The Benedictines view monastic life as a project in itself. They do not think you become a monk in order to do something else; you become a monk to live a monastic life. This is sufficient. This turning away from the things of the world and turning towards a spiritual life is all there is.
On the Rule of St. Benedict
By Ven. Losang Yeshe
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said many times that we need to learn from Western Monastic traditions. He considered Thomas Merton, the great contemporary Trappist monk, a friend and said he learned a great deal from his conversations with Merton. In the same spirit, in May 2002 I was able to visit the Abbaye d’en Calcat in Southern France and have an extended conversation with Frere Daniel and Frere Laurant, two longtime residents.
The small town of Calcat in the south of France is primarily built around the Benedictine Monastery and associated activities. There are 60 monks living there and they have the capacity to house 80. Formerly the community was as large as 120 but after renovations and allowing more space for each monk the capacity was reduced. There is also a guesthouse where men are permitted to stay and where prospective monks first meet the community. While this Abbaye is for men, the Benedictine order is for both women and men. I will speak of this Abbaye and will mostly refer to men but this is not meant to exclude in any way women.
The Benedictines carry on a monastic tradition that stems from the origins of the Christian monastic movement in the late third century. They regard Saint Benedict as their founder and guide even though he did not establish a Benedictine Order as such. He wrote a Rule for his monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy and he foresaw that it could be used elsewhere. The Rule found its way to monasteries in England, France (then Gaul), and elsewhere. At first it was one of a number of rules accepted by a particular monastery but later became the rule of choice for monasteries of Europe from the ninth century onwards.
The Rule of St. Benedict should not be viewed as an exclusively legal code though it includes prescriptions for living in a monastery. It contains a Prologue and 73 chapters which provide teaching about the basic monastic virtues of humility, silence, and obedience as well as directives for daily living. The Rule prescribes times for common prayer, meditative reading, and manual work; it legislates for the details of common living such as clothing, sleeping arrangements, food and drink, care of the sick, reception of guests, recruitment of new members, journeys away from the monastery, etc. While the Rule gives minute instructions, it also allows the abbot to determine in great detail the particulars of common living.
St. Benedict legislates for a monastic life that has rhythm, measure, and discretion. The monks are not overdriven by austerities in fasting and night vigils. They do not own anything personally, but they have enough to eat and to drink (even wine when it is available) and to clothe themselves. They work with their hands about five or six hours a day but they also have leisure for prayerful reading and common prayer. Their sleep is sufficient and they may even take a siesta in summer if needed. The young, the sick, and the elderly are cared for with compassion and attention. The abbot, while he directs all aspects of the common life, must seek counsel from the monks; and the Rule makes provision for his limitations and failings. Though it emphasizes the commonality of life the abbot is directed to take into account the individual needs of the member monks. As St. Benedict says, “Let such work or charge be given to the weak and the sickly brethren, that they are neither idle, nor so wearied with the strain of work that they are driven away. Their weakness must be taken into account by the Abbot.”
The process of admitting new monks was laid down by St. Benedict but it has been modified somewhat in more recent time. St. Benedict was concerned that the seeker be sincere and asked that he demonstrate his sincerity. In a manner reminiscent of Zen Buddhism, Benedict said: “If the newcomer keeps on knocking for four or five days and it is seen that he patiently bears the harsh treatment offered him, let admission be granted him and let him live for a few days in the apartment of the guests.” Nowadays, when someone is interested in joining the community, he comes to live in the guesthouse (without having to stay outside knocking) for a week. He then has to leave to think about his stay and whether he wants to be there. His remaining is not automatic. Also it is important to note that Benedict specifically said that admission not be given to one who has newly come to change his life. Admission to the monastery is viewed most seriously.
After he has left, he must write to the community asking to return for a longer stay. He has to state his reasons and what he hopes to accomplish. Most of the time the supplicant is granted permission to return. He lives in the apartment of novices, where he is to meditate, eat, and sleep. He is not kept apart from the community in general which was the practice in times past but is allowed access to all of the monks. He lives with the other novices to facilitate his transition to a monastic life. A senior, designated the novice master, is appointed who will observe him with great care and see whether he really seeking and, whether he is suited for work, obedience, and humility.
After this probationary period as a postulate, the woman or man normally has to make the decision upon whether to stay in a formal manner and become a novice. This decision must be preceded by another departure from the monastic confines. The Benedictines want to insure that this is a reasoned decision taken with due deliberation and without the pressure or passion one might feel after this stay. This is a modification of what St. Benedict listed; it takes into consideration societal changes that have occurred since the 6th century especially the flexibility of social movement that was not possible then.
If the person returns she or he takes the vows of a novice. These are the same are for a full professed monk or nun but they are temporary. This novice period in usually 18 months but could be longer in some circumstances. The novice is evaluated for suitability for living in the community and for the strength of his vocation. One is not asked to be perfect, one is merely asked to be sincere and follow the Rule. St. Benedict called for this solemnization to be made: “Let him make a written statement of his promise in the name of the saints whose relics are there, and of the Abbot there present.” This is done as we, as Buddhist monastics, would do before all the Buddhas.
The profession of the monks is of the three root vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Chastity is very similar to our own interpretation of the vow of celibacy with perhaps less emphasis on mere social touching. The other two vows are rather different from Buddhist monastic vows. Poverty is technically totally. The Benedictine monk owns nothing at all, not even the clothes that he wears. Everything is held by the community under the direction of the abbot. If a monk receives a present from his family he must have the permission of the abbot to accept it and then it really comes to the community and not the individual. The abbot could, in theory, give this present to another monk and this should be acceptable to all. This is particularly understandable if one thinks of the social milieu of the 6th century. All of the monks are to be equal and if a monk came from a noble family he could easily live a life of luxury while those from peasant families would remain the lowest on the social scale. St. Benedict cautioned against retaining the grasping after material things of this world. In something that will be very familiar to Buddhists, he said, “If you seek the pleasure of this life you are not a spiritual person.”
So poverty was to be absolute. The monk had two sets of robes, one to wear while the other was washed, but he was merely the caretaker of these for the community. The abbot was not immune from this; even the pen and paper were not to be thought of as one’s own. Benedict saw this-grasping at mine-as the cause of much of the trouble in a community. The tools of one’s trade whether they be the scalpel of the surgeon, the organ of the music master, or the hoe of the gardener are all the things of the community.
The vow of obedience was also to be absolute. The abbot ruled the monastery. The abbot decided who worked where and when and his decisions were not to be questioned. They are to be obeyed immediately and fully, they are not to be modified to meet the conception of individual monks. If there were questions they were to be asked not decided by the individual. Obedience is doing this with a glad heart which works for the good of all. For many, this is a frightening prospect. But St. Benedict was a very wise man and this concept bears examination.
The abbot is elected by the monks. He holds this office for life. He can step down if he feels he is no longer able to adequately fill the role. The abbot is counseled in the Rule to consult with the senior monks and to carefully listen to all in the community before he makes his decision. Benedict advises him not to have too great a concern about fleeting earthly, perishable things. The abbot has no special privileges; he holds the burden of office alone. He can delegate power but the responsibility is his. The brothers are carefully to elect one of the members based on their evaluation of the spiritual level of that person, not the suitability of that person to be an administrator.
There is a second safeguard. Every three years an auditor comes from the Vatican. He assesses the workings of the monastery and he talks to all of the monks individually and privately. This auditor speaks with the voice of the Pope. He might makes suggestions but these are really instructions. He has the authority to remove the abbot but this is rarely done.
The purpose of the vow of obedience is not just for the proper functioning of the community; it is for spiritual advancement. We as Westerners in particular have trouble with others telling us what to do. St. Benedict recognized this and tied it to the concept of renunciation. Poverty is exterior renunciation and obedience is interior renunciation. Poverty is the giving up of the things of the world; many of those drawn to the monastic life do not have difficulty with this. But the inner renunciation is the doing away with the false self. Benedict was aware of how the mind becomes cluttered with the stuff of the ego and said this needed to be abandoned. His way-and the Christian way-is to submit to Christ and this is done through the rule of the order as administered by the abbot. The rebellion of the ego that arises through this submission is the stuff around which the mediation and prayers are to be woven.
Central to life at the Abbaye d’en Calcat is the balance between work, prayer, and reading. The day is structured to allow this balance. Some of the prayer is done in common, as is the daily Mass, and some of it is done in private. The monks are to follow the Divine Office, stopping at specific times during the day to recite specific prayers. The prayer that they do is not the same as meditation. St. Matthew wrote: “When you pray, go into your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” (6:6). This is a turning outward not a turning inward. But the Benedictines view prayer as the discovery of the true self amid the debris of the false self or selves. The examination of the differences between meditation and prayer of this sort deserves a much more thorough treatment then is possible here.
The reading that is required is, of course, spiritual reading. Often times it consists of reading the scriptures but commentaries and other spiritual readings are permissible. This is sometimes the more neglected of the triad of practice. When the monks get busy with work it is often the reading or study that is neglected. Prayer is not neglected because it is often thought of as the proper activity of a monk but some think, study is something extra. So the monks are counseled not to forget this essential activity.
When most outsiders think of the Benedictine order they think of working monks. St. Benedict did tell his monks that they had to work and specified how much they should work. The work each does is according to their capabilities. Frere Daniel is the beekeeper and was leaving not long after our meeting to get more queen bees for the hives. Brother Daniel also works making musical instruments as well as tending to other duties. The monks tend to all the needs of the monastery. They are cooks, librarians, shoppers, and whatever is necessary. Some of the activities bring in money to help the monastery continue and others are to just to sustain daily life.
The saying ‘Work is Prayer,’ is commonly and erroneously attributed to St. Benedict. He structured the monks’ days as he did to keep them busy. He very much ascribed to the idea that idleness was to be avoided at all cost; monks who were idle were more likely to get into trouble. He also was of the mind that if they cannot manage reading and prayer (or meditation) then work is necessary. Benedict knew that it was not common for someone to be able to spend all his time in contemplation and said that five or six hours of work should be done by all.
St. Benedict also warned against getting too ego-involved with the work one was doing. He said the work should be done as service to God and not to build pride in individuals. Freres Laurant and Daniel told of one monk who came to live there and asked not to be assigned to play music. He had been a famous concert performer but knew if he played there it would only boost his ego. The abbot honored his request but many years later he was able to make music again but this time with the sense of humility the Benedictines prize.
St. Benedict said there was little reason for monks to go out of the monastery. He thought they would only get distracted and even in trouble if they spent too much time outside. He also said that you needed to turn away from your family because they could also be a great source of distraction. Monks were permitted to go to the funerals of their mother and father but usually nothing else. Once a monk in charge of shopping was in town while the wedding of his sister was taking place. He had been denied permission to attend and had to change his shopping rounds when the wedding procession came down the street on which he was.
These are two things that have changed in more recent times. The Second Vatican counsel brought some alterations to the lives of the monks. It was deemed too difficult for monks not to leave the monastery at any time in this modern world. The Rule had been written almost 1500 years ago when times were not so complex. Monks now are also encouraged to have more contact with their families. The general thought is for a monk to leave only with a special purpose but if a monk has sufficient reason he would not be refused permission. Also the Postulates and Novices are required to go on group outings organized by the monastery. The thinking is to have them be very sure and free of undue influence when they make their final decisions.
Silence is highly valued within the monk’s life. One is requested to ask, “Is it necessary to say this?” for most times in the day. There are, however, times when they relax and get to know each other and the conversation is general. Benedict said they should always be temperate in their speech, not shouting or braying with laughter. Evenings and nights are to pass in silence unless there is something urgent.
Benedict wanted his monks to be temperate in their eating and drinking also. He said there should be no food or drink out of appointed times. Eating one meal a day was preferred but monks must pay attention to their health and eat what is necessary to sustain it. Wine is not forbidden and is actually served at some monasteries. Abstinence is better but moderation and temperance required. He also mentioned the foolishness that could come from indulgence in spirits.
One area I was particularly interested in discussing with Daniel and Laurant was how the community dealt with problems. How, for example, did they deal with someone who came and want to be a monk but who clearly had mental problems? The answer was somewhat surprising: they did nothing special. If a man like this came they allowed him to stay in the guesthouse the same as anyone else, and to follow the course of being a postulate and a novice. Their idea is if someone is able to follow the life, albeit with difficulty, it was not their prerogative to refuse him the opportunity. He would be helped as necessary and would have the normal meetings with the novice master and the abbot but otherwise would not be singled out. Someone who is really out of touch with reality usually leaves of his own accord.
How does the community deal with disputes and with monks who cause problems? Again they are very relaxed. The Rule of St. Benedict lists a variety of sanctions up to and including physical punishment. But these days the approach is more of reasoning with the monk or monks involved. Daniel said that someone always has a reason for doing something. Perhaps the person is unaware that his behavior is unacceptable or upsetting to others. Commonly senior monks will take the responsibility of arbitrating disputes or talking with others who are disruptive. The monks take the attitude that in a community of 60 there are some you will not like and some with whom you will have problems. It is important for the monks to respect each other as monks but not to have personal friendships. It is also important to determine if problem is merely that the person or behavior is disliked or it is a real problem.
If there is a monk who does not respond to this approach the recourse is to the abbot. The vow of obedience-as mentioned above-requires the abbot’s decision to be followed. If a monk does not wish to follow the direction of the abbot it is impossible for him to stay at the monastery. This would be done in stages, allowing many opportunities for the monk to change his mind and behavior. Normally the abbot does not have to resort to commanding obedience. The slow process by which one joins the community educates the monks on what the life is and what the standards of behavior are.
Life in a monastery running according to the Rule of St. Benedict was supposed to have a rhythm. The monks pray together, work together, eat together. They grow old together and take care of each other. Benedict wanted the younger monks to turn to the older ones for counsel and for the older ones to love and care for the younger monks. The concept is that work shared is easier and life shared is also easier.
The Benedictines view monastic life as a project in itself. They do not think you become a monk in order to do something else; you become a monk to live a monastic life. This is sufficient. This turning away from the things of the world and turning towards a spiritual life is all there is. It is not necessary to have some grand work or some grand accomplishment to point to that gives value to one’s existence. Living your entire life as a monk and dying, as a monk is in and of itself a worthwhile thing.
What can we learn from this?
The surprising thing is not that Buddhist and Christian monastics have differences but that we have so much in common. It was very comfortable to sit with these two monks and forget that we were from such divergent traditions. Merely being monks living in ordination gave us a common reference. Both traditions are devoted to living a life of interiority; we both understand that the answer does not come from the world and happiness only comes from abandoning the things of this world.
The Benedictines have carefully thought through the procedure for people entering their monasteries. Elsewhere in this magazine is an early attempt to formulate a policy for people to take ordination. We need to know how to live in communities and the Rule of St. Benedict is one of the most comprehensive outlines for how to do this. We need to examine it and take the essence that fits our different tradition. For example, the Abbaye d’en Calcat has community meetings (called chapter meetings) four times a week. The idea is that when communication is clear there will be fewer problems.
Of course there are very strong doctrinal differences. But when St. Benedict says we are, “…supplied by grace what is impossible by nature,” does this not bring to mind our asking for the blessing of our gurus to do what is beyond this limited self? When Lama Zopa Rinpoche spends four hours teaching on the hell realms, is it far from St. Benedict advising us to fly from the fires and pains of hell?
This monastic tradition is older than the Tibetan lineage of Buddhism and they have a lot more experience living in the west. It would be silly to think we should or could adopt the Rule of St. Benedict. We can, however, study it and learn how to organize our communities. Culturally we are closer to the Benedictines than we are to the Tibetans. We do not want to become Tibetans but we do learn from them; we do not have to become Benedictines to learn from them.