Asian and European Monksby Rit Nosotro
Compare the lives of monks in asian and european monasteries.
"Having abandoned the joys of desire,
He has perfect and disciplined conduct.
He has become a wandering monk seeking for inner calm.
Without desire he wanders, without hate he wanders, asking for alms."
So states an early account of Siddhartha Gautama's enlightening trips out of the palace of his father and his first encounter with monks and suffering. The concept of monks and monasteries is curious in that it is a concept shared by many world religions. In its basic form, it is the search for spiritual truth through aescetism. The English world monastery comes from the Greek word monos which means "single" or "alone" (Grolier, 1992). The concept of aloneness unites all monasticism, however, it is expressed in different ways. Monasticism grew out of Asian religions but had a profound impact on western Christendom. Asian and western monasticism differs in it's expression and cultural influence, but both in the end show a doomed search for God through works and rules.
Early monasticism is first found in Buddhism, the Buddha preaching a life of asceticism, of avoiding desire, living off of the charity of others. These where known as mendicants, monks and nuns not affiliated with a monastic community, but solitary, preaching and eking out a very meager existence (World Book, 1981). The first Christian monastics take a similar path. Christian Monasticism can be traced to Anthony the Great, an Egyptian hermit in 4th century AD. Anthony inspired many followers to live alone, in the same meager and difficult existence. (Grolier, 1992)
Here we see the first difference between Christian and Asian monasticism. In its earliest form, Asian monasticism called for monks and nuns to preach, to engage the culture. The first Christian monks felt a need to cut themselves off from society. Here, the Asian approach seems superior to the Christian one. One of the most common complaints against Christian monasticism is that it encourages its followers to cut themselves off from society. Finding God is all well and good, but we are taught in I Corinthians 12:1-20, we all have unique spiritual gifts, but we are all a body, and how can a body be made up of parts which have no interaction with one another?. However, the Asian approach requires the pious (typically the poor) to support them, a societal problem which would become huge in the Christian church in the medieval period.
The next stage in monasticism for both the Asian and Christian cultures was organization and hierarchy. As historian Will Durant tells us, near the end of Buddha's life "… this religion without priestcraft had developed an order of monks dangerously like the Hindu priests." (Durant, 1963). Here we find the first hierarchal structure of Asian Monasticism. Much later, but also in the same way, Christian monasticism began to be organized, most notably with St. Benedict of Nursia (A.D. 500's) wrote his "Rule" which outlined the rules and practices for all Catholic monks (World Book, 1992).
Asian monasteries still served as the primary locus point for teaching and
preaching of their religion. In contrast, Catholic monasteries where places
of seclusion and based around the idea of a community which helped the individuals
get closer to God. This was the norm in the early medieval ages, but not in
the "high" middle ages. Many Catholic monasteries became places of
learning. In Ireland in particular, a school was associated with the monastery
where village children where taught. In most of continental Europe the schools
where primarily for the training of clergy, so education stayed firmly in the
Asian monasteries emphasis is on meditation, and serving the community. The community is then expected to give back to the monastery to provide for the monks. Catholic monasteries (especially in the later middle ages) have primarily put the emphasis on good works, not discounting meditation and communion with God.
The later periods in both Asian and European monasticism took a distinctly political turn with the aforementioned rise of structure and organization. The Benedictines and Jesuits in particular became very large and very important political forces. The politics of Roman Catholic church power was extremely important to the political climate of Europe. If a major bishop or cardinal or the pope had sympathies with a certain order, that order attained a large sphere of influence on doctrinal issues, but more importantly (the monasteries at any rate) monetarily. Through a myriad of twistings and turnings, various orders justified the amassing of great wealth. The Benedictines excused cellars full of gold by saying that it belonged to no man in the order, but to the order as a whole and therefore to God. In Asia, Shri-Lanka is a perfect example of the rise of important and powerful monasteries being punished by the government. In the 12th century, the King of Shri-Lanka eradicates all Buddhist monks except for those who are part of his sect. There was then a revival of the monastic ordination lineage in 1236, followed in the 16th century by a wholesale destruction of Buddhism in Shri-Lanka.
All of the differences between Asian and Catholic monasteries are surface and expressive differences however. The basic core idea behind the whole concept of monasticism remains the same. Chastity, obedience, poverty. These are the watchwords of monks and nuns. And why is this so? Why the hours spent on meditation and ceremony? The desire, especially marked in the Christian church, to get closer to God. Both Asian and Catholic monks have approached the idea with the same basic assumption: the world is a distraction from the things of God or the spiritual realm. If I can some how get past them, I will find God or spiritual enlightenment. In the end, this approach is doomed. For God cannot be found by doing anything. The penance preformed by monks so as to "get to God" are legendary (the flesh hooks of Hinduism, the self flagellation of Catholicism). But Ephesians 2:8-9 says: "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast." (NIV). The desire of the Christian monks, to get closer to God, and the desire of the Asian monks, to attain spiritual enlightenment, is laudable. All of us could learn things from their examples of devotion and piety. Sadly, their methods are deeply flawed.
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