake up.
—From Benedict's Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Monastic Rule of Saint Benedict, edited by Patrick Henry, et al, (c) September 2001, Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, used by permission.
|Ch. 1||The Trellis||1|
|General guidelines for an inner journey||1|
|Contemplation can be practiced anyplace||2|
|Spiritual motivation changes in the course of practice||3|
|To help human goodness grow||5|
|Ch. 2||Freedom and Forgiveness||7|
|Structure, boundary, and freedom||7|
|The knife needs some place to land||12|
|The quality of our permeability||16|
|What does it mean that I have this car?||18|
|Look at each other and ask for forgiveness||24|
|Love and emptiness||32|
|Ch. 3||Discipline and Spontaneity||34|
|Something a little more steady and normal in our lives||34|
|The psalms and the million recitations||49|
|Shopping for yogurt||52|
|It all depends on motivation||57|
|Ch. 4||Tradition and Adaptation||59|
|Commitments in constantly changing circumstances||59|
|There is no way not to adapt||66|
|The monastery wall always permeable||81|
|Succession and accessibility||83|
|Ch. 5||Leadership and Humility||86|
|An experimental place||86|
|Authority and empowerment||113|
|Afterword: Conclusions about a Beginning||121|
|Introduction to Saint Benedict's Rule||131|
|Saint Benedict's Rule||138|