Monasticism: An Overview

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The Greek word monos, from which monasticism and all its cognates derive, means "one, alone." According to this etymology, therefore, the basic monastic person may be a hermit, a wandering ascetic, or simply someone who is not married or a member of a household. However, the term monastic normally refers to people living in community and thus embraces the cenobitic as well as the eremitic and peripatetic lifestyles. In Western societies, the definition of monasticism has often been restricted to its classic manifestations, especially the Benedictine tradition. By this definition clergy who adopt some aspects of monastic life and rule (canons regular or regular clerks), mendicant orders (Franciscan, Dominican, and like associations), and other religious orders are not properly called "monastic." Furthermore, within the classic definition one might be able to include some kinds of non-Christian monasticismthat is, those with goals and life patterns fairly similar to the Benedictinesbut not others.

Nevertheless, many religious traditions feature (with varying degrees of formal institutionalization) a recognizable type of social structure for which monasticism is an appropriate name. The Buddhist sagha, the Christian religious and monastic orders, Jain monasticism, and Hindu sādhus or sanyāsins provide the most obvious examples. Daoist associations and Muslim ūfī orders share many of the essential features of monasticism, although they also have some atypical aspects. Among primitive peoples something like monasticism exists in the phenomenon of secret societies. Other traditions, for example, Judaism and Protestant Christianity, have little expression of this religious possibility. Even within these religions, however, there have been associations much like monastic communities: among the Essenes, for example, and various sixteenth-century Lutheran groups, through the deaconess movement, to a current interest, most notably in the community at Taize, France.

With all these examples in mind, in the following paragraphs I shall attempt to develop a comprehensive analysis of the monastic phenomenon. In order to avoid the gender specificity of monk and nun, persons who exhibit and represent the monastic phenomenon will be called "monastics."

Defining Features

First and most prominent of the essential features of monasticism is the monastic's distinctive social status and pattern of social relationships. The monastic person is identified as one whose self-perception and public role include membership in a special religious category of persons, a status which is deliberate and extraordinary. In some cases the monastic lives with other monastics, but in other cases participation in a communal life may only be sporadic. Most monastics are at least theoretically members of a group, but they may not live with that group for most of their monastic existence. The monastic status can involve either a new home or homelessness.

The second defining feature of the monastic situation is a specific program or discipline of life. The most obvious examples of formal regulations for the monastic life are the Vinaya of Buddhism and the Benedictine rule, but even less clearly defined categories set up expectations concerning appropriate behavior and activities for monastics. Monastic life, in contrast to the rest of human life, is entirely oriented toward a personal religious goal. Hence, the monastic adopts special patterns of living in order to achieve that goal.

Monastic status is differentiated from other religious roles, offices, and functions in that it is not primarily based on performing some service to others in the religious tradition or to the larger society but on the more private cultivation of a path of transformation. A minister, priest, shaman, or similar expert in sacred procedures exhibits a kind of religious leadership dependent on a community to which sacred values are transmitted. Certainly these roles can be merged: some religious professionals also live like monastics. Likewise the monastic person or community can take on many and varied tasks of service, only some of which may be obviously connected to the pursuit of the personal religious goal. Nevertheless, the essential element in any monastic situation is the longterm focus of the monastic life: separation from normal human existence in the pursuit of individual aspirations.

Third, monastic status is celebrated and publicized in various ways. A process of initiation marked by ceremony is very important to public perception as well as to monastic self-consciousness. Monastic status is also often indicated by distinctive clothing, modifications of the body (such as tonsure), and symbolic accoutrements (for example, the Buddhist staff and begging bowl). In many traditions the monastic leaves the arena of family, clan, or similar "natural" grouping and lives in a deserted place. The difference between monastics and others can be expressed through such factors as a different daily schedule: many monastic rules call for interrupted sleep or early rising. A specific diet may be prescribed. In all cases the monastic status represents a new or added identity expressed by specific behaviors, signs, and patterns of relationship to others.

Finally, it is important to note the presence of a larger religious tradition and set of institutions within which the monastic phenomenon takes place. We do not call those institutions "monastic" when the religious community in question is the whole legitimate religious tradition. The Shakers, for example, had many of the patterns of monastic life but constituted a whole church in and of themselves. This is the phenomenon that is more often termed a "sect" or "cult." Monasticism, by contrast, exists as an option within a wider grouping or identity; it is a special possibility that not everyone in that religious group adopts or is expected to adopt.

The optional monastic identity may be central or peripheral to the larger tradition. Christianity can exist without monasticism because, in the "secular" priesthood and episcopal office, it has a social structure and forms of leadership independent of monastic patterns. Such patterns are even less central in Islam, where much of the tradition disowns monasticism completely. By contrast, monasticism is central to Buddhism and Jainism; indeed, the monastic is sometimes thought to be the only true representative of these traditions and the lay community no more than a subordinate support group. Jainism and Buddhism began with monasticism, whereas Christianity manifested this pattern clearly only after a few centuries of existence.

The basic, common features of monasticism, therefore, can be reduced to these four: special status; dedication of monastics to the practice of personal religious disciplines; ritual entry and ongoing identification marked by special appearance; the role of monasticism as an option for some persons within a larger tradition and community. In addition to these features, however, there are many other frequent characteristics of the monastic situation that are not found in all examples.

Frequent Characteristics

Even though the most careful definition of monasticism could not include communal life as a necessary factor, there can be no doubt that monastic existence is rarely completely solitary. Even wandering or hermit monks assemble periodically. These assemblies and the buildings constructed for longterm residence constitute the most visible aspects of monasticism and therefore might assume a larger place in one's perception of the phenomenon than they should. Much that is important to monastic life is personal, private, mental, or otherwise difficult for outsiders to gain access to. It is often only in public ceremonies or visible features such as the monastery itself that the outsider observes the monastic phenomenon. However, any adequate comprehension of monasticism requires a knowledge of the lives, conversations, and writings of monastics.

Sometimes monastic status is lifelong; this would seem to be the normal implication of the initiation into a higher realm. In some situations, however, temporary affiliation with a permanent community or temporary communities is a possibility. In Thailand many young men enter the preliminary stages of monastic life with no intention of persevering. A few months of monastic existence is better than none from their point of view. The Hindu phenomenon of the ashram is also deliberately temporary yet has many of the characteristics of a monastic community. The ashram may be thought of as the stage of life through which a pious Hindu man proceeds on his way from being a householder with a family to becoming a sanyāsin, a wandering, homeless, holy man. The ashram may also be thought of purely in terms of a forest dwelling place of such a man and the community that may gather around him.

Christian religious orders often have some arrangement whereby laypeople can become affiliated with the order without becoming full members. The third order of the Franciscan tradition and the Benedictine oblates are two such orders. In some instances a residential oblate may live just like the other members of the community or order. Certain ūfīs live a kind of monastic existence in addition to being married, and several contemporary Christian religious communities are experimenting with such an arrangement.

Another frequent feature of monastic life and a major dynamic in its communal form is the phenomenon of discipleship and obedience. Monastic aspirants gather around a spiritual master, guru, or initiator who becomes their model and guide. The starets in the Russian Orthodox Christian tradition, the shaykh or murshid in Sufism, and the Zen Buddhist master are prominent examples. The relationship of master and disciple also can be found in nonmonastic situations. In all examples this type of association is much more intense and personal than that normally experienced between teacher and pupil. The master embodies the lesson and mediates transcendent power; radical obedience is an important discipline in the attainment of the monastic goal. Monastics sometimes validate their doctrine and practice by reference to their masters and their masters' masters, forming lineages back to the founders of their traditions.

Another important aspect of much monasticism, yet one not essential to it, is poverty or simplicity of lifestyle. The constitutive factors of distinction from normal or prevailing forms of life and the adoption of a specific rule and discipline are often expressed in the rejection of comforts or luxuries enjoyed by the rest of society. It is ironic that, despite the attempt to be ascetic or plain, monasteries often become quite wealthy. In order to participate in the holiness of the monastic community, the surrounding community characteristically bestows its valuables on the monastery, hoping to exchange them for the treasures of merit, wisdom, and piety cultivated by the monastics. Also the industry and discipline of monastic work has occasionally produced significant wealth. Such accumulation of wealth, as well as other factors that may lead to a change in the character of a monastic community's life over a period of time, have produced successive reforms within long monastic traditions. Benedictine history is a story of reforms: the first notable one took place under the aegis of Benedict of Aniane about three hundred years after Benedict of Nursia founded the order. This was followed by the reform programs of Cluny, the Cistercians, the Trappists, and so on.

Monastic clothing has had great significance in some traditions. In many cases the origin of such clothing was merely an extension of the emphasis on simplicitythe garments of the poor were adopted. ūfīs are so called because of their affirmation of simple wool (ūf) in contrast to the silks of the rich. The ocher robe in India and the various colors of the Christian communities have been important means of identification. There has also been a "romance of the cowl." The monastic garment itself has had a fascination and religious significance, for example in the desire to be buried in a cowl through deathbed profession. In Jain monastic practice we find the unusual phenomenon of nakedness as monastic "clothing." The Digamambara Jain monks are thus "sky-clad" as a precaution against harming even a body louse and as an ascetic discipline, and at the same time to signify their monastic status by departing from the normal way of dressing.

According to one interpretation, monasticism can be understood basically in terms of asceticism; self-denial and the acceptance of pain are the basic reasons for the existence of the institution, from this point of view. Insofar as "asceticism" can refer to any kind of discipline, one cannot argue with this approach. "Asceticism," however, is usually associated with painful and rigorous disciplines, and not all monastic systems prescribe difficult or unusually painful practices. The range is very broad between mild ascetic disciplines and self-denial on a heroic scale, although it is rare that a monastic is not self-conscious about avoiding and rejecting many human potentials and comforts. At the least sleep and eating are usually regulated and reduced. Silence is kept for extended periods. However, ascetic practice is also always a matter of perspective and degree: what seems like suffering to one person might not disturb the comfort of another. If a monastic thinks that suffering must be cultivated in order to achieve a religious goal, many and various techniques may be used. In other situations what might seem like asceticism to the outsider may be understood and experienced more as simplicity and the reorganization of life.

Most monastics in the history of world monasticism have been men; indeed, the founders of monastic orders, including the Buddha, have allowed women to be monastics only reluctantly. This probably has been due more to surrounding cultural factors than to anything intrinsic to monasticism. The avoidance of sexual activity and arousal, however, has been an important aspect of much monastic asceticism. Some monks apparently have thought of women primarily as temptresses, and their literature sounds misogynist. The Orthodox Christian monastic center on Mount Athos, in Greece, forbids entrance to women. By contrast, there is greater interest today in mixed communities and in lessening the isolation of monastics from the rest of society.

Monastic Activity

The program, rule, or discipline that is so important in monastic life varies widely between traditions and monasteries. Some monastics spend their time in liturgical activities, others in devotional or yogic exercises, and many in work that does not seem to be religious at all. The monastic performs any task with its religious effects in mind no matter what its other benefits. The basic monastic purpose is to achieve a religious goal, even if the activities performed by monastics may seem somewhat incidental to such a goal. Apparently irrelevant activity often looms large in specific situations and may provide much motivation for the monastic and support from the larger community. The list of monastic disciplines and activities contains none that are absolutely unique to monasticism but many that have been especially prominent and perhaps easier to pursue within a monastic context.

Meditation and prayer, in their various forms, have been the most important activities in most monasteries: meditation may be discursive, ecstatic, yogic; prayer can be spontaneous, formal, communal, solitary. However, all kinds of religious practice are cultivated in monastic situations. Formal liturgical ceremonies (monastic profession or initiation, sacrifices, and sacred dramas) are frequent and conspicuous aspects of monastic life. Monasteries are known for their communal chanting of sacred texts, as certain ūfī orders are known for their dancing rites; other arts are also developed by monastics in the interests of their religious application. Some monastic traditions have been suspicious of particular art forms, associating them with the luxuries of the world or seeing them as distractions; but even simplicity has artistic intention and power. The stark beauty of a Zen garden or a Cistercian church exemplifies a use of the arts in the service of monasticism as much as more ornate and elaborate artistic expressions.

A special kind of meditation or reflection is important to the monastic endeavor in many places and ways. This is the attention given to every detail of life, both physical and mental. Not only are monastics intent on orienting everything in their lives toward the achievement of religious transformation; their heightened consciousness about the motions and thoughts of everyday life becomes itself a transforming mental discipline. They argue that too much human life is lived unconsciously and thus without purpose or organization. By consciously acknowledging and reflecting on such commonplace activities as breathing, walking, or thinking, the monastic gains a new perspective on the human phenomenon. The smallest building blocks of life may be used to evoke ever-deeper awareness and ultimately enlightenment.

The whole of cenobitic monastic life is choreographed by the rules of the order. Times of sleeping, eating, praying, meditating, and working are all prescribed, and these actions are performed by the monastics in unison. The sounds of bells and other signals punctuate the day and coordinate the many lives of the monastics into a single harmonious program. This attempt to blend individual lives into a larger social unity has been influential as a model for utopian theorists and represents to many lay people an attractive aspect of monastic existence. Religious symbols of unity, harmony, and peace are reinforced by the living of the monastic pattern.

It is not difficult to recognize prayer, meditation, and rituals, which are important in any religious situation, as being important as well in the monastic pursuit of religious transformation. However, monastics also do other works that are not so obviously religious. Many monastic rules demand that the monastic perform menial, common chores, not only because work of that sort must be done by someone in any community of human beings but also because of the meaning that is attached to it within the monastic framework: menial labor may give a form to humility, its rhythms may be seen as an aid in meditation, its performance may be an act of service and obedience to the master, and so on. An emphasis on self-sufficiency and isolation has led monastics and monasteries to be pioneers in foreign and remote areas, performing a service in civilizing or proselytizing. Monasteries have also functioned as hotels and hospitals in remote places.

Some monastic work involves intellectual activity. Benedict's rule emphasizes reading (lectio divina) as a major component of the monastic life along with prayer and work. The path to perfection or religious transformation is often an intellectual path that requires a new understanding of the self and the world. Reading and study in the monastic context is a means of salvation, a technique for the reconstruction of one's worldview. Also, because the rule, religious texts, and other written guides to meditation, prayer, and discipline must be available to monastics, much of their effort has been put to copying, studying, and teaching these materials. Their educational task starts with that monastic necessity, easily comes to include other religious scholarship, and may extend to more "secular" knowledge as well. Wisdom and religious insight may be cultivated for their role in religious transformation, but here, as elsewhere, there is the potential for great benefit to the rest of society incidental to the main goal. The role of Christian monasteries in preserving classical Greek and Latin writings is a famous example of the intellectual byproducts of monasticism. Buddhist vihāras in India and elsewhere have been important centers of learning.

In some situations charitable acts are held to be more important for the monastic than more individual disciplines. A distinction is made within Christian communities between contemplative orders, where activities like those mentioned above predominate, and active orders, where emphasis is placed on work with beneficial effects for others. In the active monastic styles the way to attain deeper or higher religious status is associated with the merit and value of meeting people's needs, in addition to or instead of the cultivation of private pieties. Thus a monastic belonging to an active order may be a teacher, nurse, priest, or support person in some beneficial institution, but with an interest or investment in the work that is beyond that of nonmonastic colleagues. For the monastic such work is part of a discipline or rule, a means toward a religious goal.

The services of monasteries to society as schools, hospitals, and places of hospitality to travelers have been mentioned. Monastics have often provided priestly or pastoral services for their larger communities. Monasteries have also served as orphanages, places of burial, research institutes, and pilgrimage centers. They have provided places of reflection and restoration for individual and communal visits and retreats. It may also be important to people preoccupied with daily, practical concerns that monasteries simply exist; the knowledge that somewhere people are praying and meditating can in itself be beneficial.

A number of answers can be given to the question "Why do people become monastics?" Some of these answers might be given by the monastics themselves; others could be provided by students of human behavior attempting to see beneath and beyond the self-consciousness of participants in a social phenomenon. Some of these responses might seem pejorative or critical of the monastic endeavor, while others would be admiring and adulatory. Some answers are psychological and personal, others more social or historical in focus, and most are complex and ambiguous.

Many people have associated the monastic with words like escape and retreat. This manner of speaking reflects a perception of the monastic world as a realm dominated by an inability or unwillingness to cope with normal life or "the world." This view might lead one to a conception of monastic life as a refuge for the weak or the scrupulous. Insofar as one understands the world and "normal life" to be diabolical or illusory, however, the monastic retreat is the more courageous and realistic option, calling for extraordinary strength and dedication. Monasticism has also been significant as a preserver of culture and civilization in eras when the political structures of the world were weak. Certainly during the disintegration of the Roman Empire monasteries provided islands of tranquillity and an opportunity for the pursuit of intellectual activity that was unavailable in the surrounding society.

The adoption of a markedly different way of living cannot but imply some criticism of the alternatives. Thus some observers have emphasized the role of monastic life as a protest against the prevailing patterns of the world or of the religious tradition. Even without a specific aim of reforming or transforming their traditions, monastics have offered an alternative set of ideals to their coreligionists and in so doing have often, perhaps unwittingly, inspired change.

The meaning of monastic life in specifically religious or theological terms goes beyond the analysis presented above. By means of symbols and doctrines the visible rites and practices of monastic life are understood to be much more significant than is apparent to the outside observer. The theme of death, for example, is prominent in various ways. Through profession or initiation the monastic technically attains a status comparable to that of the dead. Indeed, the death and rebirth symbolism in these rites is often quite clear. Through the transformation of joining the monastic community or adopting monastic status, one enters the realm of being of the angels, the ancestors, or those who have achieved enlightenment. Furthermore, it has been noted that Christian monasticism began when martyrdom ceased, indicating that it took over as the arena of ultimate commitment, the new form in which one could die to the world for one's faith. Buddhist monasticism is also a way of death in that the dharma provides a program for eliminating all attachment to the world as well as any desire to be reborn.

When ascetic activities are stressed in a monastic life they may be understood as penance and sacrifice to atone for sinfulness. Suffering can be thought beneficial to oneself or to others, the latter leading to the possibility of merit and its transfer in the thought of the monastics or their surrounding community. Ascetic practice may be seen as a means of gaining power, not only over oneself but also over others, even the gods, for example in the ideas associated with tapas in Hinduism.

Monastics as well as scholars have understood monastic life primarily as a pursuit of mystical experience. The arīqah in ūfī monasteries can be seen both as a rule and as a method for attaining advanced spiritual life. Many monastics praise and cultivate special states of mind and body, states in which enlightenment, ecstasy, or union with the divine is said to be reached. No matter how advanced the person or the community, however, such states are bound to be rare. Thus, much that is monastic is at best only oriented toward those rare moments, and perhaps quite irrelevant to them. Furthermore, the broad definition and description of monasticism developed in this article includes possibilities for the orientation of monastic existence in other directions. In other words, many monastics may have a conception of the ideal spiritual state that does not center on mystical experiences or realizations, but could instead be focused on charitable, liturgical, or scholarly work to the neglect or exclusion of private mysticism.

One of the criticisms of monasticism has been that it is selfish, that it is in essence a private, individualistic religiosity. That assertion may be true in some instances, but there is much to counter it. Monastic works of charity offer one kind of counterevidence. The social environment of the monastery represents another. Few, if any, monastics have ever been unknown to at least some other people in their environment, and the very fact of their existence has been influential on others. Even if monasticism is centered on the self and its transformation, there has rarely been a monastic for whom the Dominican motto has not been true: "Contemplata aliis tradere" ("To give to others the fruits of contemplation").

Contemporary Monasticism

In recent decades monastics from various religious traditions have become more aware of each other. Toward the end of his life the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote and spoke of the many similarities among the world's monastic systems. Roman Catholic monasteries in traditionally non-Christian areas have been interested in this consanguinity and have produced some writing on monasticism as an interreligious phenomenon. Since 1960 an organization known as Aide Inter-Monastères has encouraged dialogue between monastics of various religions. Some Christian monastics and monasteries now practice techniques borrowed from Hinduism and Buddhism.

In the United States many experimental as well as traditional new religious communities have been established. A monastic impulse seems to have been a part of the "counterculture" revolution of the sixties and seventies. Monasticism apparently continues to be a persistent and beneficial social and religious structure. In the seriousness with which the monastic reexamines life and its goals, in the rigor with which a discipline of life is pursued, the monastic phenomenon offers an alternative way of life and view of the world to the rest of society.

See Also

Asceticism; Eremitism; Merit; Secret Societies; Spiritual Discipline.


Studies of monasticism that take into consideration more than one religious tradition are a fairly recent phenomenon. The best book of this kind is Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype by Raimundo Panikkar and others (New York, 1982). For an informal comparative survey of religious communities, see Charles A. Fracchia's Living Together Alone: The New American Monasticism (San Francisco, 1979).

A careful analysis of the theology and practice of Christian monasticism is provided by Louis Bouyer in The Meaning of the Monastic Life (London, 1955). The standard teaching and reflection of Christian monks is presented by Claude J. Peifer in Monastic Spirituality (New York, 1966). Good books on Christian monasticism and religious orders abound; see especially David Knowles's The Monastic Order in England, 2d ed. (Cambridge, 1963), and The Religious Orders in England, 3 vols. (Cambridge, 19481959). A critical view of medieval monasticism is presented in George G. Coulton's Five Centuries of Religion, 4 vols. (Cambridge, 19231950). The Benedictine rule, along with indexes and informative articles, is available in RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English, with Notes, edited by Timothy Fry and others (Collegeville, Minn., 1981).

Hindu monasticism is covered by G. S. Ghurye in Indian Sadhus, 2d ed. (Bombay, 1964). Sukumar Dutt's Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India (London, 1962) is the best source on Buddhist monasticism in India. For Chinese Buddhism, see Holmes Welch's The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 19001950 (Cambridge, Mass., 1967). The Buddhist monastic rule is treated in Charles S. Prebish's Buddhist Monastic Discipline: The Sanskrit Prātimoka Sūtras of the Mahāsāghikas and Mūlasarvāstivādins (University Park, Pa., 1975).

On monasticism in Islam, see J. Spencer Trimingham's The Sufi Orders in Islam (New York, 1971). An older standard reference is John K. Birge's study of a ūfī order in Turkey, The Bektashi Order of Dervishes (1937; New York, 1982). An abridged translation of a ūfī rule is found in Menahem Milson's A Sufi Rule for Novices (Cambridge, Mass., 1975).

On Protestant monasticism, see François Biot's The Rise of Protestant Monasticism (Baltimore, 1963). Peter F. Anson surveys Anglican communities in his The Call of the Cloister, 4th ed., rev. (London, 1964).

New Sources

Dreyfus, Georges B. J. The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. Berkeley, 2003.

Kieschnick, John. The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Honolulu, 1997.

King, Peter. Western Monasticism: A History of the Monastic Movement in the Latin Church. Kalamazoo, 1999.

Lawrence, Clifford H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. London, 2001.

McGregor, Richard. Sanctity and Mysticism in Medieval Egypt: The Wafaʾ Sufi Order and the Legacy of Ibn ʻArabi. Albany, 2004.

Olivelle, Patrick. Rules and Regulations of Brahmanical Asceticism: Yatidharmasamuccaya of Yādava Prakāśa. Albany, 1995.

Schopen, Gregory. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu, 1997.

Sterk, Andrea. Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church: The Monk-Bishop in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, 2004.

George Weckman (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Monasticism: An Overview

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