In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 159-161

[Access article in PDF]
Benedict's Dharma: Buddhist Reflections on the Rule of Saint Benedict. By Norman Fischer, et al. Edited by Patrick Hart, with an afterword by David Steindl-Rast and a translation of the Rule by Patrick Berry. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001. xvi + 222 pp.

When Buddhist and Christian monastics meet, they recognize each other as brothers and sisters engaged in a similar quest, despite their doctrinal differences. The nature of this quest is explored in Benedict's Dharma, in which four Buddhists (Norman Fischer, Joseph Goldstein, Judith Simmer-Brown, and Yifa, representing the Zen, Theravadin, Tibetan, and Chinese Buddhist traditions) ruminate on their fraternal and sororal feelings.Venerable Yifa, a nun of the prominent Taiwanese monastery Fo Guang Shan, is the only one of the four in monastic vows, and the reader may wonder what the three non-monastics could offer to a discussion on the monastic life. This is not a new problem. Patrick Henry and Donald Swearer's groundbreaking study, For the Sake of the World: The Spirit of Buddhist and Christian Monasticism (1989), spends a great deal of time on Zen monks, even though there are no Zen monks, theVinaya is kept by the Zen nuns or by the monastics of the parent and sibling lineages of Chan, Son, and Thien. (See my review article, "Why Are There Monks and Nuns?" in Buddhist-Christian Studies 12.) The monastic, it seems, is not confined to the habit.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a monk of Mount Saviour Monastery, grapples with this problem in his afterword, "Conclusions about a Beginning." It was at Mount Saviour that the phrase "the monastic dimension" was coined, to refer to those of monastic bent who for one reason or another did not or could not live in the cloister. One of Brother David's books was to be called, he told me, The Monk in Us, "us" meaning laypeople, but the title had an odd sound and was dropped. So, what is the monastic dimension? Brother David suggests that it is mindfulness, and he comes close to saying that wherever there is mindfulness, there is monasticism. "If mindfulness is all that matters, the monastery is merely a most convenient environment for this kind of life, but it can be lived anywhere, by anyone" (126). He goes on to discuss the phenomenon of monasteries shrinking in size at the same time as the number of long- and short-term visitors to monasteries grows, and proposes that we are moving toward a new understanding of the terms "contemplative," "monastic," and "lay."

This insight may point to the most important contribution of this book. It is not about monasticism per se, and it is not a comparative study of the Rule and the Vinaya, with practical suggestions for their mutual reform; rather, it is a meditation on how anyone, monastic or lay, might live the contemplative or mindful life. Throughout the history of the Church and the sangha, laypeople have been in the majority, but attention has been focused on the priests and monastics. Pope Pius X [End Page 159] put it bluntly: the laypeople are the sheep who are to be led, and the clergy are the shepherds who lead. The Church, he added, is not a democracy. I do not know of a Buddhist who has been quite this straightforward, but many have come close, and the history of Buddhism is not that of a democracy. Occasionally, lay movements in both traditions have arisen, basing themselves on the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers or on the teaching of universal Buddha-nature, but they have quickly been co-opted by leaders who proclaimed themselves to be more equal than their fellows. The tragedy for both Buddhism and Christianity is that the contemplative or mindful life has become restricted to a group of professionals, with the attendant belief that such a life is unattainable by most Buddhists and Christians. Now that the dharma has come to the land of the red-faced people, where democracy is...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 159-161
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.