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Trappist praying 2007-08-20 dti

Trappist monk praying in his cell.

Monasticism (from Greek μοναχός, monachos, derived from Greek monos, alone) is the religious practice in which someone renounces worldly pursuits to fully devote their life to spiritual work. The origin of the word is from Ancient Greek, and the idea originally related to Christian monks.

In the Christian tradition, those pursuing a monastic life are usually called monks or brethren (brothers) if male, and nuns or sisters if female. Both monks and nuns may also be called monastics. Some other religions also include what could be described as "monastic" elements, most notably Buddhism, but also Taoism, Hinduism, and Jainism, though the expressions differ considerably.

Buddhist monasticism[]

The order of Buddhist bhikkus (similar to monks) and original bhikkhunis (similar to nuns) (Sangha) was founded by Gautama Buddha during his lifetime 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. Bhikkhus and bhikkunis 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 bhikkhus required, and provided shelter for bhikkhus when they were needed.

Young monks of Drepung

Young Buddhist bhikkhus in Tibet.

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 bhikkhus and bhikkhunis—the Patimokkha—relate to such an existence, prescribing in great detail proper methods for living and relating in a community of bhikkhus or bhikkhunis. The number of rules observed varies with the order; Theravada bhikkhus follow around 227 rules. There are a larger number of rules specified for bhikkhunis (nuns).

Buddhist monasticism with its tradition of councils, missions, and being a source of knowledge and literacy spread from India to the Middle East and eventually west, with Christian monasticism following in its footsteps in the areas where Emperor Ashoka sent missions.

The Buddhist monastic order consists of the male bhikkhu assembly and the female bhikkhuni assembly. Initially consisting only of males, it grew to include females after the Buddha's stepmother, Mahaprajapati, asked for and received permission to live as an ordained practitioner.

Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis 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 bhikkhuss. In return for the support of the laity, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis 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.

A bhikkhu in Pali or Bhikshu in Sanskrit, first ordains as a Samanera (novice) for a year or more. Novices often ordain at a young age, but generally no younger than eight. 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. Bhikkhunis follow a similar progression, but are required to live as Samaneras for longer periods of time- typically five years.

The disciplinary regulations for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis 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.

Christian monasticism[]

Monasticism in Christianity provided the origins of the words "monk" and "monastery" which comprises several diverse forms of religious living that are in response to the call of Jesus of Nazareth to follow him. It began to develop early in the history of the Church, modeled upon Old and New Testament examples and ideals, but not mandated as an institution in the Scriptures. It has come to be regulated by religious rules (e.g. the Rule of St Basil, the Rule of St Benedict) and, in modern times, the Church law of the respective Christian denominations that have forms of monastic living.

Christian monasticism is a way of religious living (also called the "counsels of perfection") that is being embraced as a vocation from God out of a desire to attain eternal life in his presence. During his Sermon on the Mount on the Beatitudes (the right way of living according to the law of God), Jesus exhorted the large crowd listening to him to be "perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). When speaking to his men, Jesus also extended an invitation to celibacy to those "to whom it has been given" (Matthew 19:10–12); and when asked what else is required in addition to observing the Commandments to "enter into eternal life", he advised to sell all earthly possessions in favour of the poor and to follow him, "if you wish to be perfect" (cf. Matthew 19:16–22 = Mark 10:17–22 = Luke 18:18–23).

Already in the New Testament there is evidence of Christian monastic living, namely the service rendered by the Widows and the Virgins. Eventually, first in Syria and then in Egypt, Christians began to feel called also to eremitic monastic living (in the spirit of the "Desert Theology" of the Old Testament for the purpose of spiritual renewal and return to God). Saint Anthony the Great is cited by Athanasius as one of these early "Hermit monks". Starting in Egypt, this gave rise to cenobitic monasticism as it is mainly known in the West. Especially in the Middle East eremitic monasticism continued to be 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 318 Saint Pachomius started to organize his many followers in what was to become the first Christian cenobitic monastery. Soon, similar institutions were established throughout the Egyptian desert as well as the rest of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Notable monasteries of the East include:

In the West, the most significant development occurred when the rules for monastic communities were written, the Rule of St Basil being credited with having been the first. The precise dating of the Rule of the Master is problematic; but it has been argued on internal grounds that it antedates the so-called Rule of Saint Benedict created by Benedict of Nursia for his monastery in Monte Cassino, Italy (c. 529), and the other Benedictine monasteries he himself had founded (cf. Order of St Benedict). It would become the most common rule throughout the Middle Ages and is still in use today. The Augustinian Rule, due to its brevity, has been adopted by various communities, chiefly the Canons Regular. Around the 12th century, the Franciscan, Carmelite, Dominican, Servite Order(see Servants of Mary) and Augustinian mendicant orders chose to live in city convents among the people instead of secluded in monasteries.

Today new expressions of Christian monasticism, many of which ecumenical, are developing in places such as the Bose Monastic Community in Italy, the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem throughout Europe, and the Taizé Community in France, and the mainly Evangelical Protestant New Monasticism movement of America.

Hindu monasticism[]

In their quest to attain the spiritual goal of life, some Hindus choose the path of monasticism (sanyāsa). Monastics commit themselves to a life of simplicity, celibacy, detachment from worldly pursuits, and the contemplation of God.[1] A Hindu monk is called a sanyāsī, sādhu, or swāmi.[2] A nun is called a sanyāsini, sadhavi, or swāmini. Such renunciates are accorded high respect in Hindu society, because their outward renunciation of selfishness and worldliness serves as an inspiration to householders who strive for mental renunciation. Some monastics live in monasteries, while others wander from place to place, trusting in God alone to provide for their physical needs.[3] It is considered a highly meritorious act for a lay devotee to provide sadhus with food or other necessaries. Sādhus are expected to treat all with respect and compassion, whether a person may be poor or rich, good or wicked. They are also expected to be indifferent to praise, blame, pleasure, and pain.[4] A sādhu can typically be recognized by his ochre-colored clothing. Generally, Vaisnava monks shave their heads except for a small patch of hair on the back of the head, while Saivite monks 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 aids 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.

Islam and monasticism[]

While most Muslims do not believe in monasticism (emphasizing the Qur'anic injunction Qur'an 57:27 in which Allah says that monasticism is a man-made practice that is not divinely prescribed), various Muslim Sufi orders, or "tariqas" encourage practices that resemble those of monastic brotherhoods in other faiths.

Dervishes—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; many Egyptian Qadirites, for example, are fishermen.

All genuine dervish brotherhoods trace their origins from two of the close companions of Muhammad, Ali ibn Abu Talib and Abu Bakr. They differ from spiritual brotherhoods of Christianity in that they usually do not live together in a 'monastery' setting; it is actually a stipulation that they have families, and earn an ethical living.

Whirling dance, practiced by the Mevlevi order in Turkey, is just one of the physical methods to try to reach religious ecstasy (majdhb) and connection with Allah. Rif'ai, in their mystical states, apparently skewer themselves without engendering any harm. Other groups include the Shadhili, a gnosis based order who practice the 'hadra' or 'presence', a dance-like breathing exercise involving the repetition of divine names. All genuine brotherhoods and subgroups chant verses of Qur'an, and must follow their form of sharia, or sacred law.

Traditionally monks in Sufism have been known as fakirs. This term has also been applied to Hindu monks.

Jain monasticism[]

Jainism has two branches, and each has a slightly different take on monasticism. Digambara monks do not wear clothing. 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[]

  • Ananda Marga has both monks and nuns (i.e. celibate male and female acharyas or missionaries) as well as a smaller group of family acharyas. 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.
  • Bön is believed to have a rich monastic history. Bön monasteries exist today, however, the monks there practice Bön-Buddhism.
  • Judaism does not support the monastic ideal of celibacy and poverty, but two thousand years ago taking Nazirite vows was a common feature of the religion. Nazirite Jews abstained from grape products, haircuts, and contact with the dead. However, they did not withdraw from general society, and they were permitted to marry and own property; moreover, in most cases a Nazirite vow was for a specified time period and not permanent. In Modern Hebrew, the term Nazir is most often used to refer to non-Jewish monastics. Unique among Jewish communities is the monasticism of the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, a practice believed to date to the 15th century.
  • 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.
  • Sikhism and the Bahá’í Faith both specifically forbid the practice of monasticism. Hence there are no Sikh or Bahá’í monk conclaves or brotherhoods.
  • Zoroastrianism holds that active participation in life through good thoughts, good words and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep the chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster's concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of asceticism and monasticism.

See also[]

  • Carmelite Rule of St. Albert
  • "Into Great Silence" The award-winning documentary of life within the Carthusian monastery of La Grande Chartreuse by Philip Groning.
  • Matha
  • Order (religious)


  1. Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism 112 (Viveka Press 1994) ISBN 1-884852-02-5
  2. R.S. McGregor, The Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary (5th ed. 1999) ISBN 0-19-563846-8
  3. Alex Michaels, Hinduism: Past and Present 316 (Princeton 1998) ISBN 0-691-08953-1
  4. Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism 112 (Viveka Press 1994) ISBN 1-884852-02-5.

Further reading[]

  • Fracchia, Charles. Living Together Alone: The New American Monasticism. Harper & Row, 1979. ISBN 0060630116.
  • Gruber, Mark. 2003. Sacrifice In the Desert: A Study of an Egyptian Minority Through the Lens of Coptic Monasticism. Lanham: University Press of America. ISBN 0-7618-2539-8
  • Johnston, William M. (ed.). 2000. Encyclopedia of Monasticism. 2 vols., Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.
  • Knowles, David. Christian Monasticism. London: World University Library, 1969
  • Lawrence, C. H. 2001. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (3rd Edition). New York: Longmans. ISBN 0-582-40427-4
  • 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.

External links[]