[I originally wrote most of the strings of text below for the online Art & Monasticism Symposium in 2012 through Transpositions, a collaborative effort of students associated with the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. What follows has been edited since it was first published, for tone as well as content. I used to write a lot about this topic on my blog (RIP otherhood.org). So I may be porting some old posts to this new version of LW.]
Assertion: Monasticism is a recurring pattern in the world's religions. Looking at the things that different monasticisms have in common can teach us how (and how not) to live in communities of shared purpose.
[This word, monasticism, basically means "the way of life of people living in monasteries." And to further tighten down the jargon filter, by monastery I mean the class of objects that includes cloisters, abbeys, nunneries, convents, etc. and related things like ashrams and kibbutzes, but not necessarily all intentional communities. My favorite word in English for a person who lives in a monastery, even temporarily, is monk (which I hereby and for all time declare to be a gender-neutral word for nuns and male-nuns).]
Monasticism := Monks + Monasteries
While there is an ENORMOUS amount of variation and localized ornamentation, this monastic tendency–for serious practitioners of a religious tradition to band together to benefit from living in a disciplined community–shows up all over the place, e.g. in most strains of Christianity and Buddhism.
Why would this be the case? Clearly there are economic efficiencies. It’s easier to survive as a community, in which specialization becomes possible, than alone; some monks are good at holding the big picture, while some monks are better at painting icons, and others are virtuosos at cooking nourishing meals, or farming, or carpentry, or web design.
There are efficiencies that have to do with spiritual practice as well. It is much easier to hold a daily routine of work and contemplation when you do so with a group of like-minded brothers or sisters.
And when singing or chanting, of course, it is only possible to make harmonies together (unless you're throat-singing).
From this perspective, monasticism starts to look less like something spiritual and more like a type of technology, an arrangement of hardware and software that has arisen in various places at various times to meet certain universal needs—for stable community and material support, as well as the sublime. We need the nectar of transcendence as much as we need more tangible kinds of nourishment, and monastic life tries to provide both.
Like technology, monasticism appears to evolve over time as groups’ needs change, and as social, cultural, political, and ecological climates shift from season to season.
Some monastic hardware & software is better suited for north Africa in the 6th century, while another kind fits medieval Japan after the arrival of Buddhism, and a dozen others are appropriate to the array of niches in today’s postmodern religious world.
Applied, Secularized Monasticism
I've been working with a NON-religious group of misfits collectively known as the Art Monastery Project over the past decade to (begin to) take the source code of this software, the blueprints of this hardware, and apply them to art-making and the creative process (as well as to the pursuit of wisdom and compassion, whatever those words mean).
Our goal, not totally different from that of some other monastic orders, is to cultivate personal awakening and cultural transformation through art, community, and contemplation.
Thankfully for us, most monastic software is open source, freely available to anyone with eyes to see.
And this means that anyone could be doing something analogous but for purposes other than or in addition to art-making [like maybe, oh I dunno... rationality?], using the same source code, for well or ill. If you are, we should be talking.
So how are we doing it? Read on if you're curious about what monastic technologies we have tried using to run our art projects.
Our monastic hardware/software stack
Community, both as a social arrangement and as the physical space that houses it, is one of the biggest pieces of monastic technology.
Yet a monastery, whether Benedictine or Kagyu, is not the same as an intentional community. As a structure in space, a monastery has intentionality designed into every square foot. As a structure in time, a routine that carries practitioners toward greater balance, compassion and wakefulness, a monastery must be flexible and free enough to adapt to changing circumstances and to give monks time to be quiet and still, yet rigid enough to keep monks active and productive.
Thus the ideal monastic structure in space-time is informed by the history of monastic architecture, as well as the routines that have guided monks for hundreds of years.
Discipline is another piece of technology we apply to art-making. At certain times of the year we get up at the same time, work together to sustain ourselves as well as to make art (be it music, dance, theater, painting, sculpture, performance art, code, poetry, prose, synchronized swimming, etc….), and engage in contemplative activities like meditation, chant, and reading together throughout the day.
For the past 10 years, we have run public "artmonk retreats" and private practice periods, as well as laboratories for connecting silent contemplation and creativity, inspiration and expression. We have experimented with asceticism and renunciation, as well as ecstatic abundance ("Everything in moderation, even excess").
We practice various forms of sitting and moving meditation to (try to) bring focus to our minds and give us insights that we can apply to our individual or group creative work. In turn, the process of art-making benefits our progress along our personally-chosen psycho-spiritual paths, which may differ greatly from monk to monk.
At an institutional level, we focus on practice as much as on product. We consider ourselves an alternative form of art institution, and thus prize new ways of thinking about art: as devotion, as offering, as gift, as sacred act, as ritual, as individual expression of the divine, as teacher, as priest, as sacred text, and as sacrifice.
Similarly, we are an alternative economy: we practice resourcefulness and community in order to liberate artists from the prevailing economics of art that tends to turn it into a commodity.
We apply monastic forms of governance to our community living: we experiment with monastic rules and vows. For a few years, for example, many of us took yearlong "Artmonk Vows" to practice things like gratitude, presence, and resourcefulness.
We think about art as a lineage, or as a number of branching lineages, some of which are directly applicable to our vision of personal awakening and cultural transformation. Like other monastic traditions, we experiment with functional (rather than absolute) hierarchies. Each Art Monastery could have an Abbot or Abbess, as well as a spiritual director and an artistic director.
Like many monasteries, we are interested in being both removed from the world and actively engaged to make it better through service and hospitality. We have a commitment to the places we live. Like many traditions, we work with philosophical dialogue and debate to bring about conceptual artistic and philosophical/spiritual understanding.
This process is just a few years old, and we basically everything yet to learn. For example, even though we have occupied a few medieval monasteries in Italy, most of us have more experience with meditation retreats in Zen, Tibetan and Theravada Buddhist lineages than with the realities of western monastic life. And while the ideas for much of what we do are borrowed from other monastic sources, they often have to be recompiled from the ground up to be useful and relevant to us. How can we honor tradition, even as we borrow from and adapt it to our unique mission?
These are the kinds of creative problems artmonks love most.