The gates are locked. A group of Penn students stand in the dark outside Woodlands Cemetery, contemplating how to enter the grounds. Their task? Search the 54–acre graveyard filled with thousands of graves for the one tombstone with red–letter Japanese writing. Silently.
The group heads to the back and decides to climb the fence, hoisting each other over one by one. They disperse and wander through the fog with the same goal in mind: Find the grave. Once they do, they head back to campus and begin their days of class. Aside from the 16 students in on the plan, no one else knows of the outing.
The students aren’t on a scavenger hunt. They’re enrolled in RELS 356, Professor Justin McDaniel’s course on monastic and ascetic ways of living, offered every other year. Asceticism, a lifestyle involving self–discipline and restraint from indulgence, is a practice linked to Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, among other religions. The class, “Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life,” requires students to live as monks for a full month of their semester. After practicing monasticism—and isolating themselves from their typical Penn lives in the process—students come away with a unified community, one unobtainable anywhere else on campus.
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“I want to get into the raw experience of actually doing things, and I want the students to do that as well. So there’s no exams, there’s no papers, there’s no reading, but it’s a very difficult course.”
Justin McDaniel, creator and professor of the course and Religious Studies Department Chair, aims to teach students how monks and nuns live the ascetic life in order to understand their souls and lives. To do so, McDaniel divides the course into several types of restrictions. No eating processed or packaged foods, or eating when it’s dark outside. No dressing in colors other than white for men, black for women. No speaking to anyone except for the professor and one designated partner in the course. No touching themselves or others. No spending more than $50–80 per week. No technology.
“You’re basically plain, as plain as possible…and it’s not for you, it’s so that you’re not a distraction, you’re not noticed by others,” McDaniel said.
Students spend the first few weeks of the course getting used to the restrictions in preparation for one month in the middle of the semester where the rules are at their strictest. “The goal of almost every monastic system throughout the world is the building of hyper–awareness of your thoughts, your speech, and your body,” McDaniel explained.
The rules regarding communication are especially challenging.
At first, students are allowed to speak freely. After a few weeks, students are restricted to one hour of internet usage a day and only roughly 100 spoken words. Finally, once the one–month stretch arrives, students are reduced to complete silence. No verbal communication, no cellphones, no texting—nothing.
“That was definitely a big challenge,” said Julia Hintlian, a senior religious studies major. “Not being able to call my mom, not being able to have that person to check in with everyday. You’re on your own.”
Because students cannot use technology during their month of silence, they handwrite their essays and applications. “That was probably the most challenging part because you couldn’t get back to people who would send you emails and I was applying for a summer internship,” Julia shared. “Every time there was paperwork, applications to fill out, written by hand…a lot of things that we take for granted I had to go out of my way to do.”
A majority of the course’s former students noticed a dramatic improvement in their academic performance during the semester that they took the class. Although balancing other courses may seem impossible given the course’s restrictions, students have had surprisingly few problems. “I have a 100% success rate in the four times I’ve taught the course, not one student has ever gotten lower grades. And almost every student’s grades have shot up,” Professor McDaniel shares.
Professor McDaniel attributes this rise to the amount of time that is no longer wasted on “empty communication” like social media and other forms of technology. Khadija Tarver (C ‘16) thinks it may have to do with the class’s tight structure. “I just did my work because you don’t really have that much to do,” Khadija explains. “You can’t talk to anybody, you can’t read for pleasure, you just are allowed to do your work and then exist in life.”
And with strict rules come strict punishments. Students are divided into four–person rule–breaking committees that rotate with each infraction. These punishments include counting every window and door in the Harrison high rise, counting grains of rice, repeatedly walking the crosswalks of the intersection at 34th and Walnut—all in an attempt to gain awareness.
“[It] was a good way to take a step back from life and just view it from the outside and get a clarity that you don't get when you’re actively involved with everything all the time,” Julia said.
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Essential to an understanding of the course is an understanding of the man behind it all. Above all, McDaniel is a storyteller. Jacob Wallenberg (W ‘16), a brother of Psi Upsilon (commonly known as Castle) and former IFC president, was inspired to take the class after hearing McDaniel speak about Buddhism at his fraternity. “More than anything he’s a fantastic storyteller. It was Halloween and I was in a costume...but he was so good at telling the story that by the end we were just sitting and staring at him.”
Born into an extremely religious Catholic family, McDaniel first explored Buddhism at age 19, when he met monks while living in Laos and Thailand. He taught Buddhism and comparative religion courses in Southern California and noticed that his students were also fascinated by monastic life.
“A question I would always raise to them in all my larger classes is, ‘Why has almost every religion across the globe posited the idea that you have to suffer in order to get paradise?’” McDaniel explained.
“What if instead of tackling this fundamental question in the human experience, why not try to just do what monastics do, instead of studying about them through texts? That was the basic premise of the idea.”
McDaniel strives to build a diverse atmosphere for his students, partly through a comprehensive application process for the class. The process involves an interview and a test comprised of conceptual questions—such as describing the difference between a bell and a whistle—aimed at unearthing the students’ way of thinking. As a result, the course connects people from all across campus.
“They’re out of their peer group, and they get to hear different stories and different experiences and I think that’s important for them,” McDaniel says. “We say in college that you’re going to have a diverse experience but most of us actually just go to our own groups.”
“I think one of the things that this class does is it allows you to introspect a lot more and learn a lot more about yourself,” Khadija says. “I just wanted to do something challenging, something different, something you don't really get an opportunity to do at any other school and just see what, kind of, I need to do as a person.”
Beyond academic life, students made surprising discoveries in their own personalities. “Immediately after I was just so much quieter,” Khadija admits. After a month of not speaking, Khadija found herself recognizing the mindless chatter that used to be part of her daily life. Refraining from communication helped drastically change the way she now connects. “I definitely have a different approach to communication. It’s more, ‘Does that thing need to be said? What are the effects of the things you have to say?’ When it comes to the meaningful things I’m a lot less rash or quick off the gun.”
Yet as each student recognized new things in themselves, they recognized new things in each other, making the community stronger. “For me personally, there were a lot of things that I wanted to change for myself and I did change for myself,” Khadija shared. “Kind of grappling with who you are, who you want to be and how you want people to see you.”
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“It’s an interesting experience doing it in a place like this because it creates a contrast,” Jacob explained.
Jacob took the class while living in his fraternity house and felt that striking a balance of the two lifestyles is nearly impossible. “Coming into a room where there’s been a party and you can still sort of feel it and you know that you’re just not a part of this at all. It’s not compatible.”
What Jacob was a part of, though, was a community of people who connected on a deeper level despite this incompatibility. It is this factor of the tight–knit group that makes “Living Deliberately” unique.
"I think I was in the dining hall of our house and one other guy who’s taking the class with me is in the room with me, and the third guy comes in, and realized that it’s just the three of us and none of us can talk, and we just sort of look at each other, nod a little bit, giggle a little bit, and the laughter escalates," Jacob remembers. “Someone walks in who isn’t in the class, and he just sees three people who haven’t spoken in three weeks stand with each other and laugh at nothing."
“I remember coming into class that Monday when we were free and everybody had these huge grins on their faces,” Julia recalls. “Not necessarily because we were happy that it was over but also because we understood what we had been through.”
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Justin McDaniel’s “Living Deliberately” course is tough, but students experience it together. They enroll for the purpose of religious study and self–discovery, but leave with a group of people unlike any other on campus. With McDaniel, this does not go unnoticed.
“It makes me happy just thinking about the course because they’re wonderful. And when you’re old like me, you start to get very depressed about the young generation,” Professor McDaniel sighs. “This completely renews my faith in the future of humanity. It’s like wow, we have some really wonderful, wonderful human beings. Let their minds settle and wow, it’s really impressive.”
Emily Schwartz is a freshman in the College from Chicago. She is a Film and TV Beat for Street.