The Modern Search for Ancient Monasticism

Father Maximous al-Antony, abbot of St. Antony’s Monastery, demonstrates the ancient key to the monastery at Red Sea, Egypt.

Photo by Dr. Jason R. Zaborowski.

The Venerable Yifa, a Taiwanese nun, established the Woodenfish Foundation, an organization promoting Western scholarship on Chinese Buddhism. She stands at the Tiantai site where Zhiyi is recorded to have preached the Dharma (Buddhist teaching) to his disciples.

Photo by Dr. Dan Getz.

In the Fall term of 2014, Bradley’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies presented a two-part lecture series in comparative monasticism that is just the beginning of a scholarly conversation between two colleagues who have carried out extensive research on ascetic practices in two different parts of the world.

Dr. Dan Getz, associate professor and chair of the philosophy and religious studies department, is an expert on religions in China and Japan and has spent many years studying Buddhist monasticism in East Asia. Dr. Jason Zaborowski, associate professor of religious studies, is an expert on Coptic Christianity and has likewise devoted himself to the study of Christian monasticism in the Middle East. During the summer of 2014, they embarked on site visits to China and Egypt, respectively, to research the living traditions and historic artifacts spanning the long history of asceticism in those regions.

The narratives and accompanying slide shows that Getz and Zaborowski presented provided an update on their work and invited discussion from students, faculty and residents of Peoria who were in attendance. Their research is leading toward important publications in their respective scholarly fields, but they are also developing joint plans to offer unique opportunities for Bradley students to study monasticism comparatively.

Egypt and the Middle East

Tradition traces the origins of Christian monasticism to St. Antony (c. AD 254–356) of Egypt. The story of his life was one of the most widely read books of early Christian holiness, making famous the deserts of Egypt as training grounds for asceticism — “spiritual exercise.” The Life of Antony describes his renunciation of the world, giving away his possessions in order to follow Jesus, a path filled with years of combat against demons before a band of monks began to join him. Modern scholars have recognized that Christian asceticism originates from multiple sources besides the Life of Antony tradition. Zaborowski traveled to St. Antony’s Monastery in May 2014 with a team of scholars in order to understand Egyptian monasticism in light of new scholarship.

New construction at St. Paul’s Monastery, Red Sea, Egypt.

Photo by Dr. Jason R. Zaborowski.

During a sabbatical in 2013–14, Zaborowski joined the Early Monasticism and Classical Paideia project based at Lund University in Sweden (mopai.lu.se). This five-year research program includes more than a dozen scholars (primarily from Sweden) who are examining the ways that Christian monasticism appropriated Greco-Roman traditions of education. Zaborowski was invited to the program specifically to apply his specialized language skills to the decipherment of Arabic manuscripts produced by Christians in Islamic rule (post-seventh century). He spent the year reading Arabic translations of traditional Christian wisdom literature in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, comparing them to pre-Islamic recensions of the same Sayings in Greek and Syriac languages. By studying the reception of ancient Christian wisdom in Arabic manuscripts, Zaborowski is learning how Christians adapted their received wisdom to differing cultures and circumstances. He is developing his research into a book explaining the Arabic reception of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

The scholars brought an array of backgrounds — history, philosophy, archeology — to discuss questions from various academic disciplines as they traveled from St. Antony’s Red Sea Monastery to Luxor in the south, and to one monastery after another down the Nile to Alexandria. During the open forum at Bradley last fall, Zaborowski mentioned how the abbot of the Monastery of St. Macarius presented him with a modern Arabic edition of The Sayings just published by the monastery. Zaborowski’s presentation emphasized that Egypt has both a rich monastic history and a vibrant living community.

China

Drs. Stevenson (left) and Getz (right) with Venerable Xinqxian, abbot of Huading Monastery, seated in front of portrait of Zhiyi.

Photo by Guttorm Gundersen.

In August 2014, Getz traveled to China for a workshop on the Tiantai tradition within Chinese Buddhist monasticism. Tiantai monasticism played a significant role in adapting Buddhism to Chinese culture. The first forms of Buddhist monasticism arose in the renunciant community founded by the Buddha Gautama around the fourth century BCE. The Buddhist monastic way of life provided an alternative to mainstream society, offering a community of moral and contemplative cultivation aimed at attaining the same liberating insight achieved by the Buddha. Monasticism came with the arrival of Buddhism in China during the first century CE. Dotting the urban and wilderness landscapes, monastic institutions became havens of spiritual cultivation and scholarly work that eventually adapted Indic Buddhism to Chinese society, granting Buddhism a place alongside Confucianism and Daoism as one of three great philosophical and religious traditions of Chinese culture.

Getz has been studying Tiantai for many years, and the workshop brought him to the Tiantai Mountains in Zhejiang Province where Zhiyi (a sixth-century scholar-monk), taught his vision of Buddhism, and where his followers established his monastic tradition. Zhiyi developed the Tiantai tradition as a grand synthetic vision of Buddhism requiring a balance of doctrinal study and meditative practice. His form of Chinese Buddhist monasticism appeared at the close of a long period of political disunity, and his vision symbolically paralleled a new era of Chinese political unification and cultural vibrancy.

The 2014 Tiantai conference, in which Getz participated, was sponsored by the Woodenfish Foundation, an organization which a Taiwanese nun — the Venerable Yifa — established to promote Western scholarship on Chinese Buddhism. Before the workshop, Getz explored the Tiantai region with the workshop’s presenter, Dr. Dan Stevenson, a recognized expert on Tiantai and chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Kansas. The men have shared a long friendship and interest in the Tiantai school. On this trip, they sought to gain a better understanding of the geographical constellation of Tiantai monasteries spread throughout this mountainous area. They visited monasteries with long histories where they communicated with abbots and monks, and they sought famous sites whose monasteries had vanished long ago. Among their most interesting sorties was to a remote high mountain valley that had once harbored two Tiantai monasteries significant in the Song era (960–1279 CE).

Getz’s and Zaborowski’s research has required expertise in languages and historical knowledge to cultivate new scholarship, which has provided a rare opportunity for Bradley students to gain an introductory understanding of these complex topics. Their courses can familiarize students with Buddhist and Christian monasticism on levels not offered at many colleges or universities. The professors will deepen their collaboration in an honors course in comparative monasticism in the future.