Trappist monk praying in his cell.

Monasticism (from Greek μοναχός, monachos, derived from Greek monos, alone) is a religious way of life characterized by the practice of renouncing worldly pursuits to fully devote one's self to spiritual work. The origin of the word is from Ancient Greek, and the idea originally related to Buddhist monks in 550 B.C.

In the Christian tradition, males pursuing a monastic life are usually called monks or brethren (brothers), and if females nuns or sisters. Both monks and nuns may also be called monastics. Some other religions also include monastic elements, most notably Buddhism, but also Hinduism and Jainism, though the expressions differ considerably.


Buddhist monasticism

The Sangha or community of ordained Buddhist bhikkhus (similar to monks) and original bhikkhunis (similar to nuns) was founded by Gautama Buddha during his lifetime over 2500 years ago. This communal monastic lifestyle grew out of the lifestyle of earlier sects of wandering ascetics, some of whom the Buddha had studied under. It was initially fairly eremetic or reclusive in nature. Bhikkhus and bhikkunis were expected to live with a minimum of possessions, which were to be voluntarily provided by the lay community.[1] Lay followers also provided the daily food that bhikkhus required, and provided shelter for bhikkhus when they were needed.[1]

Young Buddhist bhikkhus in Tibet.

After the Parinibbana (Final Passing) of the Buddha, the Buddhist monastic order developed into a primarily cenobitic or communal 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—as encoded in 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).[2]

Buddhist monasticism, with its tradition of councils and missions, spread from India to the Middle East and eventually west. It proved to be a significant force for literacy wherever it spread. Christian monasticism followed 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.[1]

A bhikkhu (the term in the Pali language) or Bhikshu (in Sanskrit), first ordains as a Samanera (novice). 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 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. However, celibacy is a fundamental part of this form of monastic discipline.

Christian monasticism

The Monastery of Saint Anthony in Egypt, built over the tomb of Saint Anthony, the "Father of 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.

The Christian monk embraces the monastic life as a vocation for God. His goal is to attain eternal life in his presence. The rules of monastic life are codified in the "counsels of perfection". In his exposition of the Beatitudes (the right way of living according to the law of God) during his Sermon on the Mount, 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 by a wealthy man 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).

Coptic monks between 1898 and 1914

Already in the New Testament there is evidence of Christian monastic living, namely the lives of service rendered by the Widows and the Virgins. In the beginning, in Syria and then in Egypt, Christians felt called to a more reclusive or eremitic form of 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". Especially in the Middle East, eremitic monasticism continued to be common until the decline of Syrian Christianity in the late Middle Ages.

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 or communal 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 being 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 (Sannyasa). Monastics commit themselves to a life of simplicity, celibacy, detachment from worldly pursuits, and the contemplation of God.[3] A Hindu monk is called a sanyāsī, sādhu, or swāmi.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[citation needed]

Islam and monasticism

Islam does not allow the practice of monasticism. The stand of Islam is, on the one hand, against sexual license; consequently it prohibits fornication and adultery, and blocks all ways leading to them. On the other hand, Islam is also against suppressing the sexual urge; accordingly, it calls people toward marriage, prohibiting renunciation and castration.

As long a Muslim possess the means to marry, he is not permitted to refrain from marriage on the grounds that he has dedicated himself to the service or the worship of Allah and to a life of monasticism and renunciation of the world.

It has been reported that Abu Qulabah narrated;

"Some of the Companions of the Prophet (peace be on him) decided to relinquish the world, forsake their wives, and become like monks. The Prophet (peace be on him) told them with asperity, People before you perished because of their asceticism; they made excessive demands on themselves until Allah brought hardships on them: you can still see a few of them remaining in monasteries and temples. Then worship Allah and do not associate anything with Him, perform the Hajj and the ‘Umrah, be righteous, and all affairs will be set right for you." (Reported by ‘Abdur Razzaq, Ibn Jarir, and Ibn al-Mundhir)

Abu Qulabah said the following verse was revealed concerning them:

"O you who believe! Do not make haram (forbidden) the good of things which Allah has made halal (Lawful) for you, and do not transgress; indeed, Allah does not like transgressors." (Surah 5: Verse 87)

In another narration we read that one day the son of 'Uthman ibne Maz'un died which so aggrieved him that he declared his house to be a mosque and (abandoning all other work) engaged himself in worship. When the Noble Prophet (S.) came to know of this, he summoned him and said: يَا عُثْمَانَ بْنَ مَظْعُونٍ إِنَّ اللٌّهَ لَمْ يَكْتُبْ عَلَيْنَا الرَّهْـبَانِيَّةَ إِنَّمَا رَهْـبَانِيَّةُ أُمَّتِي الْجِهَادُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللٌّهِ

“O 'Uthman! Surely, Allah, the Blessed and the Exalted has not ordained monasticism for us; monasticism of my ummah is only jihad in the way of Allah.”[7]

In at least one other place The Quran forbids Monasticism explicitly and states it is an invention and Allah did not prescribe it to the Muslims.

"Then We caused Our messengers to follow in their footsteps; and We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow, and gave him the Gospel, and placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him. But monasticism they invented - We ordained it not for them - only seeking Allah's pleasure, and they observed it not with right observance. So We give those of them who believe their reward, but many of them are evil-doers" ( Surah 57: Verse 27)

The famous expression "لاَ رَهْبَانِيَّةَ فِي الإِسْلاَمِ" “There is no (room for) monasticism in Islam”, is witnessed in numerous Islamic sources.[8]

Judaism and monasticism

Judaism does not encourage the monastic ideal of celibacy and poverty. In fact, the Torah and various corresponding Judaic philosophies[examples needed] encourage the pursuit of permitted physical pleasures as a means to "serve God with joy" (Deut. 28:47).

However, until the Destruction of the second temple, about two thousand years ago, taking Nazirite vows was a common feature of the religion. Nazirite Jews (in Hebrew: נזיר) abstained from grape products, haircuts, and contact with the dead.[9] 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.[10] 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.

A form of asceticism was practiced by some individuals in pre-World War II European Jewish communities. Its principal expression was prishut, the practice of a married Talmud student going into self-imposed exile from his home and family to study in the kollel of a different city or town.[11][12] This practice was associated with, but not exclusive to, the Perushim.

The Essenes (in Modern but not in Ancient Hebrew: אִסִּיִים, Isiyim; Greek: Εσσηνοι, Εσσαιοι, or Οσσαιοι; Essēnoi, Essaioi, Ossaioi) were a Jewish sect that flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE which some scholars claim seceded from the Zadokite priests.[13] Being much fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees (the other two major sects at the time), the Essenes lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism, voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including (for some groups) marriage. Many separate but related religious groups of that era shared similar mystic, eschatological, messianic, and ascetic beliefs. These groups are collectively referred to by various scholars as the "Essenes." Josephus records that Essenes existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judæa.

The Essenes have gained fame in modern times as a result of the discovery of an extensive group of religious documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are commonly believed to be Essenes' library -- although there is no proof that the Essenes wrote them. These documents include preserved multiple copies of the Hebrew Bible untouched from as early as 300 BCE until their discovery in 1946. Some scholars, however, dispute the notion that the Essenes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.[14] Rachel Elior, a prominent Israeli scholar, even questions the existence of the Essenes.[15][16][17]

Jain monasticism

Jainism has two branches, each with differing views of monasticism. Digambara monks do not wear clothing, symbolic of their refusal to give in to the body's demands for comfort and private property. But only Digambara ascetics are required to forsake clothing. Digambara ascetics have just 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 total of approx. 6000 Jain monks, 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.[citation needed]

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, and the monks there practice Bön-Buddhism.
  • 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.
  • The Transcendental Meditation movement sponsors two monastic groups: the Thousand-Headed Purusha for men and the Mother Divine for women.[18] The US residences for the groups were in Heavenly Mountain, North Carolina.[18] There is also a Purusha program at an ashram in Uttarkashi, India.[19] The Global Mother Divine Organization is described as the women's wing of the Global Country of World Peace.[20]
  • Zoroastrianism holds that active participation in life through good thoughts, good words and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep chaotic influences 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


  1. ^ a b c What is a bhikkhu?
  2. ^ The Bhikkhuni question
  3. ^ Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism 112 (Viveka Press 1994) ISBN 1-884852-02-5
  4. ^ R.S. McGregor, The Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary (5th ed. 1999) ISBN 0-19-563846-8
  5. ^ Alex Michaels, Hinduism: Past and Present 316 (Princeton 1998) ISBN 0-691-08953-1
  6. ^ Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism 112 (Viveka Press 1994) ISBN 1-884852-02-5.
  7. ^ Biharul Anwar, vol. 70, pg. 114 (Chapter al-Nahi 'an al-Rahbaniyah), no. 1
  8. ^ This tradition has been reported in Majma'ul Bayan under رهب as also in al-Nihayah of Ibn Kathir.
  9. ^ Maimonides Mishne Torah Hilkhot Nazirut 1:1
  10. ^ Maimonides Hilkhot Nazirut 3:1
  11. ^ Eliach, Y. There Once Was A World (Back Bay Books, 1998), p. 780.
  12. ^ Tidhar, D. (1947). Entsiklopedyah le-halutse ha-yishuv u-vonav (Vol. 1, p. 79). Retrieved from [1]
  13. ^ F.F. Bruce, Second Thoughts On The Dead Sea Scrolls. Paternoster Press, 1956.
  14. ^ Hillel Newman, Ph.D Bar Ilan University : Proximity to Power and Jewish Sectarian Groups of the Ancient Period Brill ISBN 9004146997.
  15. ^ Ilani, Ofri (13 March 2009). "Scholar: The Essenes, Dead Sea Scroll 'authors,' never existed". Haaretz. Retrieved 17 March 2009. 
  16. ^ McGirk, Tim (16 March 2009). "Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls 'Authors' Never Existed". Time.,8599,1885421,00.html. Retrieved 17 March 2009. 
  17. ^ "Rachel Elior Responds to Her Critics". Jim West. 15 March 2009. Retrieved 17 March 2009. [unreliable source?]
  18. ^ a b Williamson, Lola (2010). Transcendent in America:Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion. NYU Press. p. 103. ISBN 9780814794500. 
  19. ^ Massing, Dana (August 11, 2007). "TM quiets mind, rests body says Erie man". Erie Times-News: p. 1. 
  20. ^ "The Global Mother Divine Organization: About Us". Archived from the original on October 7, 2010. 

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

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.


Look at other dictionaries:

  • Monasticism — • The act of dwelling alone (Greek monos, monazein, monachos), has come to denote the mode of life pertaining to persons living in seclusion from the world, under religious vows and subject to a fixed rule, as monks, friars, nuns, or in general… …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Monasticism —    Monasticism began in Egypt (q.v.) with the asceticism (q.v.) of third century eremites, also called anchorites (qq.v.), as well as monks (from monachos, a man who has forsaken society to devote himself to God), who lived in cells (q.v.) in the …   Historical dictionary of Byzantium

  • Monasticism — is based on loving to be completely devoted to worship. Monasticism systems: 1 Solitude (Hermits): a monk lives in a cell or cave. 2 Coenobitic discipline where monks live together, participating in some prayers and eat together. 3 Communal Order …   Dictionary of church terms

  • Monasticism — Mo*nas ti*cism, n. The monastic life, system, or condition. Milman. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • monasticism — 1795, from MONASTIC (Cf. monastic) + ISM (Cf. ism) …   Etymology dictionary

  • monasticism — [mō nas′təsiz΄əm, mə nas′tə siz΄əm] n. the monastic system or way of life …   English World dictionary

  • monasticism — /meuh nas teuh siz euhm/, n. the monastic system, condition, or mode of life. [1785 95; MONASTIC + ISM] * * * Institutionalized religious movement whose members are bound by vows to an ascetic life of prayer, meditation, or good works. Members of …   Universalium

  • monasticism — Synonyms and related words: Albigensianism, Catharism, Franciscanism, Sabbatarianism, Trappism, Waldensianism, Yoga, abstinence, anchoritic monasticism, anchoritism, asceticism, austerity, bachelordom, bachelorhood, bachelorism, bachelorship,… …   Moby Thesaurus

  • MONASTICISM —    the abandonment of ordinary life and family responsibilities to live in celibate religious communities. The earliest example of monasticism is the Sagha in BUDDHISM from which it spread first into HINDUISM and then CHRISTIANITY …   Concise dictionary of Religion

  • monasticism — monastic ► ADJECTIVE 1) relating to monks or nuns or their communities. 2) resembling monks or their way of life, especially in being austere or reclusive. DERIVATIVES monastically adverb monasticism noun …   English terms dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”