Monastic Discipline

Dr.George Sioris

Lecture 2004-05-12

At the May meeting we were very happy to have with us our Patron, H.I.H. Princess Takamado, who had come specially to present the Prince Takamado Award for "Distinguished Scholarship and Service" to one of our past Presidents, Dr. George Sioris, who had been Greek ambassador to Japan at the time of his presidency. The present Greek ambassador, H.E. Mr. Kyriakos Rodoussakis, also attended, together with two of his diplomatic staff, Counsellor Mrs. Polyxeni Petropoulou and Telecommunications Officer Mr. Michael Politis. We also had with us the ambassador of Luxembourg, H.E. Mme. Michèle Pranchère-Tomassini, with her husband, Dr. Jean-Yves Pranchère, and our senior member and adviser, Fr. Neal Henry Lawrence, who had been the recipient of the first award, given in 2002. A further lustre was added to the occasion by the gift of a magnificent basket of flowers, presented to Dr. Sioris by an old friend Mrs. Emmy Dede-Nagata, Director for Japan and the Far East of the Greek National Tourist Organization, who attended the event with her entire office staff. To allow room for a larger-than-normal attendance, Shibuya Kyôiku Gakuen had kindly made the Memorial Hall available to us.

Our President, Prof. Wilkinson, opened the proceedings by welcoming the guests and then giving a review of Dr. Sioris' career and "distinguished scholarship and service", before calling on Her Highness to make the presentation on our behalf. The ceremony was not without the attention of several press photographers -- one even from Athens, Greece --, and on the following Saturday, May 15th, a photograph of Her Highness and Dr. Sioris appeared in the "Times Gallery" of the Japan Times.

Following the presentation of the award, Dr. Sioris expressed his deep gratitude upon receiving such a prestigious Award, a distinction meaning even more to him as he was following on the path of his dear and respected friend, Fr. Neal Lawrence. His only merit, he confessed, had been to call upon the late Prince Takamado and Princess Takamado to become our Patrons! He then launched into his own presentation, to which he had given the title "Monastic Discipline".

Dr. Sioris began by saying that although his talk was based on his book Monastic Discipline, he wished to introduce some wider aspects. With apologies to the Greek ambassador, he wished to concentrate on the Theravada traditions rather than the Greek ones, which he had elaborated on extensively in a previous talk to the Society. His particular inclination had always been towards comparative studies of East and West, in this case monastic disciplinary systems, taking as his examples the Vinaya of Theravada Buddhism together with the Rule of St. Basil and the Typika of Mount Athos. He had selected this particular aspect of Buddhism, as ASJ Council member Dr. Hubert Durt, a noted authority, had pointed out to him the lack of academic work in that direction.

As a prelude to his talk, Dr. Sioris showed some slides to give his audience a picture of life in northern Thailand. He began with pictures of his house and garden, with its abundance of vegetation and flowers. Then he showed pictures of a pre-Buddhist animist "spirit house" with its offerings out in the garden, and the local specialist who decided the positioning of the house. After several wider views, he showed a temple with a separate complex reserved for the bimonthly communal "confession" ; this was a ceremony from which outsiders were excluded. We saw many views of other parts of the temple, with animals roaming freely and women bringing gifts of food and other things for the use of the monks. There were also a number of small stupas containing ashes of the dead. He also showed some rare slides of Buddhism in the Shan states of Burma, notably a golden Buddha image and altars including a number of smaller images. Dr. Sioris concluded this section with an audio tape of monks chanting the Patimoksa precepts in Pali; this ancient language was still studied, and there were nine degrees of proficiency.

Vinaya (code of monastic discipline) was one of the Tripitaka ("three baskets") of Buddhism, and needed to be examined in conjunction with the other two, Abhidhamma ("underlying philosophy") and Dhamma ("teachings"). The monastic rule went back to the Buddha himself, but there had been many modifications along the way, resulting in 227 rules, of which the four basic ones were to refrain from sexual misconduct, killing, stealing and making false claims. Other rules were minutely detailed, such as those relating to inappropriate contacts, or the amount of time spent outside the monastery, robes, bedding, utensils etc. It was not a punitive code, but was aimed at correcting bad behaviour. It differed from a legal code in that it had to be read in conjunction with commentaries giving the reasons behind the rules, which were compiled ex post facto. In this sense they resembled the oldest Greek traditions of Themistes, as portrayed by Hesiod.

To grasp the main issues of the Vinaya, one should read the old translations and commentaries by a Prince-Patriarch of 19th-century Thailand. The spirit of it is the following of the "middle way"; it is tolerant, giving offenders a triple warning. There is an absence of physical punishment, and an emphasis on the confession of sins. A concern is expressed about schisms, and Dr. Sioris wondered why this had not been included among the four basic rules. The answer he had been given was that, if a person caused a schism, he had by definition already placed himself outside the community and therefore could not be expelled. Unlike the secluded Western monastic communities, there was movement between the monks and the laity. Every man had to spend some time as a monk in order to attain maturity; even the King had not been exempt, but had gone around with his begging bowl just like all the others.

As regards the similarities and differences as compared with Orthodox monasticism, there was first a similarity in that the monastic ideal was the search for spirituality and a spirit of moderation; both also held in common the importance of the confession of sins. There was a spiritual father who guided the community, and officers were appointed for specific tasks. Points of difference concerned the evolution of the monastic rules. In Buddhism they had grown out of legend and had been enriched with commentaries; the Orthodox discipline laid down rules for specific cases, always with reference to the Bible. In Theravada Buddhism (in contrast to Mahayana) there are no religious orders for women, no nuns. Another point of difference concerns the relations with the laity and one's own kin. According to the Rule of St. Basil, one has to sever all connections with one's previous life, but in the Buddhist tradition contact is always maintained. One can also note a difference in literary style; Buddhism is fond of employing stories, whereas the Orthodox style is didactic and keeps close to the Bible.

Dr. Sioris now turned to the controversial questions of the degree of democracy in monasticism, and the possible need to update traditional practices. As regards the functioning of the community, the ideal was to arrive at unanimity, not to follow the will of the majority. But the "majority" could never overturn the basic teachings. The Buddha had accepted men from all castes, but he had never questioned the caste system. In Greek monasticism anyone can join, but what belongs to the outside world does not enter in; thus there can be no question of transplants of "democratization" notions borrowed from civil society.

In the realms of Mahayana it might sound strange to question the need for updating; as circumstances changed, why should one keep to such an old system? But the rationale behind not interfering was that if one left things to take their own natural course, transformations would come about naturally through the passage of centuries.

In conclusion, Dr. Sioris said that comparison involved study, and a comparative study of similarities and differences had meant learning to respect what was different. He finished with a reference to a Benedictine, Bede Griffiths, a man of immense influence who had taught Christianity in India for almost 50 years, while still respecting the Indian tradition. His conclusion was that there were no boundaries, only horizons!

Following Dr. Sioris' presentation, questions were invited, but none were forthcoming, so Prof. Wilkinson called on Fr. Lawrence, OSB, who had made the journey specially from his monastery in Fujimi, to propose the vote of thanks. Fr. Lawrence spoke succinctly of Dr. Sioris's contribution to the Society from his own extensive experience. The assembled company then adjourned to the adjacent conference room, our usual place of meeting, for a reception. Here we were grateful to one of our Council members, Mrs. Uta Schreck, who once again demonstrated her talent for making a large assortment of open sandwiches that were both elegant and delicious. We should also not forget the part played by Mrs. Shigeko Tanaka, who had spotted an offer of wine from Mitsukoshi at giveaway prices and seized her chance, thus saving us a great deal of expense! Lastly, we must not forget our hosts at Shibuya Kyoiku Gakuen, Mrs. Itsuko Takagiwa, the Vice-Principal, and Mr. Naoki Kadonaga, the head of the International Division, who stayed with us right to the end, helping us to clear everything away.