Origins and Ideas

by Robert Brow

Ascetics, Monks and Renunciation

WHEREVER CITIES HAVE GROWN UP, men have been found resenting their busy futility. Existentialists, beatniks and tramps renounce the world no less than Buddha, Saint Anthony, and the Hindu holy men. The notes are recognizably the same: 'Refuse the claims of bourgeois life; cut at the roots of worldly desires; buy the freedom to live and decide your own destiny.' Renunciation is as old as the city civilizations of Sumer and the Indus Valley in the fourth and third millennia BC. City life 5,000 years ago caused the same frustrations and reactions as today, and one escape was to say 'No' to conformity.

Our first clear documentation is in some writings called Aranyakas[1] (meditations for forest hermits) about 700 BC. These Hindu hermits lived on the outskirts of the towns and practised asceticism and meditation by a sacred fire in the forest. Unlike the later Hindu holy men ('Sannyasis') there was no breaking of family ties, but only temporary retirement from the world. Sometimes the hermit's wife would join him when she was free from household responsibilities. There were no vows or fixed rules, and men went to the forest whenever they felt the need of solitude.

By the time of Buddha (c. 563-483 BC) some of these hermits engaged in extremes of rigorous asceticism. Buddha associated with them for several years in the hope of finding illumination, but he eventually discovered that ruthless bodily asceticism did not help. His way was a suppression of the desires of the mind rather than of the mere instincts of the body. After his illumination he organized an order of monks (called 'Sangha', Fellowship or Brotherhood) to pursue the new way with the help of one another.

Buddha rapidly attracted a large number of followers who wanted to join him as monks in the new way of renunciation. Whereas hermits lived alone, and small groups of hermits could live near each other without much organization, Buddha was forced to establish the first monasteries. Monks are by nature impulsive and unruly, so that monasteries inevitably require abbots and rules and community discipline. Very reluctantly, at his aunt's pressing request, Buddha also had to provide for the women who wished to join the movement and the first order of nuns appeared. By 500 BC the whole apparatus of Buddhist monasticism was established. It is important to remember that the first monasteries in Europe were no new invention of the Christian church. Their whole pattern of community living was identical with that of the Buddhist monasteries which preceded them by 1,000 years.

Buddha's contemporary, Mahavir (599-527 BC) the founder of the Jains, also established monasteries. Jainism accepts the tenet that it is virtually impossible to attain salvation without becoming a monk. Both in Buddhism and Jainism, as well as in medieval Roman Catholicism, there is therefore a double standard with a monastic élite and a second-best for the layman. The distinction is softened in Mahayana Buddhism, since there is no clear line of demarcation between the monk and the layman.

It was only in Roman monasticism that the rigid discipline and strict vows made an impassable dividing-line between secular and religious. It is much more typical of eastern monasticism, and Mahayana Buddhism in particular, to have a constant movement of men in and out of monastic life for varying periods of time.

There seems to have been a similar variety of monastic organization among the Essenes of Palestine during the life of Jesus Christ. It is not impossible that John the Baptist was sent by his aged parents to boarding-school at the famous Qumran monastery in the wilderness overlooking the Dead Sea. If so, he would have had his education among the precious Dead Sea Scrolls which have been rediscovered. As the boys finished their education they could return to ordinary life or continue as regular monks in the monastery. For those who lived in cities there were Essene lay orders and communities of married persons. A rather similar situation exists in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism today with a wide variety of orders ranging from the strictly secluded to laymen in the world loosely united by a rule of life.

Since monasticism has such an ancient history, we must make a sharp distinction between two quite different activities which merge in the main stream. The first is the gathering of a group to engage in study under an accepted rule of discipline. Obviously this kind of association has written some of the most creative chapters of the human race. For centuries in India the only recognized type of education was the 'Guru' (teacher) who gathered a group of disciples to live with him in an 'Ashram' (place of retirement). Whether he taught a way of salvation or some other academic subject made no difference to the method. On a larger scale the first European universities were of this type. It was an accepted fact that to become a scholar it was necessary to leave home, find a teacher, or group of teachers, and live with them under monastic discipline. The first Oxford and Cambridge colleges took in novices, who became bachelors (celibates) after three years, and masters two or three years later. For those who intended to continue to teach it was essential to remain celibate and live in one of the college rooms. The great English boarding-schools may have many faults, but they produced distinguished scholars and leaders out of all proportion to their numbers by insisting on the boys living under strict discipline. One could argue that it is the loss of monastic discipline which makes our modern education cost so much to produce so little excellence!

The other stream which has often merged with the first is the desire to associate in the pursuit of asceticism and renunciation. The early hermits of India, or Buddha and his first disciples, or Saint Anthony with his monks in the Egyptian desert, had no desire to engage in academic pursuits. Their purpose was to escape from the disturbances and vanities of city life to promote their own salvation.

Having distinguished the streams, it is easier to pronounce on their value. Living under discipline for a limited period to engage in academic pursuits is not necessarily a religious activity. Some of our scientific research teams can only be described as monastic. This type of organization was also used to run the early hospitals. The great London teaching hospitals, for example, all had their 'sisters' and novices and rules on the monastic pattern, and even today in some difficult medical situations only this type of serving community is possible. Communism and Israeli Kibbutzim have made experiments in operating farms, pioneer developments, and revolutionary cells on the same pattern. Obviously the monastic team in this sense has had many effective uses, but it is nothing to do with our history of religions. Much of the best of medieval monasticism belonged to this sociological stream, but our task is to question the other activity which was allied with it.

In what sense is it good, or necessary, or even helpful to retire from the world to promote one's salvation or to glorify God? We saw in the previous chapter that this was the subject of India's religious classic, the Gita (c. 200 BC - AD 100). In reply to the many who were abandoning their caste duties to follow the Buddhist way of renunciation, the Gita gave a brilliant answer. Renunciation is a matter of the heart, not a question of where one is or what one is doing. The right course is therefore to perform the duties of one's caste and station in the world, but to do everything without attachment or desire for one's own interest. This principle is called 'Nishkama Karma', which means desireless action, or non-attachment actions. The warrior goes to war, the business man runs his business, and all perform their religious duties, without any heart interest in the personal benefits which may accrue. The Roman Stoics did their public duties in the same way. In Western history we have many examples of monks who have been persuaded by this principle to engage in political and worldly activities because of duty to society without expecting any personal advantage. Camus's existentialist hero in The Plague does his work as a doctor in plague-stricken Oran in much the same spirit. He has no desires or expectation of personal advantage, but he does his duty anyway.

It is obvious that the principle of desireless action enables men to enjoy the luxury of renunciation without actually leaving the busy city. There is a basic non-attachment which avoids emotional involvement. It permits the self-satisfaction of duty without the agonies of passion. It is equally obvious that desireless action is not Christian. Jesus Christ neither established a monastery, nor called his disciples to abandon their desires. Desires were to be purified, redirected, and then fanned to intense passion. God was to be loved with all one's heart; Christians were to love one another with a pure heart fervently; compassion was to be intensely practical. Buddha had prescribed an eradication of desire, and the ideal Buddhist is calm, peaceful, unattached and indifferent. On the other hand, Paul exemplified the typical Christian life of passionate heart-involvement. His heart was torn with jealous love, he cared, hated, felt powerful emotions, and pressed towards the goal for a coveted prize.

If a Christian separates from secular involvement because of a preoccupation with his own salvation, he may name Christ in his prayers, but his teacher is Buddha. Where there is what Schweitzer calls 'world and life negation'[2] the spiritual élite may be impressively 'spiritual', but their lack of passionate concern leaves the multitudes in darkness. Such renunciation blighted the Middle Ages in the West. In the East men still look to Communism to emancipate them from the indifference of Buddhist monks and Hindu salvation-seekers.

The follower of Christ is to be in the world like a ship in the raging seas, but that does not mean conforming to the world. He keeps on course, pumps out the water that crashes on the decks, and he longs for the harbour. Nor does life in the world lessen the degree of sacrifice. We all accept the fact that love, and patriotism, and war, and social concern inevitably override the rightful claims of family and friends and comfort. The Christian, with his greater love, higher patriotism, cosmic war and prophetic social concern, expects no less.

Let us conclude this chapter with the problem of Schweitzer, who thought and wrote deeply about Eastern religions without ever visiting the East. He contrasted world and life negation with world and life affirmation, and his own life as a doctor and scholar in Africa was a struggle to reconcile the two. Since Schweitzer's world and life negation was Buddhist and Jain, and his world and life affirmation basically belonged to the Renaissance, there could be no reconciliation. Christ offers neither world negation nor affirmation, since the world, like the sea, is neutral.

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1. J. N. Farquhar, Outline of the Religious Literature of India (Oxford University Press, 1920), pp. 29, 30.

2. Albert Schweitzer, Indian Thought and its Development (Hodder and Stoughton, 1936).

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