Silence 101: College course teaches how to live like a monk

You have to go to school now to learn??


Looking for a wild-and-crazy time at college? Don’t sign up for Justin McDaniel’s religious studies class.

The associate professor’s course on monastic life and asceticism gives students at the University of Pennsylvania a firsthand experience of what it’s like to be a monk.

At various periods during the semester, students must forego technology, coffee, physical human contact and certain foods. They’ll also have to wake up at 5 a.m. without an alarm clock.

That’s just a sample of the restrictions McDaniel imposes in an effort to help students become more observant, aware and disciplined. Each constraint represents an actual taboo observed by a monastic religious order.

“I’ve found in the past that students take this extremely seriously,” said McDaniel, who has taught the class twice before. “I’ve had very few people who try to get away with things, and you can always tell when they are.”

The discipline starts with a dress code for class: White shirts for the men, black shirts for women, and they must sit on opposite sides of the class. No makeup, jewelry or hair products. Laptops are prohibited; notes can be taken only with paper and pen. And don’t even think of checking your cellphone for texts or email.

The course, which focuses primarily on Catholic and Buddhist monastic traditions, stems in part from McDaniel’s own history. An expert on Asian religions, he spent a portion of his post-undergraduate life nearly 20 years ago as a Buddhist monk in Thailand and Laos and says he’s both a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Catholic.

Restrictions outside class are introduced gradually: Students sacrifice caffeine and alcohol during one week, then swear off vegetables that grow underground in another. The latter rule stems from an extremely non-violent sect that eschews such produce because uprooting the food could kill insects, McDaniel said.

The real test is a full month of restrictions that begins in mid-March. Students can only eat food in its natural form; nothing processed. They can’t eat when it’s dark, nor speak to anyone while they eat. They must be celibate, foregoing even hugs, handshakes and extended eye contact. No technology except for electric light. They can read for other classes, but news from the outside world is forbidden.

So why would anyone sign up? It could be because McDaniel requires no term papers or exams. But sophomore Madelyn Keyser, 20, of Castro Valley, California, said that’s misleading.

“In reality, it’s much harder because your grade is based entirely on your participation and your integrity,” said Keyser. As a nursing major at the Ivy League school in Philadelphia, Keyser said she hopes the class will help her become more observant and a better listener to her patients.

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  1. it’s an interesting idea. btw, I didn’t know one could be Buddhist and catholic at the same time.

  2. ron chandonia says:

    The part about swearing off carrots sounded just a bit too PC for my tastes and made me wonder if this was a realistic monastic experience or one conjured up for the hippy-dippy crowd. But the part about mandatory celibacy does bring it back down to earth.

  3. Eugene Pagano says:

    This is probable more difficult for the students than for monks, because they are not residing in a separate community where everyone has consented to the same discipline.

  4. I’d be in favor of swearing off cauliflower!
    Eugene makes a good point in his comment about not having the support of a community, which is a big part of monastic life.

  5. If nothing else, the experience of eschewing the constant distraction of email, twitter, IM’s, etc… can only help cultivate an attention span, which technology has ravaged in this generation of students.

  6. @Ron: “The latter rule stems from an extremely non-violent sect that eschews such produce because uprooting the food could kill insects, McDaniel said.”

    He is taking this discipline from the Buddhist side of the aisle, not the Western monastic side. This course, as described, is not trying to replicate a strictly western, Christian monastic experience.

  7. Yeah that sounds kind of, I don’t know unlikely to work. I’ve heard of people who are Confucian and Christian at the time, which is something I could kind of see. But Buddhism, as I know it, at the very least has views on the afterlife that directly contradict Christianity. Some Japanese Buddhists have something like Heaven, Hell, and even a sort-of Purgatory but I think they still tend to believe in some reincarnation.

  8. You cannot be both. Christ is the only way to eternal life. Even for Buddhists, Jesus is the one who has opened the gates of heaven to them (however he works that out). You may admire the discipline of the Buddhists or whatever, but if you are Catholic, your life is in Christ not in something other than his gospel.

  9. Wow! A college course on Lent!

  10. Nobody is focusing on the important point.

    You have to buy enough mono-color shirts to wear to class, or you have to do enough laundry to make one shirt do the job. That’s a fairly serious expenditure of money, time, and effort for a class on simplicity and not spending money.

    Do I even have any black shirts that don’t have designs on them and aren’t blouses for going out? I don’t know. Especially since black makes me look haggard.

  11. This is in line with some of the most dumb liberal arts classes I’ve ever seen. What’s the point? You can probably summarize a monk’s life in a 20 page chapter in a text book. Is it really educational to act it out? And we used to make fun of the basket weaving classes.

  12. The funny thing is that universities were founded and started back in the middle ages by monks and clerics (Cambridge, Oxford, Le Sorbonne, etc.).

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