Monasteries in various religions

Term of monastery: personal goals, social purposes. Monasteries and monastic traditions in Eastern religions. Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Tao, Sikhism monasteries. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries - known as lamaseries and the monks (mistakenly) - known as lamas.

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Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan

Department Of Humanity


Monasteries in Various Religions

Almaty, 2011



Term of monastery

Personal goals

Social purposes

Monasteries and monastic traditions in Eastern religions

Buddhist monasteries

Hindu monasteries

Jain monasteries

Tao monasteries

Sikhism monasteries


List of literature


The main aim of this work is to define the term of monasterism, explain the differences between eremitic and cenobitic monasticism, to show how monasticism is practiced in other religions, mainly in Eastern, to describe the peculiarities, to make whole information apprehensible, systematic. In this work were used only internet sources, and from the great flood of information the most accurate and common is collected here. As a main source was chosen International World History Project Site which contains a collection of world history related essays, documents and maps. Some very helpfull ideas were taken from work on similar topic “monks and monasticism”. It has a good structure and briefly gives accurate description. The other source is represented by Catholic Encyclopedia. It talks a lot about monks and inner life in monastic communities, giving some interesting facts to think about. Other sources were attached only to specify certain religions' aspects. This work gives the answers on the following questions: why monasticism emerged, what is it, how it is practiced, how differences in practice depend on religion.

Term of monastery

Monastery denotes the building, or complex of buildings, that houses a room reserved for prayer as well as the domestic quarters and workplaces of monastics, whether monks or nuns, and whether living in community or alone (hermits)[1].

Monasteries may vary greatly in size - a small dwelling accommodating only a hermit, or in the case of communities anything from a single building housing only a one senior and two or three junior monks or nuns, to vast complexes and estates housing tens or hundreds. A monastery complex typically comprises a number of buildings which include a church, dormitory, cloister, refectory, library, balneary and infirmary. Depending on the location, the monastic order and the occupation of its inhabitants, the complex may also include a wide range of buildings that facilitate self-sufficiency and service to the community. These may include a hospice, a school and a range of agricultural and manufacturing buildings such as a barn, a forge or a brewery.

In most religions the life inside monasteries is governed by community rules that stipulates the sex of the inhabitants and requires them to remain celibate and own little or no personal property. The degree to which life inside a particular monastery is socially separate from the surrounding populace can also vary widely; some religious traditions mandate isolation for purposes of contemplation removed from the everyday world, in which case members of the monastic community may spend most of their time isolated even from each other. Others focus on interacting with the local communities to provide services, such as teaching, medical care, or evangelism. Some monastic communities are only occupied seasonally, depending both on the traditions involved and the local weather, and people may be part of a monastic community for periods ranging from a few days at a time to almost an entire lifetime.

A more appropriate word for early Christian monasticism, as well as for that practiced by Eastern religions today, is asceticism. It means self-denial, and it is rooted in a negative attitude toward the world. In Christianity the ascetics looked upon the world as a source of temptation and sin. By secluding themselves from it, monks hoped to avoid harmful contacts and to concentrate their energies upon salvation alone.

The life within the walls of a monastery may be supported in several ways: by manufacturing and selling goods, often agricultural products, by donations or alms, by rental or investment incomes, and by funds from other organizations within the religion, which in the past formed the traditional support of monasteries. Monasteries have always been associated with the provision of education and the encouragement of scholarship and research, which has led to the establishment of schools and colleges and the association with universities.[2]

Personal goals

Some monks separate themselves from the world and its concerns as much as possible. They may join communities, or they may live in solitude in one place or wander around as mendicants (beggars). In either case they pursue highly individual goals. They seek to get rid of all imperfections and to reach a state of spiritual perfection. They feel that isolation from the world and its temptations aids in their quest. In Eastern religions the world and the individual ego must both be subordinated to a search for the real self. The body with its weakness for temptation and the mind clogged by ignorance are also hindrances. The means used to circumvent both the world and the ego is meditation. A Buddhist, Jaina, or Hindu monk attempts to break the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (called reincarnation) to escape to another kind of existence altogether.

Along with meditation, many monks use mortification as a tool to reach perfection. Mortification literally means "making dead." For monasticism it refers to certain practices that de-emphasize the physical and emphasize the spiritual. Among them are fasting and punishing the body in various painful ways. Sometimes meditation is accompanied by physical exercise. Practices such as these have remained common in Central and East Asia, but they have diminished in Christianity since the end of the Middle Ages[1].

Social purposes

Not all monks pursue salvation by separation from the world. Some, such as the Franciscans, have combined service to the poor with their individual meditation and study. In the 20th century Mother Teresa founded an order to serve the poverty-stricken millions of India.

The Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, founded in the 11th century and known as the Knights Hospitalers, was probably the first order to establish genuine medical and hospital services. Members of the Teutonic Knights, founded in 1189, also trained in hospital services. In Tibet the Khamba organized themselves into a military police force for the protection of the higher clergy. [1]

Monasticism has played a vital role in the creation, preservation, and transmission of culture. This was especially true of the Christian orders in the Middle Ages. Often the only literate members of society were the monks. It was they who made and transmitted written copies of the Bible and other ancient works from generation to generation. They organized some of the first libraries. Often they conducted scientific and other research to benefit the surrounding communities. They were expert farmers who were able to pass on the benefits of their expertise to peasants on the large manors.

buddhist monastery religion lamasery

Monasteries in Eastern religions

Some Eastern religions, especially Buddhism and Jainism, are primarily monastic. The rules for all believers are derived from the monastic rules, but the vows taken by monks are far more numerous and more intensive than those required of lay members.

Buddhist monasteries

Some famous Buddhist monasteries include:

Jetavana (Sravasti), Nalanda (India), Shaolin (China), Donglin Temple (Jiangxi, China), Tengboche (Nepal).

A more rigorous set of ethics applies to those practicing a monastic life, and the number of precepts a monastic might vow to undertake varies from one Buddhist tradition to another. Here, however, are five additional precepts that are traditionally taken by monks entering monastic life:

· Do not take food from noon to the next morning (except lemon water).

· Do not adorn the body with anything other than the monk's robe.

· Do not participate in or watch public entertainments.

· Do not use comfortable beds.

· Do not use money.[3]

Buddhist monasteries, known as vihara, emerged sometime around the 4th century BC, from the practice of vassa, the retreat undertaken by Buddhist monks and nuns during the South Asian rainy season. To prevent wandering monks from disturbing new plant growth or becoming stranded in inclement weather, Buddhist monks and nuns were instructed to remain in a fixed location for the roughly three month period typically beginning in mid-July. Outside of the vassa period, monks and nuns both lived a migratory existence, wandering from town to town begging for food. These early fixed vassa retreats were held in pavilions and parks that had been donated to the sangha by wealthy supporters. Over the years, the custom of staying on property held in common by the sangha as a whole during the vassa retreat evolved into a more cenobitic lifestyle, in which monks and nuns resided year round in monasteries.

In India, Buddhist monasteries gradually developed into centres of learning where philosophical principles were developed and debated; this tradition is currently preserved by monastic universities of Vajrayana Buddhists, as well as religious schools and universities founded by religious orders across the Buddhist world. In modern times, living a settled life in a monastery setting has become the most common lifestyle for Buddhist monks and nuns across the globe.

Forest monasteries - most commonly found in the Theravada traditions of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka - are monasteries dedicated primarily to the study of Buddhist meditation, rather than scholarship or ceremonial duties. Forest monasteries often function like early Christian monasteries, with small groups of monks living an essentially hermit-like life gathered loosely around a respected elder teacher. While the wandering lifestyle practised by the Buddha and his disciples continues to be the ideal model for forest tradition monks in Thailand and elsewhere, practical concerns- including shrinking wilderness areas, lack of access to lay supporters, dangerous wildlife, and dangerous border conflicts- dictate that more and more 'meditation' monks live in monasteries, rather than wandering.

Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are sometimes known as lamaseries and the monks are sometimes (mistakenly) known as lamas.

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. Lay followers also provided the daily food that bhikkhus required, and provided shelter for bhikkhus when they were needed.

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[5]. There are a larger number of rules specified for bhikkhunis (nuns).

The Buddhist monastic order consists of the male bhikkhu assembly and the female bhikkhuni assembly. 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.

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.

Hindu monasteries

From the times of the Vedas people following monastic ways of life have been in existence in the Indian sub-continent. In what is now called Hinduism, monks have existed for a long time, and with them, their respective monasteries, called mathas. Most famous among them are the chatur-amnaya mathas established by Adi Shankara which formed the nodal centres of under whose guidance the ancient Order of Vedantic monks were re-organised under ten names Dashanami Sampradaya, Ashta matha (Eight monasteries) of Udupi founded by Madhvacharya (Madhwa acharya) a dwaitha philosopher.

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. A Hindu monk is called a sanyвsо, sвdhu, or swвmi.[4] A nun is called a sanyвsini, sadhavi, or swвmini. 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. It is considered a highly meritorious act for a lay devotee to provide sadhus with food or other necessaries. Sвdhus 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. A sвdhu 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[4].

Jain monasteries

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.

Mahavira monks and nuns strictly adhere to an ascetic lifestyle and take the "Five Great Vows" which are:

· Non-violence (ahimsa)

· Truthfulness (satya)

· Taking only that which is freely given; i.e. not stealing (asteya)

· Celibacy (brahmachanga)

· Non-possessiveness (aparigraha) [6]

Jain monks and nuns must also observe other practices such as not eating in front of a layperson, not wearing shoes, not staying in one place for a prolonged period of time, shaving their heads and nuns must always where white clothes.

Taoism monasteries

Monasteries of Taoism are quiet similar to the monasteries of Buddhism. Monks used to practice martial arts, meditation, sciences and medicine there. Some famous monasteries are White Cloud, Tao Wu Shin, Wudang Shan.

"We believe in the formless and eternal Tao, and we recognize all personified deities as being mere human constructs. We reject hatred, intolerance, and unnecessary violence, and embrace harmony, love and learning, as we are taught by Nature. We place our trust and our lives in the Tao, that we may live in peace and balance with the Universe, both in this mortal life and beyond." Creed of the Western Reform Taoist Congregation.

There were many famous sacred caves associated with early Taoism. In the beginning the Taoists lived on the mountains in caves. Some of these caves were man made but most were natural. Other monks lived in straw huts at the bottom of the mountain. These were called “quiet rooms.” The monks lived very simply in seclusion and protected the wildlife and plant life on the mountain. There are at least nine sacred cave sites in different provinces. There are thirty-six smaller caves considered sacred to the Taoists[2].

Starting in the Tang dynasty [618-907] Taoist monasteries were built in the royal architecture style and called “palace monasteries.” These “Tao Palaces” were built so that they were divided into two sections with the main hall built like a palace that honors the deity associated with the particular site. The other part was simple quarters for the monks.

Usually a monastery will have strict rules of conduct to protect its unworldly members from temptation. In some monasteries, the monks are totally silent; in others no visitors are allowed inside. Monasteries usually have many daily rituals and religious services.

Throughout the ages monasteries have often been centers of learning. In remote areas the monks may be the only literate people for miles around. Monks have often been employed as scribes, copying out the words of their religion's sacred scripture. Monasteries frequently have extensive libraries, holding religious, scientific, medical and philosophical texts.

Sikhism monasteries

Non-family-oriented living is prohibited. A Sikh is encouraged not to live as a recluse, beggar, yogi, monastic (monk/nun) or celibate. The order within Sikhism that approximates Hindu standards of monasticism is called the Udasis. The order originated with the followers of Sri Chand, son of the founder of Sikhism. The Udasis require asceticism and celibacy of their members. The other Sikh order, the Khalsa, is not strictly monastic. It was founded as a military brotherhood late in the 17th century, when Sikhs were being persecuted by Muslims. Now the dominant Sikh order, it admits both men and women. Initiates agree to wear uncut hair (and beards for men), a comb, short trousers, a steel bracelet, and a double-edge dagger. They also avoid tobacco and liquor[1].


The monastic way of life, often characterized by individuals who seek to separate themselves from the world either alone (eremitic) or with a group of others (cenobiti ) for some higher purpose, has existed for over two thousand years. This is evident whether one speaks of Buddhist monks in Tibet, Coptic monks in the deserts of Egypt or Benedictine monks in America. A person will see the common theme of people living a disciplined, prayerful life together for some shared religious goal. True monastic communities have sets of rules. There are disciplines--including prayer, worship, study, work, and service--that are obligatory for all members.

It must be clearly understood that, in the case of the monk, asceticism is not an end in itself. Monastic asceticism then means the removal of obstacles to loving God, and what these obstacles are is clear from the nature of love itself. It is renunciation and broadly speaking this renunciation has three great branches corresponding to the three counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

It must be clearly understood however, that monasticism has never become stereotyped in practice, and that it would be quite false to hold up any single example as a supreme and perfect model. Monasticism is a living thing and consequently it must be informed with a principle of self-motion and adaptability to its environment. Only one thing must always remain the same and that is the motive power which brought it into existence and has maintained it throughout the centuries.

This work could be used as extra handbook for studying religions or as information for consideration.

List of literature







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