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Monasticism is a way of life in which a group of individuals pursue holiness. Many religions have monastic elements, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, though the expressions differ considerably. Those pursuing a life of holiness are usually called in English monks (male), nuns (female), brothers, or sisters.

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 follwing 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 40's and early 50's, 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

Institutional Christian monasticism seems to have begun in the deserts in AD 4th century Egypt as a kind of living martyrdom. Although a sort of prototype of monastic society was mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, where the early Christians lived in common and shared everything. Contemporary folklore 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 prohet 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 obedienance practiced and because one is less likely to err then one would be by oneselve. 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 an exact analog to such orders.

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 subsistant monastary.
Carmelites, Cotemplative 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.

Knights Templar

The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) is, strictly speaking, not a monastic order.

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: Monastery

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