A New Breed of Scholar Monk

Religious traditions that last for centuries and millennia tend to have dedicated scholars, who study, write, and preserve texts that support their larger purpose and work. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, all have time-honored traditions of scholarship. These scholars often live and train in monasteries.

At the Monastic Academy, we are trying to create a new monastic training system for this culture, time, and place. To succeed, I believe we will need a practice and tradition of scholarship. What would scholar monks in our tradition look like? What kind of scholarly activities are needed now, in this culture? How would these scholar monks train? How would they serve the world?

I have wrestled with these questions for some time, not as a hypothetical or theoretical question, but as something that furthers my own path and practice. I have received training in the intellectual disciplines and as a kind of amateur scholar, and I wish to put those skills to good use in my life, as someone doing monastic training as a way to serve the world.

As I see it, a scholar monk in our tradition would need to have the following core skills:

  • be highly versed in tradition; deep familiarity with the Pali Canon and traditional Buddhist sutras; broad familiarity with other contemplative traditions and texts.
  • be curious about other disciplines of study, and familiar with historical and contemporary academic traditions
  • be aware of the problems of real people; committed to being of service to others with specific service projects; focusing their research interests on directions that will benefit their tradition and the world at large
  • favor plain language and accessibility in their writing over obscurity,

Furthermore, they would need additional practices to support their efforts in scholarship, and hold it within a larger context:

  • be committed to following the ethical precepts and fulfilling the four Bodhisattva Vows
  • be dedicated to meditation practice, with the goal of classical awakening
  • be skilled in productivity and strategy; be capable of running a monastery and/or non-profit
  • be physically fit, maintaining some kind of movement practice, caring for their body as a vehicle for being of service to the world
  • be familiar with or trained in at least one contemplative movement practice, such as Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Zhan Zhuang, an internal martial art, or something like running – any kind of physical movement practice that furthers their practice of meditation and mindfulness.

This vision is similar to the concept of a T-shaped person, someone who has deep mastery in one area as well as familiarity with a broad range of supplementary knowledge and skills. A scholar monk should strive for excellence in their studies, while having a broad base of other, supporting skills, all established on a firm foundation of dedication to the spiritual path.

Further Reading:

Thank you to Ruby Bates for helping me to draft this post.

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