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What Monastic Interreligious Dialogue
Contributes to Monastic Culture

William Skudlarek, O.S.B.

Many of you are familiar with that rich and evocative term coined, I believe, by Ramon Panikkar: the "monastic archetype." Here's an interreligious anecdote that nicely illustrates just how universal -- or shall we say "archetypal"? -- monastic culture is.

One of the participants in the interreligious monastic gathering that took place at Gethsemani in 2002 was Ajahn Amaro, a Buddhist monk and spiritual teacher of the Theravada school. He now lives at the Abahyagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. Before coming to California he spent time at one of the Theravada Buddhist centers in England, located near the ruins of a Benedictine abbey that had been suppressed in the sixteenth century. Shortly after the first monks arrived from Thailand and were seen walking about with their shaved heads and colorful saffron robes, some villagers were overheard to say, "Oh how wonderful; the monks are back!"

This morning Patrick Henry and I would like to speak to you about some of the ways our contacts with monastics from other religious traditions have deepened, intensified, and modified our understanding of Western monastic culture. I will limit my observations to two particular areas of monastic life: the authority and the rules that regulate community life, and the monastic practices that are meant to deepen and transform the individual's interior or spiritual life.

With regard to authority and rules in monastic community life, my initial point of reference is not going to be a Japanese monastery, but a Japanese prison.

I lived in Japan from 1994 to 2001 as a member of the priory of Saint John's Abbey. During my last two and a half years there I served as chaplain to foreign inmates at the Fuchu prison in Tokyo. Pascal Bargigli, one of the prisoners whom I would see regularly, is now back in France and is completing some of his time at a prison in Marseilles. When he left Fuchu he promised the foreign inmates who remained behind that he would write up an account of conditions at the prison and try to get it published.

A couple of months ago he sent me his report and asked me to translate it into English. I'd like to read an excerpt to give you some idea of the way the prisoners -- both foreigners and Japanese -- were treated at Fuchu. In this passage Pascal is describing a class in which a guard instructs the newly arrived prisoners on the rules they must follow:

Then Kato teaches us how to wash up after we finish work in the factory. "There is a wash basin for you that will be filled by the staff in Factory 27. You are not allowed to touch the faucets. You are allowed only one basin of water. Before you begin to wash, you are to stand here in a straight line in front of the wash-stand and the five faucets. When I give the order, you are to put your flip-flops in a straight line in front of this carpet. You may roll your pants legs up to your knees. Then you must stand at attention and wait for my next command. When I give the order, you have exactly 20 seconds to wash up. First, wash your face, using water only; no soap. And only your face; not your neck, your hair, or behind your ears. Next you can wash your hands and feet with soap, but you are not allowed to get any water above your wrists or your ankles. You are also not allowed to put your feet in the basin because others are going to use it. Put your feet in the sink and pour the water over them. When the 20 seconds are up, you will immediately put your flip-flops back on and hang up your towel in a straight line with the other towels. Then you may go to the toilet."

When he's finished his speech Kato yells "Kagata" (Understood!), to which we are to shout back, "Hai." Of course Kato is not pleased and yells even louder "Kikuenai" (I can't hear you), and we have to shout even louder, "Hai." He will regularly pull out an inmate who isn't shouting loud enough -- usually the smallest or the most nerdy looking one in the group -- and pick on him for the rest of the week.

Pascal and most of the other foreigners I met with at Fuchu found this extreme preoccupation with insignificant rules and regulations dehumanizing. Since many of them inevitably -- and often involuntarily -- broke rules and were punished for it, they also felt that the system was racist and discriminated against foreigners.

I have no doubt that on occasion -- perhaps often -- the foreign prisoners were treated more harshly by the guards than the Japanese. But what struck me was the similarity I found between how the way life was regulated at the prison and the way even the most minute details of walking, sitting, eating, and the like were prescribed at the Zen Buddhist sesshin that I used to participate in. In other social settings I also observed what struck me as the Japanese people's obsession with the proper way of doing things.

We who are Western monastics recognize that if community life is going to work at all, there have to be rules and regulations, and that some of them may be fairly arbitrary. But for us what is much more important and central is that those who live in community develop genuine bonds of affection and respect for one another. Ultimately, what monastics are to strive for is that good zeal that is shown when they practice the most fervent love by anticipating one another in honor, patiently enduring one another's infirmities, and vying in paying obedience to one another (RB 72).

Last September I participated in the meeting of the European branches of Interreligious Monastic Dialogue that was held in Assisi. The meeting concluded with a debriefing for six Japanese monks and one nun who had just completed a live-in experience at several Italian monasteries. Over and over they remarked about how impressed they were by the mutual affection they found in those Italian communities, and how different that spirit was from the "boot camp" atmosphere of their own Japanese monasteries. (It is important to note that in Japan, at least, a Zen Buddhist monastery is normally not a lifetime home for a community of monks or nuns, but a training school for Buddhist priests who will be in charge of neighborhood temples.)

In general, though, I think it is safe to say that monastic life in the East -- or at least in Japan -- manifests what I would call a somewhat impersonal or ex opere operato approach to community life. Japanese Zen monasticism stresses the rules and regulations that shape the common life, while in the West the emphasis is more on developing loving relationships. We have rules and regulations, but we insist that they be "meaningful" and that they contribute, in ways we can understand, to building up a community of friends. In Japan there is an implicit faith that if you "just do it" -- a good way, perhaps, to translate ex opere operato -- if you just follow the rules and do the prescribed practices, transformation will come about.

One of the participants in the Italian Spiritual Exchange program was a Buddhist monk from Japan by the name of Thomas Kirchner. As you may guess, he is an American, but he has lived as a Buddhist monk in Japan for over thirty years. Here are his observations on how Buddhist monasticism will have to change if it is to take root in the West. He speaks of hierarchy rather than rules, and of individualism rather than relationship, but I think we are talking about much the same thing:

Western Buddhist monasticism (particularly Zen monasticism) can also learn much . . . from the equality and fraternity of the Christian monastery. The often contentious atmosphere I have seen in Western Zen communities is distressing, and I suspect that it results in part from a mismatch between the individualism of Western society and the hierarchical structure of traditional Zen monasteries. Hierarchy comes naturally to the Japanese-they grow up with it, and know how to operate within it in a natural and balanced way. This is not the case with Westerners, who, when hierarchical systems are forcibly imposed upon them, tend to overreact, with superiors often turning into martinets and those under them becoming rebels. The Christian monastic approach manages to combine a clear sense of social structure and yet retain the values of Western fraternity. . . . It would be naïve to imagine that interpersonal frictions do not exist in the monasteries, but nevertheless there does seem to be a genuine spirit of egalitarian goodwill. At Camaldoli, for example, after dinner I saw the prior carrying out the garbage with the newest member of the community, without any sense that the prior was deliberately humbling himself.1

Western monasticism's emphasis on relationships in community life parallels the West's highlighting of relationship in the practices of prayer and meditation. Some observations again of Thomas Kirchner:

What Buddhism can contribute [to Western monasticism] . . . is 1) its experience with the physical side of contemplation (posture, breathing, relaxation, etc.) . . . ; and 2) its psychological understanding of how the concept of "self" is created by [mental] processes, and of how to unravel and dissolve those processes through mindfulness and equanimity. If one is to "die to self," it helps to know what [it is] one is dying to. . . .

The essential task of the monastic, "death to self and rebirth in spirit," may . . . be approached from two directions: the direction of the self, or the direction of the divine. At the risk of great oversimplification, it might be said that Buddhist contemplation takes a "from the self" approach, with the idea that when the processes [that create] the self are thoroughly understood, the self is seen to be fundamentally void and an opening takes place to the world that lies beyond the self -- the world of the divine. Hence the direction of practice in Buddhist monasticism (at least in Zen Buddhist monasticism) tends to be "from the inside out," with comparatively less emphasis on the devotional side of religious practice and a greater emphasis on discovering and manifesting the truth that lies within.

A similar approach is seen in classical Christian monasticism, of course, with its emphasis on examining the ways of the self, renouncing thought, and opening oneself to the interior silence, or void, in which God can [be] manifest. Yet I have often heard from Catholic monastics that this side of the Christian contemplative life has been greatly weakened over the past few centuries. My own impression -- and here again I risk oversimplification -- is that Christian monastic life presently emphasizes the "direction of the divine" over the "direction of the self." That is, the stress appears to be much more on surrender to the divine [what I would call a loving relationship with God] than on an understanding of the self, perhaps with the goal that if surrender to the divine is fully realized, then the limited ego dissolves of itself into the divine consciousness. Thus the direction of practice in Christian monasticism appears in many ways to be "from the outside in," with an emphasis on creating an atmosphere of devotion and holiness that, over the course of a lifetime vocation, will gradually penetrate to the core of the monk's being.

The appeal and the effectiveness of this method may have been diluted, though, by modern humanity's crisis [of] faith and strengthened sense of ego. A religious approach that works directly with deconstructing the "self" concept may be a particularly effective alternative for many people in the West, and provide an opening for those to whom faith and devotion have less appeal. . . .

At the same time, there is a danger in Buddhism -- and particularly in Zen Buddhism -- that the highly refined techniques can work against themselves. For example, a certain type of intuitive mind does very well with the koans, and, given sufficient time, can complete the entire koan system with little inner transformation having occurred. The entire purpose of Zen training -- koji kyûmei "the investigation of the self" -- is thus reduced to a series of intuitive insights that can leave the ego stronger than before. As the scandals that have all too often occurred in Western Buddhist centers show, the results can be disastrous. The Christian emphasis on the necessity of a true "change of heart" in the spiritual life is one that is every bit as important for Buddhism.2

Thomas Kirchner's penetrating and yet gracious analysis of what is going on in Western practices of prayer and contemplation, and of what West and East can offer one another and learn from one another, is, I believe, an example of monastic interreligious dialogue at its best.

Western monasticism's emphasis on interpersonal relationships in community life is a great gift that we have inherited from the Rule of Benedict itself. The East cautions us not to underestimate the power of external observance to purify and transform the inmost self, to recognize the fundamental emptiness of the "self" in order to make room for God.

Contemporary Western monasticism has also inherited a great treasure from its forebears, who understood prayer in relational terms as a dialogue with the Beloved. Zen Buddhist monks who sit in silence without words, without thoughts, show another way to realize the emptiness that, paradoxically, is our true self and makes it possible for God to dwell in us and we in God.

Father Robert Kennedy, the Jesuit Zen teacher, writes in his book Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, that when he was introduced to Zazen in Japan, the Zen master with whom he studied, Yamada Kôun Roshi, told him several times that he did not want to make him a Buddhist but rather wanted to empty him in imitation of "Christ your Lord," who emptied himself, poured himself out, and clung to nothing. "Whenever Yamada Roshi instructed me in this way," says Kennedy, "I thought that this Buddhist might make a Christian of me yet!"3



1 Thomas Kirchner, "The 2003 East-West Spiritual Exchange," Bulletin of the Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture ,28 (2004) 31f. The Institute is located at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. See

2 Kirchner 31-33.

3 Robert E. Kennedy, Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit: The Place of Zen in Christian Life (New York: Continuum 1995) 14.


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