The longer I train in monasteries, the more I become interested in monasteries as social institutions, and in aspects that are incidental to their purpose. This includes the social, political, economic, technological, and historical dimensions of monasteries.
I have questions like:
- What functions do monasteries serve for their larger societies? How does that relate to the value that they provide to individuals?
- How does the work that monasteries engage in, even in various degrees of isolation, have beneficial effects on the larger society?
- How effective have different monastic traditions actually been at producing the spiritual and moral effects that they aim to?
- What are the differences and similarities between Western and Eastern monasticism?
- What strengths and weaknesses have different monastic traditions had, and why?
- How have different religious and ethical ideologies surrounding monastic traditions impacted the development of values and ethics in their larger societies?
- How have different monastic traditions interacted with political regimes? Why do political regimes allow monasteries to persist, when they might be viewed as subversive?
- How have different traditions interacted with larger societal economic structures? Do monasteries exist as an alternative economy, or simply as another economic entity within the larger ecosystem?
- What cultural norms and rituals have emerged around different monastic traditions, and what purpose do they serve for monastics and lay people? What can we learn about social technology and institutional design from monasteries?
- How have monasteries interacted with various messaging technologies? What benefits (or costs) does that have for society and for the monastics?
- What is the environmental impact of monastic living?
These questions are interdisciplinary. Most properly, they are probably sociological or historical, but they also stretch into technical questions regarding economics and technology.
At the same time, they are not mere curiosities. They are practical and strategic. As the Assistant Director at the Monastic Academy, my questions are based my desire to help develop our new monastic tradition flourish in the contemporary world.
Answering these questions will require dedicated effort over a prolonged time. And, to be honest with myself, I may never get to answer these questions. My day-to-day work will take priority, as will my own meditation practice. I also reserve much of my limited study time for learning about new ways to answer more pressing questions that I have at work, like how to distribute work within our organization, or how to weigh strategic priorities. And of course, dramatic changes in our situation could happen at any time, making all of these questions intellectual luxuries.
Still, I have a sort of bookmark in my mind on these questions, hoping that I can slowly accumulate information that will help me to answer them. Part of this effort has involved collecting a bibliography of primary and secondary sources that can help me understand monasteries better.
I’m looking for books or essays that:
- are good, solid scholarly research – but does not need to follow scholarly norms and can be opinionated
- focus on monastic traditions, in particular their economic, social, political, technological circumstances
- cover small or large time spans
- may have a slight bias towards an interest in Eastern or at least mystical traditions
I’ve listed the sources that I have found so far in a Google Doc. In cases where I have read the relevant source, I include my progressively-summarized notes. If you know of a book that seems like it might help me to answer the questions that I have, please tell me by making a suggestion in the document. I will update the document over time as I find new sources.