The Spirit of Buddhist Monastic Precepts & Christian Monastic Rules: a Comparative Study
Bernard SENÉCAL S.J. / Professor,
Department of Religion,
This paper compares the basic spirit of Buddhist monastic precepts and Christian monastic rules. By first examining the data and then appraising them through the use of functional comparisons, it applies the methodology of religious phenomenology: a dialogical approach of truth that avoids the extremes of objectivism and subjectivism.
A first part shows that Buddhist monastic precepts and Christian monastic rules each display a very strong unity of spirit throughout time, despite the fact that they both underwent considerable transformations due to the need to adapt to ever changing historical situations. Indeed, as monastic precepts are meant to help the Buddhists that have renounced the world to achieve awakening like the Buddha, the monastic rules are meant to make Christians as awakened as Christ was.
A second part describes how monastic precepts and rules were respectively born, pointing to the fact that, although the core of the former progressively took shape within the Buddhist monastic community during the lifetime of the Buddha, the latter took shape several centuries after the death of Christ, during Constantine rule at the beginning of the fourth century, when Christian religious life began to appear in answer to the excessive secularization of Christianity within the Roman empire. Nevertheless, despite such a striking difference pointing to the distinctive character of each tradition, monastic precepts and rules are respectively meant to help one to achieve, through complete awakening, the compassionate or loving behaviour which constitute the ultimate goal of Buddhism and Christianity.
A third part demonstrates that both Buddhism and Christianity see ultimate reality as being thoroughly ethical in nature. Their respective founders became one with that ultimate reality through awakening, thus completely embodying that ethical ideal in time and space. As a result, their behaviour was highly ethical and they had no need at all for a fully-fledged set of precepts or rules. But the same cannot be said of their followers who almost always definitely needed and still need such precepts and rules in order to become awakened to that reality and embody it through their behaviour. At the same time, an excessive clinging to precepts or rules may end up being just as detrimental as their total neglect. The spirit of the Middle Way constitutes an excellent antidote to the constant temptation of falling into such extremes that obviously pervades both traditions.
In conclusion, it may be said that just as Buddhism sees in the practice of the monastic precepts, meditation and wisdom the three complementary disciplines indispensable to realize Buddhist awakening, Christianity sees in monastic rules, prayer and life in the Spirit, the three indivisible and sine qua non disciplines required to achieve Christian awakening. Interestingly, a tension has been at work throughout history within both Buddhism and Christianity regarding whether it is necessary or not to renounce the world to reach full awakening. Nevertheless, Buddhists having renounced the world and Christians having joined a religious society may be said to be close in spirit as they search for truth and respectively strive to achieve Buddhist Compassion or Christian Love in action.
* key words
renouncing the world, joining a religious order, Buddhist monastic precepts, Christian monastic rules, awakening, one body compassion, first commandment, Buddhist-Christian inter-monastic encounter, Chogye Order, Society of Jesus