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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 Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, and Islam, though the expressions differ considerably. Those pursuing a monastic life are usually called monks or brothers (male), and nuns or sisters (female).

Table of contents
1 Hindu Monasticism
2 Buddhist Monasticism
3 Christian Monasticism
4 Sufi Brotherhoods in Islam

Hindu Monasticism

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:

Buddhist Monasticism

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. Once a year as a novice monastic, and if 20 years old, the female Samaneri becomes a nun or Bhikkhuni and will adhere to 311 rules of discipline. Monastics eat one vegetarian 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, a strikingly large percentage of males, more than half of the countries population, were expected to ordained for monastic life. Due to the oppressive struggle, and destruction of monasteries and libraries, Tibetans now live in exile. Hoping to resume and revive an independent nation under the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Vajrayana Buddhism, many Tibetan monks annually risk crossing the Himalayas to seek freedom in 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.

Christian Monasticism

Monasticism in Christianity is a family of similar traditions that began to develop early in the history of the Christian Church, modeled 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".

Precursor models of the Christian monastic ideal

The ancient models of the modern Christian monastic ideal are the Nazirites and the prophets of Israel. A Nazirite was a person voluntarily separated to the Lord, under a special vow.

2 Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the LORD as a Nazirite, 3 he must abstain from wine and other fermented drink 5 During the entire period of his vow of separation no razor may be used on his head. He must be holy until the period of his separation to the LORD is over; he must let the hair of his head grow long. 6 Throughout the period of his separation to the LORD he must not go near a dead body. 8 Throughout the period of his separation he is consecrated to the LORD.' (Numbers 6, NIV)

The prophets of Israel were set apart to the Lord for the sake of a message of repentance. Some of them lived under extreme conditions, voluntarily separated or forced into seclusion because of the burden of their message. Other prophets were members of communities, schools mentioned occasionally in the Scriptures but about which there is much speculation and little known. The pre-Abrahamic prophets, Enoch and Melchizedek, and especially the Jewish prophets Elijah and his disciple Elisha are important to Christian monastic tradition. The most frequently cited "role-model" for the life of a hermit separated to the Lord, in whom the Nazarite and the prophet are believed to be combined in one person, is John the Baptist. John also had disciples who stayed with him and, as may be supposed, were taught by him and lived in a manner similar to his own.

1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea ... 4 John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. (Matthew 3, NIV)

The female role models for monasticism are Mary the mother of Jesus and the four virgin daughters of Philip the evangelist:

''7 On finishing the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, greeted the brothers, and stayed with them for one day. 8 The next day we left and came to Caesarea. We went to the home of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters who could prophesy. (Acts 21, NIV)

The monastic ideal is also modeled upon the Apostle Paul, who is believed to have been celibate, and a tentmaker:

7 I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. (1 Corinthians 7, NIV)

But, the consummate prototype of all modern Christian monasticism, communal and solitary, is Jesus:

'' 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2, NIV)

The first Christian communities lived in common, sharing everything, according to Acts of the Apostles.

Institutional Christian monasticism

Institutional Christian monasticism seems to have begun in the deserts in AD 4th century Egypt as a kind of living martyrdom. Contemporary piety believed that the deserts and wilderness were inhabited by demons, and so the monks would go out into the desert to fight the demons, and to overcome their temptations. Some scholars still present monasticism as a seeking for martyrdom after the legalization of Christianity meant that one could no longer be persecuted for being a Christian. Others point to historical evidence that individuals were living the life later known as monasticism before the legalization of Christianity. In fact it is believed by the Carmelites that they were started by the Jewish prophet Elias. Anthony the Great and Pachomius were early monastic innovators in Egypt. Eastern Orthodoxy looks to Basil of Caesarea as a founding monastic legislator, as well as the example of the Desert Fathers. Benedict is often credited with being the 'father of Western monasticism'.

From a very early time there were probably individuals who lived a life in isolation—hermits—in imitation of Jesus's 40 days in the desert. They have left no confirmed archaeological traces and only hints in the written record. Anthony of Egypt lived as a hermit and developed a following of other hermits who lived nearby but not in community with him. This variety of monasticism is called eremitical or "hermit-like". Pachomius, a follower of Anthony, also acquired a following; he chose to mould them into a community in which the monks lived in individual huts or rooms (cellula in Latin, "cell", which has a different connotation in modern English) but worked, ate, and worshipped in shared space. This method of monastic organization is called cenobitic or "community-based." All the familiar monastic orders are cenobitic in nature. In Catholic theology, this community based living is considered superior because of the obedience practiced and because one is less likely to err then one would be by oneself. The head of a monastery came to be known by the word for "Father" in Syriac, Abba, in English, "Abbot".

Christian monasticism was and continued for centuries to be a lay condition—monks depended on a local parish church for the sacraments. However, if the monastery was isolated in the desert, as were many of the Egyptian examples, that inconvenience compelled monasteries either to take in priest members, to have their abbot ordained, or to have other members ordained. A priest-monk is sometimes called a hieromonk. In many cases in Eastern Orthodoxy, when a bishopric needed to be filled, they would look to nearby monasteries to find suitable candidates. Since many priests were married (before being ordained to the priesthood), but bishops were required to be celibate, monasteries were a good source of celibate men who were also spiritually mature and generally possessing the other qualities desired in a bishop. Gregory Palamas is one such example.

In traditional Catholic societies, monastic communities often took charge of social services such as education and healthcare; to the latter they were so closely linked that nurses are often called "sisters."

Christian Monastic Orders

A number of distinct monastic orders developed within Roman Catholicism. Eastern Orthodoxy does not have a system of orders, per se.

Augustinians, which evolved from the Priests Canons who would normally work with the Bishop: now living together with him as monks under St. Augustine's rule
Benedictines, founded by St. Benedict, stresses manual labor in a self-subsistent monastery.
Carmelites, Contemplative Order
Dominicans, Mendicant (preaching) order. They blend the active and the contemplative life: namely they practice contemplation, and go out to preach the fruits of that contemplation and encourage others to contemplate.
Franciscans, another Mendicant order, they were charged with preaching to the poor.
Christian Brothers
Visitation Sisters
Knights Templar

The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) is a religious order, having vows; but, it is not a monastic order, strictly speaking,

Sufi Brotherhoods in Islam

Some of the Sufi orders have set up communities that have been compared to monasteries, though there is as much reason to consider them Ashrams I think. [this needs to be elaborated]

See Sufism and Islam

See also: