Benedict's Dharma 2
Day 1 - Tuesday - April 29, 2003
Sister Mary (Meg) Margaret


Good morning.

SR. MEG: What we have in mind is to go through Benedict's Dharma, the book, more or less chapter by chapter. We're going to do a Buddhist/Christian dialogue in the light of the Rule of Benedict.

How this book came about was, we had a Gethsemani encounter in 1996, which was a Buddhist/Catholic monastic dialogue. We had the Dalai Lama and about 70 participants, in all about 120 people with the observers. At the end of the dialogue there was a profound sense that we had come to a new place. It was Robert Thurman and Patrick Henry who suggested that we not go back up to superficial dialogue ever again, but to stick to the sense of the monastic impulse in our lives. Patrick Henry said, the Rule of St. Benedict is the centerpiece for monastics in the Benedictine tradition. In fact, it's hallowed in all monastic traditions. We decided to take the text of the Rule of St. Benedict for our next dialogue. That had three parts to put together.

The first part was to get a translation of the Rule of Benedict. I was the executive director of the board, and then there was this committee of Patrick Henry and David Steindl-Rast and the Buddhist writers.

It took us six years to do this, the first phase was this translation. Brother David and I looked at the one we used to use, which has the Latin and English, and the commentary, which is extremely fine. I mean, this is such a treasure for us all. However, having used it for a decade, we found that there were ways it could be improved. We set about to write our own translation, what we called a wake-up translation that was more Buddha friendly, it could be written in such a way that we could move our dialogue.

I got up a half hour earlier every day for a year and a half, and started writing, looking at the Latin and English. I understood that David was going to do one, and I was going to do one, then we were going to get together, and send it out to our board, abbots, and prioresses.

Well, I'm not a Latin scholar. I am a practitioner. But I figured anybody can do it from the Latin to the English. It's hard to go from the English to the Latin. So, I went ahead and did it chapter by chapter.

___The Rule of Benedict is betweem 7,000 and 9,000 words depending on the translation.___

The Rule of Benedict is betweem 7,000 and 9,000 words depending on the translation -- 73 chapters with the prologue, written around the year 520, or somewhere in there.

What we tried to do in this translation is make it more inclusive of women, since there are more women than men monastics. We wanted it to capture the mystical sense that Benedict used; not just the historical critical methods of literature. We tried to capture the sense of each verse and each teaching, like a counterpart to the Buddhist teachings, rather than a literal translation.

It's only been since the 1930s that we've had a verse text of the Rule of Benedict; these verses haven't been interpreted in the light of meaning, to get verse and meaning together. If this sounds technical, it is, so I'll fast forward. We tried everything, but it was impossible.

When we went to a more mystical unitive sense of what Benedict was trying to say, we alienated the scholars. When we went to more inclusive language, we alienated the feminists who wanted it more inclusive.

We even had Elias Mallon, a great Scripture scholar, an Atonement father from New York, do a fresh translation of the 300 verses of Scripture in the Rule. Well, Benedict didn't have the original text of Scripture. I had on my desk 300 translations of text that Benedict never had. Benedict was translating something else in the light of this context, so we had to scrap it. We had to go back to the way he used Scripture given the text that was available in the Sixth Century.

We alienated the scholars, the feminists, the hermeneuts, the Scripture people, and then we alienated the activists. Joan Chittister probably has the finest readable translation of the Rule, but we were trying to get more of the mystical sense, more unitive, more contemplative, we thought we could satisfy some of the scholars' objections.

Well, I finished my translation, and David and I were going to get together at Collegeville. Six years is a long time. We had trouble getting together, and in the meantime he got busy and didn't do his translation. He wanted to start over, and I would write down his translation.

Well, given the male/female thing today, I wasn't going to do that. So, in the refectory we were reading Father Abbot Patrick Barry's translation of the Rule, and I was just dumbfounded with how he had transcended all those problems. I went back to our committee and I said, "Can't we just use an existing translation?"

We did put the one we had out to the abbots and prioresses. We showed it to the board. James Wiseman alone, gave us 70 corrections. It was a huge problem... What did Benedict say and how do we interpret it today. The important part is to live the Rule, rather than know it, which is on the same page as our Buddhist friends. So, we humbly put aside all our earlier drafts, accepted Abbot Patrick Barry's who by the way, has a doctorate from Oxford and is a wonderful writer. We amended it in 50 places with his permission to Americanize some of the language. That's the text you have here. That's the first phase of the book.

The second phase was... David was to gather the Buddhists together to do a commentary on the Rule.

Well, that was hard, too, because the Buddhists were very busy Buddhists, and so David called me. We were literally going to go through each one of the Buddhists, sit down with them, read through the entire Rule and talk about it and dialogue. Well, guess again. Finally, we got together at Grace Cathedral and had a long weekend where, after lots of work, we had the text of their commentary.

Patrick Henry a masterful editor put it all together, and then he put the chapters together, and the issues together. But he also assigned topics to the Buddhists -- Ven. Yifa, Judith Simmer-Brown, Joseph Goldstein, and Norman Fischer.

The second phase was to write the book. We had a contract with Riverhead, which was a marvelous contract, and they couldn't have been better to work with. They were extremely patient and generous along the way.

The third phase... Was a conference at Beech Grove on Benedict's Dharma, where we brought all the speakers and 50 or so monastic who lived this Rule, and then another 50 or so were coming who lived the Rule as lay practitioners, we had quite a cast of people coming. Then 9/11 happened, and so many couldn't come, but we still had the conference.

All the proceedings are on the Web. We taped it professionally.

It was a marvelous conference. We used the book Benedict's Dharma, we had Benedictines who lived the rule and reacted to the writers; and we had the Buddhists.

You who have gathered for this Benedictine Experience are the fourth phase. You are another generation of people that are enjoying the Rule of Benedict, and want to know more about being a lay practitioner and using the Rule, and Buddhist commentary.

We are going to start right away with the first part of the book and how it's divided. I want to give everybody one of these. It's a flier from first Benedict's Dharma and has the outline of the book in it.

I want to emphasize the book really doesn't matter. Even the Rule doesn't matter. What's written in our hearts matters; so, the quicker we can get to our hearts, the better. But it is nice to build on those who have gone before us.

___Today we're going to talk about the trellis, which is another word for rule.___

Today we're going to talk about the trellis, which is another word for the rule. Tomorrow, we're going to do freedom and forgiveness; the next day, discipline, spontaneity; the next day, tradition, adaptation; and Saturday, leadership and humility.

These are the ways we are going to enter into the Rule. They are like doors. We are going to walk into the Rule through these doors.

So, this first presentation is, what is the Rule, the trellis. Then Rev. Kusala is going to respond from a Buddhist point of view.

History helps us understand how rules evolve. Iif we understand the origin of a rule, we can know how it should reside in our heart, the origin, the point of departure in our heart.

The Rule of Benedict, as you know, was written around 520, but it stood on the shoulders of giants. In the earliest Apostolic age were those who knew Christ and walked with him and set down the Scriptures. The Scripture is the main rule for all Christians. It is the central door.

We can't exaggerate the role of Scripture in our lives. Benedict wrote the Rule, in 7,000 words and 300 passages all coming from Scripture. In one sense the Rule is no more than a recasting of Scripture in a particular way, for those who want to follow a contemplative path.

The first generation are those who followed Christ, witnessed to what Christ said and did, and then wrote about it in our Scriptures. The next phase, of course, was to interpret what those Scriptures mean. Well, the earliest group of monastics took seriously that the Scriptures meant a way of life, to pray without ceasing, to seek God, they left everything and went to the desert. The desert tradition is the centerpiece of Christian monasticism. In the desert these individuals were awake and understood God's word and meditated on it day and night, prayed without ceasing. They woke up in various stages of enlightenment, and were very attractive to others.

Soon people from the towns, the villages, people crossing the desert would go to them and pray for a word. "Father, give me a word that I may live by."

At first those words were from Scripture, then they were interpretations of Scripture. There's about 2,000 of them. Apophthegms, are the sayings of the desert tradition.

Those sayings were written down in various ways: The alphabetical collection, the seriate collection. They became the literature of these desert fathers and mothers. Their deeds and stories were written down. A literature arose around the enlightened teachers known as the desert fathers and mothers.

The second generation came along and interpreted those sayings, they were called the conferences and the institutes. The master of that was John Cassian, who was born around 360 in the Balkans. He was literate in both Greek and Latin. It took him from twelve to fourteen years to go through the desert of Syria, into Egypt and Palestine, he listened to those conferences given by famous abbas and amahs. He put them down in the twelve institutes and twenty-four conferences, and they are available today.

Later those conferences and institutes were given in cenobitic settings; in other words, where a group of monks and nuns were living in a community. Those were edited into rules, and out of that came the Rule of Benedict. We also have the Rule of Augustine, and the Rule of Basil. By the time Benedict put his Rule together, he had 40 sources. He was a great editor, a redactor. It's as important what he took from all those who preceded him as what he left behind. He was a genius at carving out a middle way to the ascetical life.

___The Rule of Benedict is just one of the many rules___

So, the Rule of Benedict is just one of the many rules, but it turned out to be the most famous of rules, but not for 300 or 400 years.

Let me go back to the Rule of Saint Benedict, and share with you what I think the idea of the Rule is. The Rule is just that: It's one source of my inspiration for life. The other source, of course, is Scripture in Christ. Another source is a teacher, or a leader, or an abbot, or my spiritual director. And the other source is my community, the way in which it's lived, the monastery. A lived experience of the Rule in the light of Scripture and in the light of a teacher. But, the main teacher is Christ. If you want to know who to follow, return to Christ.

You can see this referent idea. In other words, I am in the center, and in the center I listen to my teacher, Christ our Lord. I find those teachings in Scripture, and it's interpreted by the church.

But, I live in a monastery, and who interprets the Gospel for me and the Rule for me, my abbot. The abbot then becomes the interpreter of the Rule of Benedict. But I have the Rule, too, so we can dialogue about the Rule together. And that's the stuff of our individual conferences.

I also dialogue with my entire community, and that's the idea behind a chapter: To keep central the word of God in our lived experience as a community.

It's not linear at all; it's very dialogical. You have to know the Rule; you have to know the Gospel; you have to have an abbot; you have to have, a lived experience of a community.

One other part of the teaching that helps Benedict make sense that you don't quite get just reading the Rule, it would be found -- the systematizer of the earlier tradition was John Cassian, and I'd like to present his notion of the spiritual journey. His teacher was Evagrius, and Evagrius's teacher was Origen, a great mystic.

Origen was the first to use the idea of a spiritual journey, a journey of the heart, it's an invisible journey. You might say it's under the river.

Most people are on an external journey. You know, they are born, they live, they lead a good life, and they go to heaven. But some are called to a spiritual journey underneath the river, to experience heaven through the mystical senses that open up through a deeper reading of Scripture.

That was Origen's contribution. Have I lost you yet?


SR. MEG: The journey is above the river and below the river. The spiritual journey is below the river. Nobody sees it. It's your motivation. It's your inner life. It's your heart.

Above the river is the church, the world, the people. They are living a good life. They are out there doing God's work, and that's what you see. When you are baptized, you begin the journey. You are on the above the river journey.

___Some of us are called, but all of us can enter into the spiritual journey.___

Some of us are called, but all of us can enter into the spiritual journey. There are other metaphors, but I'm trying to give you the one that underpins the Rule of Benedict.

The idea of entering a monastery is to do the below the river journey instead of just living the worldly life; it's to renounce the world for the sake of God. John Cassian was the one who put together these ideas of renunciations. It's really a series of renunciations.

Renunciation is not an optional notion in the Christian life, it's in the baptismal formula that we renounce Satan. We renounce the ways of the world for the sake of God.

The first renunciation is to renounce your former way of life, which is living externally. You have to renounce the good that is not God. You have to renounce evil for sure! That's the first renunciation. Over and over again we have to continually renounce our former way of life.

The second renunciation is to renounce the thoughts of our former way of life. John Cassian took the eight thoughts from Evagrius. The first thought is food, food and drink, because if you are obsessing about food and drink, you are not praying without ceasing. You are not under the river. You are not with God. You are thinking only of yourself. Those are thoughts of food, sex, things, anger, dejection or depression.

The next one is acedia, and it really doesn't have a good translation. I like to use the translation, spiritual fatigue. You just want off the journey. It's too much work.

The last two thoughts are vainglory and pride. Those are what you renounce over and over again, the eight afflictions.

There are many tools in the Rule to renounce the eight afflictions, look at Chapter 4. But even if you renounce our former way of life, and follow the monastic way of life, conversatio morum -- that doesn't have a good translation either. It means ongoing conversion to the monastic way of life. It's not just a one-time conversion. It's an ongoing conversion, turning toward a manner of life.

After you renounce your former way of life and you renounce the thoughts of your former way of life, lo and behold, there's a third renunciation, and that's to renounce your thoughts of God. Because, as long as it's just a thought of God, it's not God; it's just thoughts.

Here is where we are really on the same page with our Buddhist brothers and sisters. But they do it from the get-go. You're going to hear a lot more about Buddhists renouncing the illusionary world of thoughts, which is also a teaching found in the Rule of Benedict.

This third renunciation, is a very serious one, this is the stuff of the dark nights. You don't have thoughts of God or devotions, it's a very challenging time. But you can also wake up to the mystery of God, and the light of God.

It's a powerful renunciation. If you get through the third renunciation, guess what, there's a fourth one, and it's harder than the third.

Renounce thoughts of yourself,
___because any thoughts of yourself isn't yourself.___

When I wrote Thoughts Matter I didn't put the fourth one in because I'm so far from it, and I didn't notice it in Cassian either. Columba Stewart, a monk of St. John's, a wonderful scholar monk, pointed it out to me. He said, "Meg, there's a fourth renunciation." It's to renounce thoughts of yourself, those thoughts are not you, they are just thoughts. We seem to be on the same page as the Buddhists; so the last one is to renounce thoughts of yourself.

The Christian renunciation theory and practice has four steps according to John Cassian: to renounce one’s former way of life, to renounce interior thoughts that would move you back into acting like your former way of life, to renounce your thought of God...since all thoughts of God are not God, but just thoughts or concepts. The fourth renunciation is the most radical. It’s presumed in the Rule of St. Benedict and we have saints, like Therese of Lisieux who gave us a good example: to renounce the thoughts of self and respond to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The self then merges into the Beloved or mystery without any of the ego thoughts that refer to the self.

RJH: I was just thinking about what you are saying and imagining myself as an oblate, and thinking, gee, it sort of sounds like I've got one foot on the dock and one on the boat. And I'm wondering if that is a tenable position, or place to be.

SR. MEG: It's stressful. And you might get a stress fracture.

Spiritual direction is to help us live below the water, but in the world. There are ways of doing this. And that's why Benedict's Dharma 2 is happening, to get this balance, so that we can live in peace and equanimity. We have the tools in the rule.

BC: You mentioned a name, but it went by, I didn't recognize it, somebody who was a practitioner.

KM: Therese of Lisieux.

SR. MEG: Teresa Little Flower. She is just a wonderful example of no self.


_Day 1_

Sister Meg | Rev. Kusala | Q & A