Sample entry from the Encyclopedia of Monasticism

Internet, Buddhist and Christian

The Internet Matrix

The Internet came of age during the final decade of the 20th century. Conceived initially as a military command system and then as an academic computing network, it eventually became a popular general-purpose tool for a number of everyday operations. These include electronic transactions (e-commerce, on-line data input, telecommuting, and entertainment), interpersonal communication, information storage, information finding, and long-distance information access. Within less than 30 years, its phenomenal growth (up to 90 percent per year) transformed the original set of four networked computers (in December 1969) into the massive network of networks linking 43.2 million machines (in December 1998) and over 160 million people worldwide.

As a device for finding and accessing remotely stored data and as a medium for worldwide publication of documents, the Internet is a novel and revolutionary tool. It drastically redefines the relationships, some of them centuries old, formed between people (both as individuals and as groups) and information. The speed, energy, ease, and miniscule cost with which text, graphic, and acoustic information can be now created, copied, collated, formatted, and presented for the use by the global audience are unparalleled. Thus, it is likely that the Internet’s long-term effect on the organization of human knowledge and on patterns of social interaction will be as powerful as the earlier and cumulative effects of writing (c. 3500 b.c.), printing (China and Korea in the 11th century and Germany in the mid–15th century), wired and wireless communications, photography, sound recording, and cinematography (mid– to late 19th century).

On-line catalogs in the Library of Congress ( reveal, among 117 million records, the bibliographical details of some 3,050 individual publications on the specialist topic of Christian and Buddhist monasticism. Assuming an average of 200 pages per publication, the library’s catalogs talk about a collection comprising some 610,000 pages, or 2.6 gigabytes of text. In contrast, in November 1998 the Internet provided constant and direct access to full contents of some 6.4 gigabytes of monasticism-related information. This consisted of 640,000 unique pages concerned with monastic people and institutions (among the then total 420 million pages on the Web). According to the AltaVista search engine (, about 115,000 (18 percent) of these pages dealt with Buddhist monasticism, whereas the remaining 525,000 or (82 percent of the sample) dealt with Christian monasticism.

Present-day libraries store, catalog, and lend to approved readers data in the form of physical objects (i.e., books and periodicals). Such information is usually of high quality but is slow moving, largely uncopyable, and very difficult to search. Electronic documents handled over the Internet are easy to search, cross-reference, and duplicate. Moreover, digital documents and images are largely freely available to anyone, anytime and anyplace, and often within seconds. However, their major drawback is their disappointingly low quality. Most of the current on-line data are notoriously unreliable and the organization and documentation poor. Ominously, the criteria of truthfulness, objectivity, factual evidence, and freedom from errors of omission and commission are still not key issues on the Internet. Instead, the ease with which information can be tracked down and copied, connection speeds, and the monetary cost of data and their novelty and entertainment value seem to be the prime concerns.

Throughout this article, data and trends, unless marked otherwise, refer to the situation on the Internet in late 1998. Most of the observations refer to Web-based resources constructed in European languages. The term monastery is applied to both male and female houses. This article deals only with developments involving official monastic organizations. Thus, no attempt is made to discuss the parallel networked universe of lay groups that are inspired by the contemplative traditions of either of the two religions. Finally, cited here are mainly those on-line projects that seem most likely to continue to operate in the next five to ten years.


Degrees of On-Line Monastic Presence

Digital networked documents that pertain to Buddhist and Christian monasticism form two large and distinct groups: materials created within and materials created without the context of monastic life. The first group consists of about 40 percent Buddhist and 47 percent Christian Web pages. These documents have been created by the monks and nuns themselves to introduce and describe their communities, to communicate and interlink with one another, and to contact and instruct unspecified but potentially numerous and interested members of the general public.

Monasteries, in the course of their discovery and colonization of the Internet, seem to go through the following sequence of phases:

1. Isolation. Contacts with the world are accomplished through travel, visits, and exchange of written or printed materials.

2. Traditional technology. Phones, faxes, and radio transmitters are used. (For example, in 1998 the Meteora group of monasteries in Thessaly, Greece, appeared to have phones but no presence on the Internet.) Electronic files are produced on standalone computers, and initial experiments with e-mail are conducted.

3. Incipient networking. E-mail is used regularly, but the addresses are cryptic (e.g., jxm306@ . . .). The first personal and corporate home pages are established on servers run by nearby friendly academic, nongovernmental, and commercial organizations. The sites are monolingual. Monasteries initially place their files within impromptu, haphazardly labeled subdirectories (e.g., the Russian Orthodox Monastery in Colorado uses Subsequently, the more meaningfully labeled directories are used (e.g., the Hosshin-ji Zen Monastery in Fushihara, Japan, uses, and the Abhayagiri Forest Monastery in California uses Resources are developed by in-house boffins and maintained on an ad hoc basis.

4. Regular networking. E-mail addresses assume legible formats (e.g., john.martin@ . . .). The number and variety of Web documents grow steadily. Complicated file structures, ornamental graphics, video files, animations, sound effects, and Java scripts are used and abused. Interactive input pages, on-line databases, localized search engines, and "cyberstores" become common. Sites continue to be monolingual. Monasteries register dedicated, often eponymous domain names. For example, the Dharma Drum Monastery in Ching Shan, Taiwan, uses; the Chi Lin Nunnery in Hong Kong uses; the Namgyal Monastery (i.e., H.H. Dalai Lama’s personal one) in Dharamsala, India, uses; the Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, uses; the St. Anthony Coptic Orthodox Monastery in California uses; the Hermitage of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Russian Orthodox) in St. Louis, Missouri, uses; and Tyniec (Benedictine) Abbey in Krakw, Poland, uses Regularly maintained resources are developed by friendly volunteers and commercial firms.

5. Expert networking. Digital maturity is reached. E-mail addresses are used to distinguish persons (e.g., john.martin@ . . .) and functions (e.g., porter@ . . ., abbot@ . . ., scriptorium@ . . ., or it-support@ . . .). On-line documents become shorter and greatly simplified. Their universal legibility and minimal transmission times start being appreciated. Documents are provided in more than one language. The more ornamental pages are also available in the plain-text formats. Information services are used for systematic and thoughtful interaction with on-line visitors. Monasteries are able manage their own Internet connectivity. In-house information technology (IT) teams are established. Electronic scriptoria explore the best methods for the creation of e-texts and strategies for effective hypertext publishing. Monasteries organize Internet workshops and training courses. They provide design and maintenance of information systems and high-accuracy data conversion services both to other monasteries and to the outside world. Key expert centers emerge (e.g., the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico at and the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota at

The exact timing and speed with which an organization will move from one technological phase to another are dictated by the interplay of many concurrent factors. Internal factors involve the presence of the in-house IT savvy, financial resources, and an openness to and interest in the world. The internal dynamics of the monastic group itself also play a role. The essential external factors include the availability of a reliable supply of electricity (from a grid, generator, or solar panels), an inexpensive yet sturdy telephone network, the presence of Internet connectivity providers in the country, and the absence of an adverse political climate or administrative regulations.

Clearly, the reasons for which three, say, Buddhist monasteries, each located in a different country (e.g., Scotland, India, and Tibet), might or might not have an on-line presence are bound to be different in each case.


The Structure of a Monastic Web Site

Corporate monastic Web pages belonging to a given faith are always situated within the context of concentrically nested and interdependent information fields. These are (1) the world of paper and other nondigital, nonnetworked information; (2) the Internet as a whole; (3) the Web-based cyberspace; (4) the whole of the Buddhist (Christian) cyberspace; (5) the monastic Buddhist (Christian) cyberspace; (6) the cyberspace of a given monastic lineage/order; and (7) a Web site belonging to a given community. The Buddhist and Christian parts of the monastic Internet exist in almost complete isolation from each other. Only very recently did the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID;, a task group established in 1978, begin the on-line charting and documentation of emerging conversations, encounters, and mutual exchanges between monastics of different religions.

On the whole, monastic information systems, regardless of their denomination or religion, have very similar architectures. About 12 component elements are organized in roughly the same manner.

The advertised entry point to the monastic corporate site is through a (1) carefully designed home page. The page has a simple and easy to remember address. For example, the Shasta Abbey (Order of Buddhist Contemplatives) Monastery in California uses The home page is almost always adorned with an impressive logo. The self-activating sound files (with suitable chants or music) and animated images also tend to be provided. Such electronic gadgetry commonly is excessive and badly integrated so that it overloads and crashes visitors’ browsers.

The home page leads to a fivefold group of factual documents: (2) the community’s objectives and brief history; (3) a page with postal and e-mail addresses, phone and fax numbers, and instructions on how to reach the place by train, bus, or car; (4) schedules of regular internal activities; (5) details of events, training courses, and spiritual retreats that are open to public; and (6) information on schools or colleges that the monastery or convent might operate and for which separate sets of factual pages are developed (e.g., for the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association in California and for the Sacred Heart Convent School in Bangkok, Thailand).

Next come links from the home page to documents that are aimed at the education and involvement of electronic visitors. These links offer a weary cyber traveler a modicum of electronic hospitality. Buddhist sites tend to include short but illustrated (7) biographies of the founders or main teachers and (8) pages containing collections of his or her Dharma talks. However, Christian sites that tend to include the biographical details of the monastery’s current members are not common. Instead, information is provided about the order’s founders, and a link is given to an external site, usually an academic one (see the following section on lay resources), with a collection of e-texts of the founder’s key religious writings.

In both traditions an important part is played by (9) electronic outreach. Christian sites publish Web pages with general spiritual advice and counsel and supplement them with analyses of Christian monastic ideals. These are frequently followed by details of vocational opportunities and formative programs. Additionally, a page specializing in computer-mediated prayers might be provided. For example, the Monks of Adoration (St. Augustine) in Massachusetts ( offer, through the RealAudio narrowcasting software, an on-line edition of Chanted Rosary and a live Webcam filming their chapel. Other monasteries seem to favor less flamboyant contacts. For example, since 1995 Zen Mountain Monastery in New York State ( runs a "Cybermonk" service "where a senior monastic is available through e-mail ( to answer your Dharma questions." Similarly, the Order of St. Benedict in Collegeville, Minnesota (, established in April 1995), invites electronic visitors to "send or leave a message in the ‘Pilgrims’ Parlor’ or join the discussion about lectio divina at the ‘Tabula’ (i.e. local electronic message board)."

Well-established Buddhist and Christian monastic Websites might run (10) electronic shops that are a part of the monastery’s fund-raising programs. Cyberstores sell mainly inspirational books and CDs with religious music. Frequently, the book and CD sales are accomplished with the aid of such on-line behemoths as and Barnes & Noble, which pay their monastic affiliates a 5 to 15 percent commission on each purchase. In addition, Buddhist on-line shops sell altar supplies, meditation cushions, statues of the Buddhas, and refrigerator magnets. On the other hand, their Christian counterparts tend to specialize in gourmet foodstuffs and "monastery blend" coffee and teas. Orders and credit card payments can be submitted by fax or e-mail from anywhere in the world. Undoubtedly because of the Internet, even the most isolated monastic community can have the same access and the same exposure to the world as its counterparts from densely populated metropolises.

Once the monastery’s use of the Internet has matured, it is likely that it will place on-line some of its (11) newsletters and magazines. A directory of Benedictine electronic resources, maintained by the Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton, North Dakota (, lists 31 on-line journals and newsletters produced by the houses in the United States. In contrast, on-line Buddhist monastic journals are less common. A catalog of electronic serials maintained by the Buddhist Studies WWW Virtual Library ( points to the existence of about 50 Buddhist on-line periodicals, but only ten of them are produced within the monastic context.

The final element of a monastic Web site is a (12) directory of links to related Internet resources. Christian sites, quite wisely, tend to abstain from individual cataloging efforts. Instead, they make a link to directories provided by their parent organizations. For example, the Catholic Information Center on Internet ( and the Anglicans Online ( manage comprehensive lists of their religious orders that have a presence on the Internet. The headquarters of the Cistercian Order of the Strict (Trappist) Observance ( maintains an authoritative directory of its orders’ Internet addresses. Similar services are centrally supplied by the regional headquarters of the Orders of St. Benedict (, Dominicans (, Carmelites (, Franciscans (, and the (Hospitallers) Order of Malta ( Up-to-date and consolidated lists of the on-line Orthodox monasteries ( also exist. Finally, incipient and thus somewhat chaotic registers are kept by the Coptic Society of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite (

For the Buddhist Internet such monastic-run central facilities have not yet evolved. With the exception of the services of the Chogye Order in Korea ( or the single-handed efforts of a Theravadin monk Ven. Pannyavaro, who maintains BuddhaNet in Sydney, Australia (, each Buddhist site keeps its own catalog of monastic resources. By doing so, each site by and large replicates the work already done by other Buddhist sites. Thus, the need for authoritative and up-to-date central catalogs are filled by the nonmonastic initiatives, such as DharmaNet’s ( directories of U.S. and overseas lay and monastic Dharma centers and the register maintained at the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism in Kyoto, Japan (


Monastic Attitudes toward the Internet

Although e-mail has been used by religious organizations since the early 1980s, it is only from late 1993 onward (since the advent of the Web) that the Internet became a factor significantly affecting the life and operations of all communities in all parts of the world. Interestingly, despite the emergence of many thousands of Buddhist monastic information systems, these do not seem to have a clearly stated policy regarding the use of the Internet as such. In addition, no public discussion has taken place regarding the nature and range of on-line interactions between various monastic groups. Like the Internet itself, Buddhist cyberspace continues to be polycentric, individualistic, unconscious, and uncoordinated. However, a very different strategy has begun to evolve among the Roman Catholic orders.

In February 1997 the Benedictine Internet Commission (BIC) ( was formed to consider how rapidly developing technology can best be used to extend the Benedictine way of life and make it accessible to people throughout the world. The 21-person expert team of monks and nuns from the United States, England, and Germany commenced the task by reviewing, through meetings and e-mail exchanges, the pros and cons of the monastic Internet. The arguments in favor of the Internet are extension of hospitality, connectivity, information exchange, vocation outreach, oblate information, resource sharing, prayers, visibility, and formation. The negative aspects were also identified: addiction to browsing and e-mail, intrusiveness, cost, lack of expertise and equipment, untrustworthy or low-quality information, and the loss of the subtleties of face-to-face communication. Members of the BIC have also organized a "Monasticism and Technology" forum, a series of training seminars, and a "Monastic WebWeaver’s Retreat."

The BIC’s final report, accepted in October 1998 by the Presidents of the OSB Federation, emphasized the need for "being prudent stewards of this new tool of the monastery." The report identified five areas of special importance to the monastic houses today: (1) the need to expand their monastic digital and network literacy; (2) the opportunity to interconnect monasteries; (3) the application of technology to enhance and expand the scope of monasteries’ ministries and hospitality, including electronic hospitality; (4) the promotion of global awareness among monasteries, especially those in developing countries and isolated areas; and (5) the emergence of new technologies and new issues in monastic formation. The report made 16 specific recommendations that advocated the widespread, systematic, informed, thoughtful, ethical, productive, creative, and community-orientated (i.e., cooperative) application of the Internet to monastic purposes. The recommendations were made so that, to quote the report’s words, "we are not directed by the tools themselves, become addicted to their use, or use them inappropriately. We must be on guard not to allow their use to become a divisive force in our communities or make us elitist, dividing us from those without the same access" (Benedictine Internet Commission, 1998).

The BIC was subsequently transformed into a permanent section of the American Benedictine Academy ( and was charged with providing technical advice and help to interested abbots and prioresses. The Benedictines’ pioneering work undoubtedly will greatly inform any policy discussions yet to be undertaken by other orders.


Lay Resources with Information about Monasticism

In addition to the on-line resources developed by the monastics themselves, 60 percent of related Buddhist and 53 percent of Christian documents have been built by lay users of the Internet. Nonmonastic materials form three subgroups: (1) details of publications that can be purchased on- and off-line from academic and commercial booksellers (5 percent of Buddhist and 4 percent of Christian resources fall into this category); (2) popular information resources, such as news and promotions of tourist attractions (Buddhism 45 percent, Christianity 27 percent); and (3) materials associated with the scholarly endeavors of research institutes and universities (Buddhism 10 percent, Christianity 22 percent).

The contributions of university presses, publishers, and booksellers are mainly in the form of public access on-line catalogs and databases of relevant books. Such digital resources amply supplement catalogs issued by monastic publishers (e.g., St. Austin Press at and Franciscan Printing Press at

On-line news is distributed daily by numerous national and local electronic newspapers. The topics range from sensational headlines, such as "The Case of the Nefarious Nuns," "Romanian Police Beat Nuns at 1997 Christmas Mass," and "Vietnam’s Monks Return to Forefront of Protests," to more inspirational stories, such as "Buddhist Nuns Dedicate New Nunnery," "Jewish-Christian Relations: Jewish ‘Convent Children’ Thank Their Saviours," and "Sister Scholastica Celebrates Her 100th Birthday."

Ample tourist information is mounted on-line by tour operators, government culture-promotion agencies, and large numbers of nostalgic travelers. About 25 percent of all on-line photographs and texts belonging to this category advertise the monastic complexes of Greece. The monasteries of Tibet, Russia, and Ireland claim another 25 percent of the promotions. The next 25 percent of those amateurish and semiprofessional travel e-leaflets are dedicated to monasteries in the United States, England, Italy, Nepal, and Mexico. The remaining percentage of the on-line "tourism, heritage and culture" materials covers monastic architecture and art from other parts of the world.

The most dependable lay resources are those created and maintained within academic contexts. Such materials provide critical and scholarly accounts and analyses of the history, organization, and significance of the monastic institutions of both faiths. A prominent role in these is played by specialist electronic agoras and discussion groups that are managed through numerous mailing list servers belonging to universities and occasionally commercial organizations. In late 1998, among some 137,000 electronic agoras worldwide, nine lists dealt with Christian monasticism and four with Buddhism.

Among the Christian lists, only one, (Benedictine Order), is dedicated to monastic subscribers. Other lists, such as (Dominican laity, established in August 1994, 50 subscribers) and (Franciscan Order, date of establishment unknown, 237 subscribers), although designed for the monastics, are open to lay participants as well. This trend is repeated by (history and concerns of Catholic women religious, date of establishment unknown, 1,126 subscribers) and (Orthodox Christianity, established in the autumn of 1989, 1,180 subscribers). A highly specialized service is provided by the electronic discussion group (needs and interests of former members of women’s religious communities, established in March 1998, 45 subscribers). This is a forum only for women from Catholic and other backgrounds. Finally, nuggets of useful information can be found on (Christian contemplative tradition, established in March 1997, 130 subscribers) and (Maronite Christianity, established in June 1998, eight subscribers).

Only one of the existing Buddhist lists seems to specialize in monastic topics: (lay practitioners associated with the Theravadin "Forest Sangha" monasteries, established in February 1997, 70 subscribers). Other lists are more general and focus either on Buddhism as a whole (e.g.,, Buddhist academic list, established in October 1991, 710 subscribers) or on the activities of one of its major schools (, Theravada Buddhism, and, Ch’an/Zen academic list, established in August 1993, 295 subscribers).

In addition to mailing lists are on-line research articles, book reviews, and rare specialist journals, for example, Magistra: A Journal of Women’s Spirituality in History, established in July 1995 (, and the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, established in 1994 (, which also acts as the primary distributor for the first public domain electronic version of the Pali Canon, compiled in Sri Lanka. Another cluster of lay materials, modified on annual basis, is formed by the on-line lecture notes and syllabi of courses. Christian monasticism is usually covered by courses on Western civilization, medieval art and architecture, medieval history, early church history, theology, or even the business and cultural environment in Egypt. On the other hand, Buddhist monasticism tends to be handled by units on religious studies, world religions, or the history of Buddhism or as a part of the more specialized courses, such as the sociology of rulership and religion or the anthropology of China.

Important data are additionally provided by on-line bibliographies, ranging from catalogs of the Greek manuscripts of the Philotheou (Mount Athos) Monastery (, medieval and early modern deeds (, and the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library Collection ( to bibliographies of the rule of St. Benedict (, English and Irish monasticism (both at, patristics and early Church history (, hermits, and Latin Church institutions (both at to bibliographies of Buddhist religion (, Sinhala (Sri Lankan) Buddhism (, koan studies (, and Chinese cultural studies (

Related to bibliographies are directories of expert Internet resources: Matrix (women and Christian religious communities, 500–1500,, NetSerf (medieval research,, Argos: Ancient and Medieval Internet (, and Project Muse (humanities’ searchable on-line journals, Some sites have hagiographies, such as Biographical Sketches of Memorable Christians of the Past (, and archives of pertinent electronic texts and images, such as Encyclopedia Coptica (, the 38 volumes of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (, patristic files (, the Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts site (, and a catalog of illuminated manuscripts on the Web (, the files of the Electronic Buddhist Text Initiative (EBTI;, the on-line repositories of the Center for Buddhist Studies at the National Taiwan University (, the Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art (, and the galleries of the Asian Arts Online Journal (

Finally, valuable and pertinent reference materials can be found on-line at public access sites, such as the Catholic Encyclopedia (, ORB Online Encyclopedia (, and the Early Church On-Line Encyclopedia (Ecole) Initiative ( No equivalent on-line encyclopedias deal explicitly with Buddhism. However, some of the introductory information for that religious tradition and its monastic life can be gleaned from commercial information servers, often residing on restricted-access subnetworks, such as Grolier or the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

T. Matthew Ciolek


See also Archives, Western Christian; Dialogue, Intermonastic: Christian Perspectives; Libraries: Western Christian


Further Reading

Benedictine Internet Commission, Final Report, 15 January 1998:

Ciolek, T. Matthew, and Irena M. Goltz, editors, "The Internet Studies Page," in Information Quality WWW Virtual Library, 1999:

Gilster, Paul, Digital Literacy, New York: Wiley Computer Publishing, 1997

Ojeda-Zapata, Julio, "Monks on the Net," St. Paul Pioneer Press, 1 October 1995:

Zakon, Robert H., Hobbes' Internet Timeline, 1998:

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