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Ilana Friedrich Silber (Hebrew University, Jerusalem), Virtuosity, charisma, and social order: A comparative sociological study of monasticism in Theravada Buddhism and medieval Catholicism, New York / Melbourne (Cambridge Un. Press) 1995,[ with Bibliography and Index,] 250pp.

This is an academic work of rather high standards in sociological theory formation as well as in detailed comparative sociological analysis specifically at the macro level. At the same time it is very interesting to me – not being a sociologist by profession although surely by interests (how could a serious student of religion and spirituality be not?) – because of its subject: the role of monasticism in society, including a comparative analysis of (Theravada) Buddhism and (Medieval Catholic) Christianity as well.
Nowadays is not only the time that religions in Western countries and many other countries as well are seeking new ways in modern society (the old ways of the traditional churches often being in decay, or changing in a tempo that was unforeseen) but also that Buddhist monks and representatives of other religions are not a strange phenomenon in Western countries. Of course the global cultural scene nowadays differs in many aspects of the mostly agricultural civilizations in which Theravada Buddhism and Medieval Catholicism flourished. But for someone who is, as I am, interested in the role which religious virtuoso’s may play in society – be it from the starting point of religion or from the starting point of society -, this subject might be very interesting, and indeed this study is very elucidating.
The reader not only gets a picture of the respective societies over long periods, albeit in a rather early part of their histories, particularly of the role of religion within it, but also a sublime view of the processes and equilibriums which played their roles between the different social groups and the different groups within the Buddhist viz. the Christian religions of those societies (which differ less from what we can see even nowadays than one would expect, although the differences of course have to be acknowledged).
Particularly you can find in this study a thorough analysis of the relation between laity and monasticism in Buddhism and Christianity, as well as between at one side monastics (regulars) and clerus (seculars) and at the other side laity in Christianity, and then again of all those with the different layers of their societies. The role of monastics is to be the symbols of pure salvation according to their religions, by leading a life that is as close to the ideal as possible. The relation of the monastics with the laity is one of a gift relationship: although different in Buddhism and in Christianity, these relationships are very comparable and involve many clues about complex social processes, including political ones. The author is especially keen on showing the role of exchange at the ideological level in combination with the role of exchange at the material level, which combination depends not only on the rational maintenance of equilibriums but in a certain sense on ambiguities to be upheld for the sake of implying future solidarity.
There are many interesting concrete details to be found in this study. Here I would like to mention just a few which I found interesting from the beginning. The mutual relationship between laity and monks in Buddhism is in a sense of a great simplicity – the monks symbolizing the higher values, the laity recognizing and supporting them in exchange for being allowed to be ordinary lay people nevertheless at the same time sharing in the merit of the monks – and has survived through long periods. It has its strong base at the root level, in the villages. The superstructures of the states have not been very strong in these Asian countries involved. Typical for Western Christianity seems to be that in the course of its history more differentiation is recognizable regarding the patterns of organization of social and religious groups and of their relations. So in the West we can discern the role of the secular clerus (which does not exist in Buddhism). The clerus – in contrast to the Christian monks, although there may be some overlap between the categories – has the exclusive right to perform the sacraments, which of course also has important symbolical value not represented by the monks. This role seems to be very close to being part of the political system as a factor of integration of the laity whereas the Buddhist monks potentially have a more critical purifying role be it also symbolical. Not that the regular monks, particularly through their organizations and societal networks, have no political influence – they could have a considerable one – but like their Buddhist equivalents (but then not strongly against the background of the formal or implicit role of organized institutions within the society or the political field) from a much more external point of departure than the secular clerus . In Christianity the function of formal social organization has always been stronger than in Buddhism. Authority of the official leaders is important within Christianity, in line with strong verticalism in social an ideological respect. In Buddhism this authority was mostly temporary and personally, in Christianity structurally and permanent (probably a heritage of Greek and Jewish ideology and Roman law). So the critical, ‘alternative’ aspects of the role of the ‘virtuoso ascetics’ as they are called, has been different in the civilizations under study: in Theravada countries a critical role sometimes or often was explicitly asked for, in Medieval Catholic countries monastics were more thought of as part of “whole Christianity” or of the “whole church” and the same regards their possible critical role. At the same time it can be said that the role of the monks in Buddhism in general has been and has stayed more clearly recognizable than in Christianity in which after this early medieval period of a rather stable monasticism came a period of crisis with the rising of protest movements and orders (mendicants for example) from the 11th and 12th century on, which was at the same time a big change of culture and society, for religion resulting in the Reformation. Nevertheless as said before in both cases is an important gift relationship to be recognized which means that monastics – or ‘virtuoso ascetics’ or ‘strivers for perfection’ – have a role in society which is standardized, officially recognized and has to be effected every time anew.
For me this is interesting because I have asked many times in my life what could be the modern way for such a role or such roles, be it through forms of Christianity, or of Buddhism, or in other ways. A society needs symbols of values, also in concrete persons and their behaviour. If these symbols are no more monks but among others the artists of Live8, I assume they can be compared with the subjects of this study too. Of course many questions could be asked from these comparisons, about what are standards for pure and ethical behaviour in our societies, about the way our societies are – or better our global society is – divided in groups with much or few political influence and so on, about the possibility as such of thinking about these questions and about possible restructuring acutely needed. For the question of solidarity – absolutely at the centre of the relationships studied in this book – seems to have been not only an important value in societies in the past and for the religious virtuoso’s and their roles in particular but for our societies and civilizations too, if I am right. That this study supports this thesis in an academic way will not diminish its importance and influence, I assume and sincerely hope.
Apart from this point the book offers many other insights, for example into recent important sociological literature. It involves a good apparatus of notes, an outstanding bibliography and a good index. The book is not always an easy read because of the complexity which its subject sometimes has, but the reader can always find the thread because the book is very well organized and full of insight, which I experience as another reward for reading it.

Gepubliceerd door

Boudewijn K. ⃝

--- Deze site bevat enkele overblijfselen van afgesloten publieke activiteiten. --- In 1947 werd ik geboren in Sint Laurens op Walcheren. Ik woonde en werkte verder in Middelburg, Goes en plaatsen in de provincies Noord- en Zuid-Holland en Utrecht. --- Mijn oudste persoonlijke vermelding in het telefoonboek was (Onder)zoeker: "van de wegen van het hart"; op dit moment zou ik schrijven: "van de verbondenheid - zonder en met woorden - van alle verschijnselen inclusief u en mij".