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Sunday, Aug. 17, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Monastic comparisons and the rightness of left


By ANATOLE-ROGER PELTIER
MONASTIC DISCIPLINE: Vinaya and Orthodox Monasticism, an Attempt at Comparison, by George Sioris. Chiang Mai: The Knowledge Center, 375 pp., 495 baht (paper).

LEFT VERSUS RIGHT, by George Sioris. Chiang Mai: The Knowledge Center, 150 pp., 195 baht (paper).

George Sioris, a Greek scholar on Asia and a commentator on Asian affairs, has added two new titles to his writings: The first, "Monastic Discipline," is a lengthy study aimed at establishing the similarities as well as the differences between two entirely different monastic systems -- the Theravada Buddhist and the Christian Orthodox.

The second is a short monograph on the significance of the "Left Versus Right" symbolic patterns in the Far East -- from India to Japan.

The Vinaya work seems to break new ground completely. Although there have been a few similar essays of a philological nature in the past that examined the worlds of Buddhist and Christian Catholic monastic discipline, no one until now apparently has attempted a comparison with Eastern Christian monasticism.

Both books can be characterized as basically "academic," yet the author, while trying to maintain academic standards, remains focused on his main aim, which is to reach genuine "learned" readers, those with the intellectual curiosity to explore topics that are very rarely discussed.

With "Monastic Discipline" in particular, Sioris is the first to admit that such an ambitious attempt presupposes that the author "would need more than a scholarly predisposition: He should be fluent not only in English but also in Pali and Greek. Moreover, he should have some personal monastic experiences in both worlds, Buddhist and Christian."

Sioris admits his limitations in this predisposition as he proceeds to follow the steps of an enlightened amateurism.

"Left Versus Right" reveals important new vistas. The tendency has been to view "left" almost always in a negative light. But the truth is different, and this study shows multiple possibilities in the area of symbolism.

The Vinaya study, apart from exhaustive analysis of "convergences" and "divergences" based on careful and insightful textual scrutiny, expands to other crucial related topics such as the relationship between democracy and monasticism, the need for -- or the danger of -- "updating" Vinaya rules, and more. Readers will certainly ponder with special interest these critical issues.

Regardless of whether they agree or disagree with Sioris' views, readers will feel the benefit of the discussions while appreciating the objectivity and moderation that permeate the entire text.

This book not only should serve as a basic reference in the field of comparative religion but also will aid researchers at large. In its general presentation, this work appears as a focal point for the encounter between East and West.

There are some minor reservations, including the absence of an index in the Vinaya study, the elimination in the text of diacritical marks for Pali and Sanskrit terms, the somewhat insufficient presentation of Internet bibliographical materials, a too-small printing format for "Left Versus Right," and a few typographical errors. But these are minor things that should be easily addressed in a future second edition, which is sure to be necessary and welcome.

It is indeed high time that the circle of readers attracted by genuine spirituality like that reflected in the works of Sioris be expanded and sustained in societies that risk loss of their inner religious and moral moorings.

Anatole-Roger Peltier, Ph.D., is a member of the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient. The above books can be ordered by e-mail from dkchmai@loxinfo.co.th or by writing to The Knowledge Center, DK Chiang Mai, 79/1 Kotchasan Road, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand.


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