This article was originally published on the website of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue.
The Overtones: Of Buddhists and Benedictines
For six months in 2022-23, two Buddhist monks lived at the Sant’Anselmo, the Benedictine headquarters and university in Rome, and I got to eavesdrop. I was doing a year of service there as a member of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Each year twenty or so graduates of Saint John’s University volunteer to devote a year or more of service to monastic communities throughout the world.
The two monks were Master Chaiyapat and Master Panuwat, Mahayana Buddhists from Thailand Their residency at Sant’Anselmo was arranged by the Nostra Aetate Foundation of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue. The Foundation enables students of other religious traditions to take classes in pontifical universities, participate in meetings and presentations in the Vatican, and make cultural visitations to churches and liturgical celebrations. According to Fr. Markus Solo, Vice President of the Foundation, the purpose of this program is to foster the “renewal, encouragement, and enrichment of relationships with the church.”
The most vibrant interactions between these two Buddhist monks and the Benedictine monks living at Sant’Anselmo took place during their work periods in the monastery, at community meals, and at the Liturgy of Hours. Because of the language barrier, there was also a good deal of unspoken interreligious dialogue.
Seeing the Buddhist monks in choir for the first time, one had the impression of marigolds planted in a flower bed of black soil. On Catholic feast days and days that are holy to their tradition they would wear a red zhu yi clasped to their shoulder with golden pins. I was surprised to see that, like the Benedictine monks, they too sported Birkenstocks. I couldn’t help wondering if the company knows what a loyal interreligious fanbase it has.
If I were an alien observer, I would report that the most powerful force in monasticism is prayer. It is like a magnet that is strong enough to tug you out of your bed in the morning and draw you to your choir stall. It pulls professors from the depth of their study and collects students scattered around the city. Everyone’s individual itineraries and habits are uniformly lined up in rows of cowls.
The language and the rituals of the Liturgy of Hours and the Eucharist were especially challenging for these Thai Buddhists. The monasteries of both were founded by Teochew Chinese Buddhists, and they are accustomed to praying with lower tones and making use of a different method of notation. They found difficult to sing on the higher pitch of Gregorian chant, to say nothing of reading Gregorian notation and chanting unfamiliar Psalms in Latin.
However, they recognized that these times of ritual prayer were an essential element of Christian monasticism, and they were present at every Mass and all the Hours. On any given weekday that would mean that they spent around three hours praying, because they also prayed on their own. If I arrived in church thirty minutes early, I could always expect to see them already seated, with their books prepared and set out on their choir stalls. They worked hard to become familiar with the various liturgical books, and after a couple of months, I would sneak a peek in their direction when I got lost.
Before Lauds and Vespers, they would come together in Master Panuwat’s room for a period of chanting and meditation, which any of the residents of the Collegio was welcome to attend. Above the desk was hung a painting of Amitabha Buddha. Gifts and beautiful souvenirs they had received were placed in front of the incense bowl. A chair was reserved for a guest who was not able to sit in the lotus position. Master Panuwat struck the gong and rang the bell; Master Chaiyapat beat out the rhythm on the wooden fish.
Because of the language barrier, there were no conversations comparing monastic rules and traditions. Comparing took place through practice. They eagerly and graciously followed the monastic traditions of the house, gave gifts to celebrate holidays, and recognized the different ranks and offices of the monks.
I especially noticed how sensitive they were to etiquette at meals. Table seating at Sant’Anselmo is in sets of four. At each meal they attended, Master Chaiyapat and Master Panuwat would always sit at the last set of the last table in the refectory. As soon as someone sat down next to them, they would prepare a napkin and serve water. They always offered the food to the person next to them rather than first serving themselves. This gesture highlighted for me the immense value that Mahayana Buddhism places on non-possession. Food is donated to their monasteries and before eating they offer a prayer of thankfulness for what has been provided for them, noting, where it came from and why they are receiving it. The same was true for any gifts Master Panuwat and Master Chaiyapat received; they were first offered before the image of the Buddha in Panuwat’s room.
Once while I was taking a walk with Master Panuwat, we met a monastic student from the Collegio who was returning to Sant’Anselmo after his holiday. Seeing him pulling his luggage up the Aventine Hill, Master Panuwat insisted on taking it from him and lugging it up the hill we had just descended. The last walk I took with Master Panuwat was on the day before his departure. This time he was delivering Halal food to a Muslim participant in the Nostra Aetate Foundation program who was just getting settled in Rome.
Overall, what most impressed me about the presence of these two Buddhist monks in a Benedictine community was that they prioritized service, selflessness, and, listening. They quickly complimented the character of Benedictine life and flourished in the pivotal areas of community life. When they began helping with house duties, their relationship with the Benedictines was charged with a new sense of fraternity.
A month into our friendship, the Buddhists asked if they could help me with some of my work assignments, one of which was washing dishes. There are over one hundred residents at Sant’Anselmo and frequently there are also guests for meals. At times, the dishes from the evening meal, which Master Panuwat and Master Chaiyapat typically did not eat, would be left unwashed overnight. When I arrived in the dishwashing room in the morning to finish cleaning up, I would find them elbow deep in suds washing dishes before the first period class. When it was time to leave, they would hang up their aprons, quickly don the zhiduo (traditional Chinese attire), and dash out the door, school bag in hand, before the resident students had finished breakfast.
They never mentioned that they are both Assistant Abbots, who run schools and manage finances. While studying in Rome, Master Chaiyapat was working to complete an article for publication entitled “Development Model for Establishing Mahayana Chinese Buddhism.” Master Panuwat took calls from his Thai students every day. Master Chaiyapat was also working to develop the relationship between the Chinese Buddhist Sangha and Sant’Anselmo.
As we became closer friends, I became more aware their visit did not mean they could step away from their many responsibilities at home. Staying in Sant’ Anselmo offered them a way of continuing their monastic practice while preparing for future projects and interreligious collaboration. Without explicit dialogue on the connection between the two Religious lifestyles, this residency exemplified the union that dialogue strives to achieve. At Sant’Anselmo, the two traditions offered an experience of commonality in community life and prayer along with an opportunity to develop interreligious friendship.
A week after the Buddhists left and as I was writing up my reflections, I asked a close Benedictine friend, “What is the point of being a monk?”
He replied, “It’s not something you can put into words; it’s something you live out.”