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My former grad-school colleague Justin McDaniel recently ran into an interesting bout of media attention and controversy over a course he teaches at Penn, and an Associated Press article written about it. It is a comparative course on monasticism, entitled “Living Deliberately”. Nothing unusual so far; but what makes this course innovative is it contains a practicum. A practicum is relatively standard fare these days for many university courses on meditation, in which students are encouraged to meditate and thereby get a firsthand grasp on the course content. But McDaniel’s course is the first one I’ve heard of in which students attempt to get firsthand experience of being a monk.

What does that mean? As part of the class, students are required to live for various periods of time according to various restrictions, each one followed by an actual monastic order of some tradition or other. No technology beyond electric lights; no reading news from the outside world; no eating after dark; no caffeine or alcohol; no vegetables that grow underground (a nod to Jainism). Breaking the rules requires confession.

Terry Mattingly, editor of religion-journalism blog Get Religion, found the AP article very strange. It “has a gigantic hole: It contains no information whatsoever about the prayer and worship life of these monks.” Mattingly’s claim of a hole, of course, is based on the assumption that monks qua monks must have a “prayer and worship life”. For he claims: “Monks, you see, have to have tradition. Tradition is the frame that surrounds the life of a monk. The goal is to live a tradition and to be transformed by it.” To which the easy reply is: says who?

Mattingly asks, “What is the point of monasticism, if not transcendence, submission and union with Another?” Here he’s already betraying his Christian parochialism; Theravāda Buddhist monasticism has nothing whatsoever to do with “union with Another”, and I doubt that Mattingly would be willing to go so far as to claim that Buddhist bhikkhus are not really monks. (Similar point about his emphasis on “prayer and worship life”: Theravāda monks do have that, but it’s hardly the point; lay Buddhists pray too. Monasticism is about trying to work off bad karma and reach liberation – or more cynically, about following cultural norms so that one can become more marriageable.) But more importantly, the reporter answers Mattingly’s question in the context of the course: “‘It’s not about individual restrictions,’ said McDaniel. ‘It’s about building hyperawareness of yourself and others.'” To which Mattingly replies:

I do not doubt that the story is accurate in conveying that this is the professor’s answer to these crucial questions. However, I find it hard to accept his answer without some kind of information about the spiritual tradition — wither ancient or postmodern — used in this academic exercise. Is there, in fact, a monastic tradition in which increasing one’s knowledge of self and becoming more aware of others are not initial steps to a higher ultimate goal? It would be good to hear the Catholic/Buddhist professor discuss that issue.

Here Mattingly’s question is interesting. For what McDaniel is saying here – and what really makes his class different from Catholic or Buddhist monasticism – is that in his class monasticism is treated as a technique. The reporter mentions that point but doesn’t dwell on it, and the lack of attention to it seems to freak Mattingly out a bit: “This may be one of the strangest religion ghosts I have ever seen in a news story. Ever.” My reaction is rather different: it’s about time!

Few would raise an eyebrow anymore at the now-common practice of having students meditate in a class on meditation traditions – without involving a “prayer and worship life” with those traditions. Meditation, like yoga, is now widely treated as a technique. If one can treat meditation as a technique, then why not monastic asceticism?

A very large number of the Westerners drawn to Buddhism these days are drawn to it because of meditation. S.N. Goenka specifically describes his form of meditation as a technique. But in my own experience with a Goenka meditation retreat, the meditation technique made far less of a difference than the monasticism – the ascetic practices of a sort very similar to those described by McDaniel.

Goenka’s introductory ten-day vipassanā meditation courses, inspired by the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, do not merely require students to sit and meditate. They require a strict, gender-segregated monastic regimen. One does not merely refrain from meat, drugs and sexual intercourse; one is not allowed to read or write, nor to speak except to ask specific questions of practice, and one is expected to wake at 4 am – which, for a graduate student, required more jet lag than a trip across the Atlantic. For me, the meditation was the easy part, and one from which I took relatively little – except for one specific practice at the end of the course, which was not the course’s emphasis. The harder part, which made a much stronger impression, was maintaining the monastic discipline. When I couldn’t get my thoughts out of my head into paper or voice, I thought I’d go crazy – the same thoughts would just circle over and over. It was that monastic discipline, far more than the meditation, that made me acutely aware of my own thoughts and habits.

Much has been made of the MRI studies of the brain of Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, showing him to have far more of the brain activity associated with happiness than anyone else in the study, including other meditators. It’s been typically assumed in such discussions that what makes Ricard so happy was his long experience with meditation. But I’ve wondered from the start: couldn’t it be the monasticism? That always seemed to me the more likely candidate: changing your entire lifestyle in a carefully controlled way that turns you away from worldly desires, and thereby getting you away from the suffering caused by craving.

I suspect McDaniel is ahead of the curve in teaching this class. I wouldn’t be surprised if ascetic and monastic disciplines, like meditation and yoga, start being taken up as secular techniques. As far as I can see, just like meditation and yoga, they have real and important practical benefits. That’s very clear to the students lining up to take McDaniel’s course. And contra Mattingly, it’s very hard for me to see anything weird about that.