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The Monastery of Varlaam in Meteora, Thessaly, Greece. Meteora Monastery - panoramio (1).jpg
The Monastery of Varlaam in Meteora, Thessaly, Greece.

A monastery is a building or complex of buildings comprising the domestic quarters and workplaces of monastics, monks or nuns, whether living in communities or alone (hermits). A monastery generally includes a place reserved for prayer which may be a chapel, church, or temple, and may also serve as an oratory, or in the case of communities anything from a single building housing only 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, and outlying granges. 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 English usage, the term monastery is generally used to denote the buildings of a community of monks. In modern usage, convent tends to be applied only to institutions of female monastics (nuns), particularly communities of teaching or nursing religious sisters. Historically, a convent denoted a house of friars (reflecting the Latin), now more commonly called a friary. Various religions may apply these terms in more specific ways.


The Plan of Saint Gall, the ground plan of an unbuilt abbey, providing for all of the needs of the monks within the confines of the monastery walls St gall plan.jpg
The Plan of Saint Gall, the ground plan of an unbuilt abbey, providing for all of the needs of the monks within the confines of the monastery walls

The word monastery comes from the Greek word μοναστήριον, neut. of μοναστήριοςmonasterios from μονάζεινmonazein "to live alone" [1] from the root μόνοςmonos "alone" (originally all Christian monks were hermits); the suffix "-terion" denotes a "place for doing something". The earliest extant use of the term monastērion is by the 1st century AD Jewish philosopher Philo in On The Contemplative Life, ch. III.

In England, the word monastery was also applied to the habitation of a bishop and the cathedral clergy who lived apart from the lay community. Most cathedrals were not monasteries, and were served by canons secular, which were communal but not monastic. However, some were run by monasteries orders, such as York Minster. Westminster Abbey was for a short time a cathedral, and was a Benedictine monastery until the Reformation, and its Chapter preserves elements of the Benedictine tradition. See the entry cathedral. They are also to be distinguished from collegiate churches, such as St George's Chapel, Windsor.


The term monastery is used generically to refer to any of a number of types of religious community. In the Roman Catholic religion and to some extent in certain branches of Buddhism, there is a somewhat more specific definition of the term and many related terms.

Buddhist monasteries are generally called vihara (Pali language el). Viharas may be occupied by men or women, and in keeping with common English usage, a vihara populated by females may often be called a nunnery or a convent. However, vihara can also refer to a temple. In Tibetan Buddhism, monasteries are often called gompa . In Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, a monastery is called a wat . In Burma, a monastery is called a kyaung .

A Christian monastery may be an abbey (i.e., under the rule of an abbot), or a priory (under the rule of a prior), or conceivably a hermitage (the dwelling of a hermit). It may be a community of men (monks) or of women (nuns). A charterhouse is any monastery belonging to the Carthusian order. In Eastern Christianity, a very small monastic community can be called a skete , and a very large or important monastery can be given the dignity of a lavra .

The great communal life of a Christian monastery is called cenobitic, as opposed to the anchoretic (or anchoritic) life of an anchorite and the eremitic life of a hermit. There has also been, mostly under the Osmanli occupation of Greece and Cyprus, an "idiorrhythmic" lifestyle where monks come together but being able to own things individually and not being obliged to work for the common good.

In Hinduism monasteries are called matha, mandir, koil, or most commonly an ashram.

Jains use the Buddhist term vihara.

Monastic life

Procession monastique Procession monastique.jpg
Procession monastique

In most religions, life inside monasteries is governed by community rules that stipulate the gender of the inhabitants and require 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 climate, and people may be part of a monastic community for periods ranging from a few days at a time to almost an entire lifetime. [ citation needed ]

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. There has been a long tradition of Christian monasteries providing hospitable, charitable and hospital services. Monasteries have often been associated with the provision of education and the encouragement of scholarship and research, [2] which has led to the establishment of schools and colleges and the association with universities. Christian monastic life has adapted to modern society by offering computer services, accounting services and management as well as modern hospital and educational administration.[ citation needed ]


Taktsang Palphug Monastery aka Paro Taktsang aka Tiger's Nest, July 2016 13 Taktsang Palphug Monastery aka Paro Taktsang aka Tiger's Nest, July 2016 13.jpg
Taktsang Palphug Monastery aka Paro Taktsang aka Tiger's Nest, July 2016 13
Mendicant Monk Sitting on Xindong Street, Taipei 20140103 Mendicant Monk Sitting on Xindong Street, Taipei 20140103.jpg
Mendicant Monk Sitting on Xindong Street, Taipei 20140103

Buddhist monasteries, known as vihāra in Pali and in Sanskrit, emerged sometime around the fourth century BCE from the practice of vassa, a retreat undertaken by Buddhist monastics during the South Asian wet season. To prevent wandering monks and nuns from disturbing new plant-growth or becoming stranded in inclement weather, they were instructed to remain in a fixed location for the roughly three-month period typically beginning in mid-July.

These early fixed vassa retreats took place in pavilions and parks that wealthy supporters had donated to the sangha. Over the years, the custom of staying on property held in common by the sangha as a whole during the vassa retreat evolved into cenobitic monasticism, 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 continues in the monastic universities of Vajrayana Buddhists, as well as in 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[ when? ] the most common lifestyle for Buddhist monks and nuns across the globe.

Whereas early monasteries are considered[ by whom? ] to have been held in common by the entire sangha, in later years this tradition diverged in a number of countries. Despite vinaya prohibitions on possessing wealth, many monasteries became large landowners, much like monasteries in medieval Christian Europe. In Chinese Buddhism, peasant families worked monastic-owned land in exchange for paying a portion of their yearly crop to the resident monks in the monastery, just as they would to a feudal landlord. In Sri Lanka and in Tibetan Buddhism, the ownership of a monastery often became vested in a single monk, who would often keep the property within the family by passing it on to a nephew ordained as a monk. In Japan, where civil authorities permitted Buddhist monks to marry, the position of head of a temple or monastery sometimes became hereditary, passed from father to son over many generations.

Forest monasteries – most commonly found in the Theravada traditions of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka – are monasteries dedicated primarily to the study and cultivation of Buddhist meditation, rather than to 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 by his disciples continues to be the ideal model for forest-tradition monks in Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, practical concerns - including shrinking wilderness areas, lack of access to lay supporters, dangerous wildlife, and dangerous border conflicts - dictate that increasing numbers of "meditation" monks live in monasteries, rather than wandering.

Tibetan Buddhist monasteries or gompas are sometimes known as lamaseries, with their monks sometimes (mistakenly) known as lamas. Helena Blavatsky's Theosophical Society named its initial New York City meeting-place "the Lamasery". [3]

Famous Buddhist monasteries include:

For a further list of Buddhist monasteries see list of Buddhist temples.

Buddhist monasteries include some of the largest in the world. Drepung Monastery in Tibet housed around 10,000 monks prior to the Chinese invasion [4] [5] in 1950–1951. As of 2020 the relocated monastery in India houses around 8,000.[ citation needed ]


Poustevnik v jeskyni - Lochotinsky park Plzen "The hermit in the cave - Lochotin park Pilsen." Poustevnik v jeskyni - Lochotinsky park Plzen.jpg
Poustevník v jeskyni - Lochotínský park Plzeň "The hermit in the cave - Lochotín park Pilsen."

According to tradition, Christian monasticism began in Egypt with Anthony the Great. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits seldom encountering other people.[ citation needed ]

A transitional form of monasticism was later created by Ammonas in which "solitary" monks lived close enough to one another to offer mutual support as well as gathering together on Sundays for common services.[ citation needed ]

It was Pachomius the Great who developed the idea of cenobitic monasticism: having renunciates live together and worship together under the same roof. Some attribute his mode of communal living to the barracks of the Roman Army in which Pachomios served as a young man. [6] Soon the Egyptian desert blossomed with monasteries, especially around Nitria (Wadi El Natrun), which was called the "Holy City". Estimates are that upwards of 50,000 monks lived in this area at any one time.[ citation needed ] Hermitism never died out though, but was reserved only for those advanced monks who had worked out their problems within a cenobitic monastery.[ citation needed ]

The idea caught on, and other places followed:

Western Medieval Europe

Abbey of Monte Cassino, originally built by Benedict of Nursia, shown here as rebuilt after World War II Monte Cassino Abbey.jpg
Abbey of Monte Cassino, originally built by Benedict of Nursia, shown here as rebuilt after World War II

The life of prayer and communal living was one of rigorous schedules and self-sacrifice. Prayer was their work, and the Office prayers took up much of a monk's waking hours – Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, daily Mass, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. In between prayers, monks were allowed to sit in the cloister and work on their projects of writing, copying, or decorating books. These would have been assigned based on a monk's abilities and interests. The non-scholastic types were assigned to physical labour of varying degrees.[ citation needed ]

The main meal of the day took place around noon, often taken at a refectory table, and consisted of the most simple and bland foods e.g., poached fish, boiled oats. While they ate, scripture would be read from a pulpit above them. Since no other words were allowed to be spoken, monks developed communicative gestures. Abbots and notable guests were honoured with a seat at the high table, while everyone else sat perpendicular to that in the order of seniority. This practice remained when some monasteries became universities after the first millennium, and can still be seen at Oxford University and Cambridge University.[ citation needed ]

Monasteries were important contributors to the surrounding community. They were centres of intellectual progression and education. They welcomed aspiring priests to come and study and learn, allowing them even to challenge doctrine in dialogue with superiors. The earliest forms of musical notation are attributed to a monk named Notker of St Gall, and was spread to musicians throughout Europe by way of the interconnected monasteries. Since monasteries offered respite for weary pilgrim travellers, monks were obligated also to care for their injuries or emotional needs. Over time, lay people started to make pilgrimages to monasteries instead of just using them as a stopover. By this time, they had sizeable libraries that attracted learned tourists. Families would donate a son in return for blessings. During the plagues, monks helped to till the fields and provide food for the sick.[ citation needed ]

A Warming House is a common part of a medieval monastery, where monks went to warm themselves. It was often the only room in the monastery where a fire was lit.[ citation needed ]


Mont-Saint-Michel vu du ciel Mont-Saint-Michel vu du ciel.jpg
Mont-Saint-Michel vu du ciel

A number of distinct monastic orders developed within Roman Catholicism:

While in English most mendicant Orders use the monastic terms of monastery or priory, in the Latin languages, the term used by the friars for their houses is convent, from the Latin conventus, e.g., (Italian : convento) or (French : couvent), meaning "gathering place". The Franciscans rarely use the term "monastery" at present, preferring to call their house a "friary". [ citation needed ]

Eastern Orthodox

Trinity Monatsery in Chernihiv as viewed from the bell tower Troyits'kii monastir.jpg
Тrinity Monatsery in Chernihiv as viewed from the bell tower

In the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Church, both monks and nuns follow a similar ascetic discipline, and even their religious habit is the same (though nuns wear an extra veil, called the apostolnik ). Unlike Roman Catholic monasticism, the Eastern Orthodox do not have distinct religious orders, but a single monastic form throughout the Eastern Orthodox Church. Monastics, male or female, live away from the world, in order to pray for the world.

Monasteries vary from the very large to the very small. There are three types of monastic houses in the Eastern Orthodox Church:

One of the great centres of Eastern Orthodox monasticism is Mount Athos in Greece, which, like Vatican City, is self-governing. It is located on an isolated peninsula approximately 20 miles (32 km) long and 5 miles (8.0 km) wide, and is administered by the heads of the 20 monasteries. Today the population of the Holy Mountain is around 2,200 men only and can only be visited by men with special permission granted by both the Greek government and the government of the Holy Mountain itself.[ citation needed ]

Oriental Orthodox

Betremariam Monastery (Tana) Entrance Betremariam Monastery (Tana) Entrance.jpg
Betremariam Monastery (Tana) Entrance

The Oriental Orthodox churches, distinguished by their Miaphysite beliefs, consist of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (whose Patriarch is considered first among equals for the following churches), Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Indian Orthodox Church, and Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.

The monasteries of St. Macarius ( Deir Abu Makaria ) and St. Anthony ( Deir Mar Antonios ) are the oldest monasteries in the world and under the patronage of the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church.[ citation needed ]


The last years of the 18th century marked in the Christian Church the beginnings of growth of monasticism among Protestant denominations. The center of this movement was in the United States and Canada beginning with the Shaker Church, which was founded in England and then moved to the United States. In the 19th century many of these monastic societies were founded as Utopian communities based on the monastic model in many cases. Aside from the Shakers, there were the Amanna, the Anabaptists, and others. Many did allow marriage but most had a policy of celibacy and communal life in which members shared all things communally and disavowed personal ownership.

In the 19th-century monasticism was revived in the Church of England, leading to the foundation of such institutions as the House of the Resurrection, Mirfield (Community of the Resurrection), Nashdom Abbey (Benedictine), Cleeve Priory (Community of the Glorious Ascension) and Ewell Monastery (Cistercian), Benedictine orders, Franciscan orders and the Orders of the Holy Cross, Order of St. Helena. Other Protestant Christian denominations also engage in monasticism, particularly Lutherans in Europe and North America. For example, the Benedictine order of the Holy Cross at St Augustine's House in Michigan is a Lutheran order of monks and there are Lutheran religious communities in Sweden and Germany. In the 1960s, experimental monastic groups were formed in which both men and women were members of the same house and also were permitted to be married and have children—these were operated on a communal form.[ citation needed ]

There is a growing Christian neo-monasticism, particularly among evangelical Christians. [8]


Advaita Vedanta

Hindu matha, Vidyasankara Temple Vidyashankara Temple at Shringeri.jpg
Hindu matha, Vidyasankara Temple

From the times of the Vedas (from c.1500–1000 BC), people following monastic ways of life have existed in the Indian subcontinent. In what is now called Hinduism, monks have existed for a long time, and with them, their respective monasteries, called mathas. Important among them are the chatur-amnaya mathas established by Adi Shankara which formed the nodal centres of under whose guidance the ancient Order of Advaitin monks were re-organised under ten names of the Dashanami Sampradaya.

Sri Vaishnava

Parakala Mutt - as it stands today Parakala Mutt - as it stands today.jpg
Parakala Mutt - as it stands today

Ramanuja heralded a new era in the world of Hinduism by reviving the lost faith in it and gave a firm doctrinal basis to the Vishishtadvaita philosophy which had existed since time immemorial. He ensured the establishment of a number of mathas of his Sri Vaishnava creed at different important centres of pilgrimage.

Later on, other famous Sri Vaishnava theologians and religious heads established various important mathas such as

Nimbarka Vaishnava

Ukhra Nimbarka Peeth Mahanta Asthal Ukhra Nimbarka Peeth Mahanta Asthal.JPG
Ukhra Nimbarka Peeth Mahanta Asthal

Nimbarka Sampradaya of Nimbarkacharya is popular in North, West and East India and has several important Mathas.

Dvaita Vedanta

Ashta matha (eight monasteries) of Udupi were founded by Madhvacharya (Madhwa acharya), a dwaitha philosopher.


Jainism, founded by Mahavira c.570 BC, had its own monasteries since 5th century BC.[ citation needed ]


Islam discourages monasticism, which is referred to in the Quran as "an invention". [9] [10] However, the term "Sufi" is applied to Muslim mystics who, as a means of achieving union with Allah, adopted ascetic practices including wearing a garment made of coarse wool called "sf". [11] The term "Sufism" comes from "sf" meaning the person, who wears "sf". [12] But in the course of time, Sufi has come to designate all Muslim believers in mystic union. [13]

See also

Related Research Articles

Monasticism, also called monachism or monkhood, is a religious way of life in which one renounces worldly pursuits to devote oneself fully to spiritual work. Monastic life plays an important role in many Christian churches, especially in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican traditions as well as in other faiths such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. In other religions, monasticism is criticized and not practiced, as in Islam and Zoroastrianism, or plays a marginal role, as in modern Judaism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pachomius the Great</span> Egyptian saint

Pachomius, also known as Saint Pachomius the Great, is generally recognized as the founder of Christian cenobitic monasticism. Coptic churches celebrate his feast day on 9 May, and Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches mark his feast on 15 May or 28 May. In the Lutheran Church, he is remembered as a renewer of the church, along with his contemporary, Anthony of Egypt on 17 January.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nun</span> Member of a religious community of women

A nun is a woman who vows to dedicate her life to religious service and contemplation, typically living under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the enclosure of a monastery or convent. The term is often used interchangeably with religious sisters who do take simple vows but live an active vocation of prayer and charitable work.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hermit</span> Person who lives in seclusion from society

A hermit, also known as an eremite or solitary, is a person who lives in seclusion. Eremitism plays a role in a variety of religions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Monk</span> Member of a monastic religious order

A monk is a person who practices religious asceticism by living a monastic lifestyle, either alone or with any number of other monks. A monk may be a person who decides to dedicate his life to serving other people and serving God, or to be an ascetic who voluntarily chooses to leave mainstream society and live his life in prayer and contemplation. The concept is ancient and can be seen in many religions and in philosophy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Camaldolese</span> Monastic communities of the Order of St Benedict

The Camaldolese Hermits of Mount Corona, commonly called Camaldolese, is a monastic order of Pontifical Right for men founded by Saint Romuald. Its name is derived from the Holy Hermitage of Camaldoli, high in the mountains of central Italy, near the city of Arezzo. Its members add the nominal letters E.C.M.C. after their names to indicate their membership in the congregation. Apart from the Roman Catholic monasteries, in recent times ecumenical Christian hermitages with a Camaldolese spirituality have arisen as well.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mendicant</span> Person who relies primarily on alms

A mendicant is one who practices mendicancy, relying chiefly or exclusively on alms to survive. In principle, mendicant religious orders own little property, either individually or collectively, and in many instances members have taken a vow of poverty, in order that all their time and energy could be expended on practicing their respective faith, preaching and serving society.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Christian monasticism</span> Christian devotional practice

Christian monasticism is the devotional practice of Christians who live ascetic and typically cloistered lives that are dedicated to Christian worship. It began to develop early in the history of the Christian Church, modeled upon scriptural examples and ideals, including those in the Old Testament. It has come to be regulated by religious rules and, in modern times, the Canon law of the respective Christian denominations that have forms of monastic living. Those living the monastic life are known by the generic terms monks (men) and nuns (women). The word monk originated from the Greek μοναχός, itself from μόνος meaning 'alone'.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cenobitic monasticism</span> Monastic tradition that stresses community life

Cenobiticmonasticism is a monastic tradition that stresses community life. Often in the West the community belongs to a religious order, and the life of the cenobitic monk is regulated by a religious rule, a collection of precepts. The older style of monasticism, to live as a hermit, is called eremitic. A third form of monasticism, found primarily in Eastern Christianity, is the skete.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Religious vows</span> Promises made by members of religious communities

Religious vows are the public vows made by the members of religious communities pertaining to their conduct, practices, and views.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Consecrated life</span> Type of lifestyle advocated by the Catholic Church

Consecrated life is a state of life in the Catholic Church lived by those faithful who are called to follow Jesus Christ in a more exacting way. It includes those in institutes of consecrated life, societies of apostolic life, as well as those living as hermits or consecrated virgins/widows.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Enclosed religious orders</span> Christian religious orders separated from the external world

Enclosed religious orders or cloistered clergy are religious orders whose members strictly separate themselves from the affairs of the external world. In the Catholic Church, enclosure is regulated by the code of canon law, either the Latin code or the Oriental code, and also by the constitutions of the specific order. It is practised with a variety of customs according to the nature and charism of the community in question. This separation may involve physical barriers such as walls and grilles, with entry restricted for other people and certain areas exclusively permitted to the members of the convent. Outsiders may only temporarily enter this area under certain conditions. The intended purpose for such enclosure is to prevent distraction from prayer and the religious life and to keep an atmosphere of silence.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eastern Christian monasticism</span>

Eastern Christian monasticism is the life followed by monks and nuns of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, the Church of the East and Eastern Catholicism. Eastern monasticism is founded on the Rule of St Basil and is sometimes thus referred to as Basilian.

The degrees of Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic monasticism are the stages an Eastern Orthodox monk or nun passes through in their religious vocation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Coptic monasticism</span> Claimed to be the original form of monasticism

Coptic monasticism was a movement in the Coptic Orthodox Church to create a holy, separate class of person from layman Christians.

Monasticism is a way of life where a person lives outside of society, under religious vows.

"A religious institute is a society in which members, according to proper law, pronounce public vows, either perpetual or temporary which are to be renewed, however, when the period of time has elapsed, and lead a life of brothers or sisters in common."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Monastic cell</span> Small room used by a hermit, monk, anchorite or nun to live and as a devotional space

A cell is a small room used by a hermit, monk, nun or anchorite to live and as a devotional space. Cells are often part of larger cenobitic monastic communities such as Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Orthodox Christian monasteries, as well as Buddhist vihara, but may also form stand-alone structures in remote locations. The word cell comes from the Old French celle meaning a monastic cell, itself from the Latin meaning "room", "store room" or "chamber".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Religious community</span> Community (group of people) who practice the same religion

A religious community is a community who practice the same religion. The term is used to refer to members of a religion who live within a community, but not segregated from others and not dedicated solely to their faith. They worship together in a religious venue such as a temple, synagogue, church or mosque. In many religions, a group worshipping in common is called a congregation. In a narrower sense, a religious community is a group of people of the same religion living together specifically for religious purposes, often subject to formal commitments such as religious vows, as in a convent or a monastery. Most religious communities are part of the way religions are organized, and most religions have some form of Religious order.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Christian monasticism in Ethiopia</span>

Christian monasticism in Ethiopia has ben practiced since the Aksumite era in the 6th century AD. The Nine Saints from the Byzantine Empire have played crucial roles in the development of monasticism in Ethiopia, which also continued during the Zagwe and Solomonic periods.


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  12. Khanam, Dr (2011-06-01). "The Origin and Evolution of Sufism". الإيضاح. 22.
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