Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"What it's like to be a monk," revisited.

Posting today at GetReligion, Terry Mattingly offers his own response to the AP story that I shared yesterday about a course at Penn that purports to give students "a firsthand experience of what it's like to be a monk." As Mattingly admits, there could be much more to the course than meets the journalistic eye - that is, the focus on physical discipline that AP reporter Kathy Matheson highlights in her story might be balanced by a close reading of monastic texts that explain the spiritual purposes of practices like celibacy and fasting. If that deeper content is missing, though, then students enrolled in a course like this may fail to grasp what religious life is really about, as Terry Mattingly observes:
Monks, you see, have to have tradition. Tradition is the frame that surrounds the life of a monk. The goal is to live a tradition and to be transformed by it.

. . .

. . . it’s easy to see that this story has a gigantic hole: It contains no information whatsoever about the prayer and worship life of these monks. There is no hint that this class teaches any spiritual disciples, that it attempts to introduce students to any particular worship tradition or to a fusion of several traditions.

Monks without prayer? Monks without worship? This is something like birds without air, fish without water, journalists without questions that yield crucial information.

So what is the bottom line? What is the point of monasticism, if not transcendence, submission and union with Another? What is the purpose of this class?
To read the rest, click here. I think that Mattingly is making the same point that I sought to make yesterday, which leads me to a concluding question: can a course solely focused on a do-it-yourself approach to "experiential learning" really provide an adequate sense of "what it's like to be a monk"? Can one hope to understand and appreciate a complex tradition merely by imitating some of its external practices, without dealing with doctrine or history? As you can probably tell by now, I have my doubts. AMDG.


At 2/14/2012 8:43 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

This sounds similar in approach to the course I taught last semester, where we tried on various monastic disciplines (Christian and Buddhist): elected silence, fasting of various sorts, pilgrimages, meditation. We most certainly read the texts, spoke with monks, visited monasteries, looked at architectural plans of monasteries old and new...

We had a lot of conversations about whether it is possible to pull these practices from their underpinnings: is there is a fundamental integrity between practice and belief?

At 2/15/2012 11:26 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


We had a lot of conversations about whether it is possible to pull these practices from their underpinnings: is there is a fundamental integrity between practice and belief?

I would probably lean in the direction of answering your question by saying, 'yes, there should be,' Even so, I do need to qualify that answer a bit, as I will below.

I do think that one can adopt some practices without also embracing their underpinnings, but the way that one chooses to do this makes a difference. For example, there are many Christians who practice Zen but don't identify as Buddhists. I have a lot of respect for Christian Zen practitioners who are well-versed in Zen literature, are connected with a teacher and a zendo, and often enough have been to Japan and understand the language and culture, but still see themselves fundamentally as Christians who have chosen to embrace a particular practice associated with Buddhism without accepting the whole belief system. There is an integrity to that approach that is respectful of both Christianity and Zen Buddhism.

By contrast, I don't think it's a good idea to try to decontextualize spiritual practices and adopt them without paying any attention to where they come from. In my view, one should always try to understand the practices in the terms of the tradition that produced them before one tries to make those practices one's own.


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