Buddhist and Christian Monastics
Reflect on Rule of St. Benedict

120 Christian and Buddhist monastics and others interested in interfaith dialogue or monastic spirituality gathered September 21-23 at Our Lady of Grace Benedictine Sisters' Monastery in Beach Grove, Indiana, to share their reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict.

Benedict's Rule is a set of guidelines that has governed Christian monastic life since the sixth century. Those who live according to the Rule, which regulates daily life in a monastery, regard it as the bedrock of their lives and feel great affection for its writer, a monk whose humility and extraordinary insight into human nature are legendary. Benedict's teaching is considered the culmination of the two hundred years of monastic experience that preceded it, and his Rule soon became the template for later experience. The Rule has fascinated laypeople and monastics alike, including Buddhist monks and nuns who are intrigued by the similarities between their traditions and those of their Christian counterparts.

This conference derived its title from a just-published book, Benedict's Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of St. Benedict, which served as the focal point for the presentations. In the book, four prominent Buddhist scholars-Norman Fischer, a Zen priest and founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation; Joseph Goldstein, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society; Judith Simmer-Brown, chair of the Buddhist Studies Program at Naropa University; and Yifa, a nun at Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Taiwan and member of national Sun Yat-Sen University-have turned their attention to Benedict's seminal text.

Through personal anecdotes, lively debate, and thoughtful comparison, they reveal how the wisdom of each monastic tradition can revitalize the other, and how their own spiritual practices have been enriched through familiarity with the Rule. Their insights appeal to anyone interested in the ancient discipline of monasticism and what it might have to offer a materially glutted and spiritually famished culture.

At the conference, five Christian monastics-David Steindel-Rast, Sarah Swartzberg, Francis Kline, Columba Stewart and James Wiseman-responded to the Buddhist reflections in the book out of their own experience of living and studying the Rule. The process was dialogical from start to finish as each of their reflections was followed by a free-flowing period of exchange in plenary session, before participants broke into two's for a personalized sharing on a particular section of the Rule as it related to their own lived experience.

Buddhists told of the large number of lay practitioners who commit to living the Buddhist precepts, and the struggle of their nascient monastic communities in North America to survive without health or life insurance and insufficient revenues to support the community.

Christian monastics observed how their historically large but now dwindling communities are seeing a marked rise in the numbers of lay oblates, volunteers, and associates. Time and again the theme surface of the growing number of laity in both traditions interested in living mindfully and looking for a "trellis" or Rule of life to guide and support their spiritual growth.

Monastics on both sides shared how they are responding to this interest. Buddhists monasteries traditionally welcome people for stays of a few weeks to a few years, after which training it is expected that the people will leave the monastery and take what they have learned into their professional and familial contexts.

Christian monasteries (women's, it seems, more than men's) are experimenting with a variety of venues tailored to respond to the current interest in contemplative spirituality. Sr. Johanna Becker, from the community of Sisters at St. Benedict's in St. Joseph, Minnesota, shared three programs which they have devised. In one, called "A Welcoming Community," a small monastic group accepts women who are interested in monastic life. Some come for a weekend, a month, or a year, depending on their needs and availability.
In a second program called "Benedictine Live-in", women come to spend any amount of time to live with the community. They are given work assignments like other community members, but only half-time assignments so that they have more personal time for reading, reflection, and prayer.

A third program is "the Studium", in which scholars are offered for a modest fee an apartment, an office, and library access at the Benedictine Research Center for up to a year. They eat and pray with the religious community. The majority of participants in this program, said Sr. Becker, are non-Catholic scholars from other countries, both women and men.

The Benedictine Sisters community in Erie, PA., represents another example of this trend in their inauguration during the past year of a new policy of welcoming "temporary vocations", i.e. those who wish to spend one or more years living, working, and praying with the Sisters.

In a "postscript reflection" at the end of the conference, Venerable Heng Sure, director of the Berkeley, CA, Buddhist monastery, spoke of the rapid maturation of the intermonastic dialogue from its inception twenty years ago, through the Gethsemane Encounter in 1996 at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, to the collaboration on the Benedict's Dharma book and Conference. In April 2002, the Dalai Lama and thirty Buddhist monastics will meet with a corresponding representation of their Christian counterparts to engage in several days of discussion and reflection on the theme of suffering and its manifestations in loneliness and alienation; greed and consumerism; aging and sickness; and structural violence.

In 1978, the Benedictine Confederation established Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID to assume a leadership role in the dialogue between Christianity and the great religions of the East, and to work in cooperation with others engaged in dialogue.

More information on the Benedict's Dharma book and the responses to it made at the Indianapolis conference (soon to be posted) can be accessed at the MID website: www.monasticdialog.com

Thomas Ryan, CSP, coordinates the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in New York City.