About Benedict's Dharma II - The Making of Benedict's Dharma


Sister Mary Margaret:
What we have in mind between is to go through Benedict's Dharma, the book, more or less chapter by chapter. But the centerpiece is the Rule of Benedict and our own experience. 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 -- 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.