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Monasticism (from Greek: monachos—a solitary person) is the religious practice of renouncing all worldly pursuits in order to fully devote one's life to spiritual work. Many religions have monastic elements, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Jainism, though the expressions differ considerably. Those pursuing a monastic life are usually called monks or brothers (male), and nuns or sisters (female). Both monks and nuns may also be called monastics.

In alphabetic order:


Buddhist monasticism

Main article: Buddhist monasticism

The order of Buddhist monks and nuns was founded by Gautama Buddha during his lifetime of over 2500 years ago. The Buddhist monastic lifestyle grew out of the lifestyle of earlier sects of wandering ascetics, some of whom the Buddha had studied under, and was initially fairly eremetic in nature. Monks and nuns were expected to live with a minimum of possessions, which were to be voluntarily provided by the lay community. Lay followers also provided the daily food that monks required, and provided shelter for monks when they were needed.

After the death of the Buddha, the Buddhist monastic order developed into a primarily cenobitic movement. The practice of living communally during the rainy vassa season, prescribed by the Buddha, gradually grew to encompass a settled monastic life centered on life in a community of practitioners. Most of the modern disciplinary rules followed by monks and nuns- the Patimokkha- relate to such an existing, prescribing in great detail proper methods for living and relating in a community of monks or nuns. The number of rules observed varies with the order; Theravada monks follow around 227 rules. There are a larger number of rules specified for bhikkhunis.

The Buddhist monastic order is theoretically divided into two assemblies, the male bhikkhu assembley, and the female bhikkhuni assembly. Initially consisting only of males, the Buddhist monastic order grew to include females after the Buddha's step-mother, Mahaprajapati, asked for and received permission to live as an ordained practitioner.

Monks and nuns are expected to fulfill a variety of roles in the Buddhist community. First and foremost, they are expected to preserve the doctrine and discipline now known as Buddhism. They are also expected to provide a living example for the laity,and to serve as a "field of merit" for lay followers- providing laymen and women with the opportunity to earn merit by giving gifts and support to the monks. In return for the support of the laity, monks and nuns are expected to live an austere life focused on the study of Buddhist doctrine, the practice of meditation, and the observance of good moral character.

Young Buddhist monks in Tibet
Young Buddhist monks in Tibet

A monk, known as a Bhikkhu in Pali or Bhikshu in Sanskrit, first ordains as a Samanera (novice) for a year or more. Novices often ordain at a very young age, but generally no younger than 8. Samaneras live according to the Ten Precepts, but are not responsible for living by the full set of monastic rules. Higher ordination, conferring the status of a full Bhikkhu, is usually given only to men who are aged 20 or older. Nuns follow a similar progression, but are required to live as Samaneras for a longer periods of time- typically five years.

The disciplinary regulations for monks and nuns are intended to create a life that is simple and focused, rather than one of deprivation or severe asceticism. Celibacy is of primary importance in monastic discipline, being seen as the preeminent factor in separating the life of a monk from that of a 'householder'. Depending on the tradition and the strictness of observation, monastics may eat only one meal a day, provided either by direct donations of food from lay supporters, or from a monastery kitchen that is stocked (and possibly staffed) by donations from lay supporters.

Christian monasticism

Main article: Christian monasticism

Monasticism in Christianity is a family of similar traditions that began to develop early in the history of the Christian Church, modelled upon Scriptural examples and ideals, but not mandated as an institution by the Scriptures.

The Order of Friars Minor is a major monastic movement founded by Saint Francis of Assisi.
The Order of Friars Minor is a major monastic movement founded by Saint Francis of Assisi.

While most people think of Christian or Catholic monks or nuns as "something to do with living in a monastery", from the Church's point of view the focus has nothing to do with living in a monastery or performing any specific activity, rather the focus is on an ideal called the religious life, also called the state of perfection. This idea is expressed everywhere that the things of God are sought above all other things, as seen for example in the Philokalia, a book of monastic writings. In other words, a monk or nun is a person who has vowed to follow not only the commandments of the Church, but also the counsels (e.g., vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience). The words of Jesus which are the cornerstone for this ideal are "be ye perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect".

Christian cenobitic monasticism as it is mainly known in the West started in Egypt. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, and especially in the Middle East this continued to be very common until the decline of Syrian Christianity in the late Middle Ages. But not everybody is fit for solitary life, and numerous cases of hermits becoming mentally unstable are reported.

The need for some form of organized spiritual guidance was obvious, and around 300 Saint Anthony the Great started to organize his many followers in what was to become the first Christian monastery. Soon the Egyptian desert abounded with similar institutions.

In the West the rules for monastic communities were set a few generations later by Saint Benedict of Nursia who created the Rule of Saint Benedict at his monastery in Monte Cassino, it would become the most common rule throughout the Middle Ages, spawning many other Religious Orders, and it is still in use today.

19th century Italian Monk in funeral attire
19th century Italian Monk in funeral attire

The idea caught on, and other places followed:

  • Mar Awgin founded a monastery on Mt. Izla above Nisibis in Mesopotamia (~350), and from this monastery the cenobitic tradition spread in Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Georgia and even India and China.

Hindu monasticism

Sadhus (Hindu ascetic) are often seen meditating in padmasana (lotus pose). Used with permission from
Sadhus (Hindu ascetic) are often seen meditating in padmasana (lotus pose). Used with permission from

In Hinduism, monastic tradition varies somewhat from sect to sect. Historically this path has been open to males only, but some traditions now accept female renunciates as well. Hindu monks are called Sadhus and in most traditions are easily recognized by their saffron robes. Vaisnava monks shave their heads except for a small patch of hair on the back of the head, while Saivite monks in most traditions let their hair and beard grow uncut.

A Sadhu's vow of renunciation typically forbids him from:

  • owning personal property apart from a bowl, a cup, two sets of clothing and medical aides such as eyeglasses;
  • having any contact with, looking at, thinking of or even being in the presence of women;
  • eating for pleasure;
  • possessing or even touching money or valuables in any way, shape or form;
  • maintaining personal relationships.

Islamic monasticism

Dervishes -- the name given to initiates of sufi orders -- believe that love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. Many of the dervishes are mendicant ascetics who have taken the vow of poverty. Though some of them are beggars by choice, others work in common professions; Egyptian Qadirites, for example, are fishermen.

There are also various dervish brotherhoods who trace their origins from various Muslim saints and teachers, especially Ali and Abu Bakr. They live in monastic conditions, superficially similar to Christian monk brotherhoods. Various sects and subsects have appeared and disappeared over the centuries.

Whirling dance, which is the practice of the Mevlevi sect in Turkey, is just one of the physical methods to try to reach religious ecstasy (majdhb) and connection with Allah. Rifgites, also called the howling dervishes, cut themselves with knives, handle red-hot iron and eat hot coals or live serpents, depending on the subsect. Other groups include Bektashites, connected to the janissaries, and Senussi, who are rather orthodox in their beliefs. Other brotherhoods and subgroups chant verses of Qur'an, play drums or dance vigorously in groups, all according to their specific traditions. Each brotherhoods uses its own garb and methods of acceptance and initiation, which may be rather severe.

Jain monasticism

Jainism has two branches, each has a slightly different take on monasticism. Digambara monks do not wear clothing; however, they do not consider themselves to be nude -- they are wearing the environment. Digambaras believe that practice represents a refusal to give in to the body's demands for comfort and private property -- only Digambara ascetics are required to forsake clothing . Digambara ascetics have only two possessions: a peacock feather broom and a water gourd. They also believe that women are unable to obtain moksha. As a result, of the around 6000 Jain nuns, barely 100 are Digambaras. The Shvetambaras are the other main Jainist sect. Svetambaras, unlike Digambaras, neither believe that ascetics must practice nudity, nor do they believe that women are unable to obtain moksha. Shvetambaras are commonly seen wearing face masks so that they do not accidentally breathe in and kill small creatures.

Monasticism in other religions

Sikhism specifically forbids the practice of monasticism. Hence there are no Sikh monk conclaves or brotherhoods.

Manichaeism had two types of followers, the auditors, and the elect. The elect lived apart from the auditors to concentrate on reducing the material influences of the world. They did this through strict celibacy, poverty, teaching, and preaching. Therefore the elect were probably at least partially monastic.

Scientology maintains a "fraternal order" called the Sea Organization or just Sea Org. They work only for the Church of Scientology and have signed billion year contracts. Sea Org members live communally with lodging, food, clothing, and medical care provided by the Church.

Ananda Marga has both monks and nuns (i.e. celibate male and female acharya's or missionaries) as well as a smaller group of family acharya's. The monks and nuns are engaged in all kinds of direct services to society, so they have no scope for permanent retreat. They do have to follow strict celibacy, poverty and many other rules of conduct during as well as after they have completed their training.

Yungdrung Bön is believed to have a rich monastic history. Bön monastaries exist today, however, the monks there practice Bön-Buddhism.

See also

Further reading

  • Johnston, William M. (ed.). 2000. Encyclopedia of Monasticism. 2 vols., Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.
  • Zarnecki, George. 1985. The Monastic World: The Contributions of The Orders. pp. 36-66, in Evans, Joan (ed.). 1985. The Flowering of the Middle Ages. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

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