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Monasticism (from Greek: monachos—a solitary person) is the religious practice of renouncing all worldly pursuits in order to fully devote one's life to spiritual work. Many religions have monastic elements, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Jainism, though the expressions differ considerably. Those pursuing a monastic life are usually called monks or brothers (male), and nuns or sisters (female). Both monks and nuns may also be called monastics.
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The Sangha, democratic order of Buddhist monks and nuns, was founded by Gautama Buddha during his lifetime of missionary work over 2500 years ago. Established to preserve the doctrine and discipline now known as Buddhism, they are a living example for the laity. A monk, known as a Bhikkhu in Pali, firstly ordains as a Samanera (novice) for a year or until the ripe age of 20. If deemed acceptable and able by the order, he then receives full ordination and now lives by the 227 monastic rules, called the Patimokkha, which are stated in the Tripitaka. Buddhist nuns or Bhikkhuni adhere to 311 rules of discipline. Monastics eat one meal at noon and fast until sunrise the following day. Between midday and the next day, a strict life of celibacy, scripture study, chanting, meditation and occasional cleaning forms most of the duties. It is necessary for not only monks but the laity to practice with intuitive insight, in a state of mindfulness and concentration, here and now, to benefit from the experience. Only then is Enlightenment possible.
The distinction between Sangha and lay persons has always been important and forms the Purisa, Buddhist community. Here, monastics teach and counsel the laity at request while laymen and laywomen offer donations for their future support. This inter-connectedness serves as a marriage and has sustained Buddhism to this day.
The legendary Shaolin monasteries of China are perhaps best known in the Western hemisphere from martial art films. Practicing Ch'an of the Mahayana school, this form of Buddhism spread to Korea and subsequently to Japan where it is now known as Zen. According to legend, their founder is known alternatively as Bodhidharma or Ta Mo.
In Tibet, before the Communist invasion in the late 1940s and early '50s, more than half of the country's male population was ordained. Due to the oppression, and destruction of monasteries and libraries by the Chinese, this is no longer the case - the Chinese have historically justified this by the accusation that the Tibetan monks exploited the poor peasantry of Tibet for their sustenance. Hoping to find religious freedom, many Tibetan monks annually risk crossing the Himalayas, often trying to reach India.
In Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar where the religious prevalence is Theravada, there is a common tradition of short ordination. During a school break, many young men usually ordain for a week or two to earn merit for loved ones and to gain knowledge of the Dharma, Buddhist teaching.
Main article: Christian monasticism
Monasticism in Christianity is a family of similar traditions that began to develop early in the history of the Christian Church, modelled upon Scriptural examples and ideals, but not mandated as an institution by the Scriptures.
While most people think of Christian or Catholic monks or nuns as "something to do with living in a monastery", from the Church's point of view the focus has nothing to do with living in a monastery or performing any specific activity, rather the focus is on an ideal called the religious life, also called the state of perfection. This idea is expressed everywhere that the things of God are sought above all other things, as seen for example in the Philokalia, a book of monastic writings. In other words, a monk or nun is a person who has vowed to follow not only the commandments of the Church, but also the counsels (e.g., vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience). The words of Jesus which are the cornerstone for this ideal are "be ye perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect".
Christian cenobitic monasticism as it is mainly known in the West started in Egypt. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, and especially in the Middle East this continued to be very common until the decline of Syrian Christianity in the late Middle Ages. But not everybody is fit for solitary life, and numerous cases of hermits becoming mentally unstable are reported.
The need for some form of organized spiritual guidance was obvious, and around 300 Saint Anthony the Great started to organize his many followers in what was to become the first Christian monastery. Soon the Egyptian desert abounded with similar institutions.
In the West the rules for monastic communities were set a few generations later by Saint Benedict of Nursia who created the Rule of Saint Benedict at his monastery in Monte Cassino, it would become the most common rule throughout the Middle Ages, spawning many other Religious Orders, and it is still in use today.
The idea caught on, and other places followed:
- Mar Awgin founded a monastery on Mt. Izla above Nisibis in Mesopotamia (~350), and from this monastery the cenobitic tradition spread in Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Georgia and even India and China.
- St. Sabbas the Sanctified organized the monks of the Judean Desert in a monastery close to Bethlehem (483), and this is considered the mother of all monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox churches.
- Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai was founded in the Sinai desert by order of Emperor Justinian.
- St. Benedict of Nursia founded the monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (529), which was the seed of Roman Catholic monasticism in general, and of the order of Benedict in particular.
In Hinduism, monastic tradition varies somewhat from sect to sect. Historically this path has been open to males only, but some traditions now accept female renunciates as well. Hindu monks are called Sadhus and in most traditions are easily recognized by their saffron robes. Vaisnava monks shave their heads except for a small patch of hair on the back of the head, while Saivite monks in most traditions let their hair and beard grow uncut.
A Sadhu's vow of renunciation typically forbids him from:
- owning personal property apart from a bowl, a cup, two sets of clothing and medical aides such as eyeglasses;
- having any contact with, looking at, thinking of or even being in the presence of women;
- eating for pleasure;
- possessing or even touching money or valuables in any way, shape or form;
- maintaining personal relationships.
Dervishes -- the name given to initiates of sufi orders -- believe that love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. Many of the dervishes are mendicant ascetics who have taken the vow of poverty. Though some of them are beggars by choice, others work in common professions; Egyptian Qadirites, for example, are fishermen.
There are also various dervish brotherhoods who trace their origins from various Muslim saints and teachers, especially Ali and Abu Bakr. They live in monastic conditions, superficially similar to Christian monk brotherhoods. Various sects and subsects have appeared and disappeared over the centuries.
Whirling dance, which is the practice of the Mevlevi sect in Turkey, is just one of the physical methods to try to reach religious ecstasy (majdhb) and connection with Allah. Rifgites, also called the howling dervishes, cut themselves with knives, handle red-hot iron and eat hot coals or live serpents, depending on the subsect. Other groups include Bektashites, connected to the janissaries, and Senussi, who are rather orthodox in their beliefs. Other brotherhoods and subgroups chant verses of Qur'an, play drums or dance vigorously in groups, all according to their specific traditions. Each brotherhoods uses its own garb and methods of acceptance and initiation, which may be rather severe.
Jainism has two branches, each has a slightly different take on monasticism. Digambara monks do not wear clothing; however, they do not consider themselves to be nude -- they are wearing the environment. Digambaras believe that practice represents a refusal to give in to the body's demands for comfort and private property -- only Digambara ascetics are required to forsake clothing . Digambara ascetics have only two possessions: a peacock feather broom and a water gourd. They also believe that women are unable to obtain moksha. As a result, of the around 6000 Jain nuns, barely 100 are Digambaras. The Shvetambaras are the other main Jainist sect. Svetambaras, unlike Digambaras, neither believe that ascetics must practice nudity, nor do they believe that women are unable to obtain moksha. Shvetambaras are commonly seen wearing face masks so that they do not accidently breath in and kill small creatures.
Monasticism in other religions
Sikhism specifically forbids the practice of monasticism. Hence there are no Sikh monk conclaves or brotherhoods.
Manichaeism had two types of follwers, 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.
Yungdrung Bön is believed to have a rich monastic history. Bön monastaries exist today, however, the monks there practice Bön-Buddhism.
- Johnston, William M. (ed.). 2000. Encyclopedia of Monasticism. 2 vols., Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.
- Zarnecki, George. 1985. The Monastic World: The Contributions of The Orders. pp. 36-66, in Evans, Joan (ed.). 1985. The Flowering of the Middle Ages. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
- On Monasticism (http://www.religiousbook.net/Books/Online_books/Up/Upanishad_5.html)
- Monasticism (http://swami-center.org/en/chpt/jesusteaching/page_31.shtml) Some ideas about what is monasticism accompanied by excerpts from the New Testament and Apocrypha.
- Links to Coptic Orthodox Monasteries of Egypt and the world (http://st-takla.org/Links/Coptic-Links-04_Monasteries.html)