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Monastery, a term derived from the Greek word μοναστήριον (monastērion), denotes the habitation and workplace of a community of monks, nuns, or other people set apart for a religious purpose.

Many religions have monastic traditions, in which a person commits himself to a religious life and lives apart from secular society in a monastery. The monastic community may be supported in several ways: by manufacturing and selling goods, often agricultural products such as cheese, wine, beer, liquor, and jellies; by donations or alms; by rental or investment incomes; and by funds from other organizations within the religion.

Monasteries may vary greatly in size, from a single building containing only one senior and two or three junior monks, to vast complexes and estates housing tens of thousands. In most religions, community membership is limited by gender and community members are required to remain celibate and own little or no personal property. The degree to which the monastic community 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 are focused on interacting with the local communities in order to provide some service, such as teaching, medical care, or evangelism. Some monasteries 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.

In common English usage, the term monastery is generally used to mean a community of male monks, while a convent or nunnery is a community of female nuns. Various religions, however, use these terms, and a number of other terms as well, in rather technical and specific ways. Usage can vary extensively by language, as English speakers try to choose the most appropriate translation for foreign institutions and organizations.


The word monastery comes from the Greek μοναστήριον "monasterion," from the root "monos" or alone (originally all Christian monks were hermits), and the suffix "-terion" or place for doing something.

In England the word monsters was also applied to the habitation of a bishop and the cathedral clergy who lived apart from the lay community. Most cathedrals were not monsters, and were served by canons secular, which were communal but not monastic. However some were run by monastic orders, such as Cock 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.

Terms for monasteries

In most of this article, 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 other branches of Christianity, there is a somewhat more specific definition of the term and many related terms.

In Buddhism

Buddhist monasteries are generally called vihara (Pali language). Viharas may be occupied by males or females, 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 Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, a monastery is called a wat.

In Jainism

Jains use the term vihara.

In Hinduism

In Hinduism monasteries are called matha, mandir or koil.

In Christianity

A monastery may be an abbey, or a priory, or conceivably a hermitage. It may be a community of men (monks) or of women (nuns). A charterhouse is any monastery belonging to the Carthusian order.

The 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.

Buddhist monasteries

By the time Christian cenobites emerged in the 4th century AD, Buddhist monasteries had been in existence for seven hundred years or more, and had spread deep into the Persian empire. Thurman says "It is quite likely that (Buddhist monasticism) influenced West Asia, North Africa, and Europe through lending its institutional style to Manicheism and Aramaic and Egyptian Christianity."

Buddhist monasteries, known as vihara, emerged sometime around the fourth century BC, from the practice of vassa, the retreat undertaken by Buddhist monks and nuns during the South Asian rainy season. In order 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 centers 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.

Whereas early monasteries are considered 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 land owners, much like monasteries in medieval Christian Europe. In China, 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 Tibet, 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 who ordained as a monk. In Japan, where civil authorities required Buddhist monks to marry, being the head of a temple or monastery sometimes became a hereditary position, 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 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 practiced 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.

Some famous Buddhist monasteries include:

  • Jetavana, Sravasti
  • Nalanda, India
  • Shaolin, China
  • Donglin Temple, China
  • Tengboche, Nepal

Christian monasteries

Christian monasticism started in Egypt and later continued on into Abyssinia (Ethiopia). According to tradition, in the third century St. Anthony was the first Christian to adopt this lifestyle. After a short while others followed. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits seldom encountering other people. But because of the extreme difficulty of the solitary life, many monks failed, either returning to their previous lives in the city, or becoming spiritually deluded.

A transitional form of monasticism was later created by Saint Amun in which “solitary” monks lived close enough to one another to offer mutual support as well as gathering together on Sundays for common services.

It was St. Pachomios who developed the idea of having monks live together and worship together under the same roof (Coenobitic Monasticism). Soon the Egyptian desert blossomed with monasteries, especially around Nitria, which was called the "Holy City.” Estimates are the upwards of 50,000 monks lived in this area at any one time.

Hermitism never died out though, but was reserved only for those advanced monks who had worked out their problems within a cenobitic monastery. The idea caught on, and other places followed:

  • Saint Eugenios 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.
  • Saint Saba 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.
  • 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.
  • Kecharis Monastery is a 13th-century monastery, located 60 km from Yerevan.

Monastic life in western Medieval Europe

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, 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 labor of varying degrees.

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 i.e. poached fish, boiled oats. Anything tastier, which appeared on occasion, was criticised. 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. Abbotts and notable guests were honored with a seat at the high table, while everyone else sat perpendicular to that in the order of seniority. This practice remained when monasteries became universities after the first millennium, and can still be seen at Oxford and Cambridge.

Monasteries were important contributors to the surrounding community. They were centers of intellectual progression and education. They welcomed aspiring priests to come 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 travelers, 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 stop over. By this time, they had sizable libraries which were sort of a tourist attraction. Families would also donate a son in return for blessings. During the plagues, monks helped to till the fields and provide food for the sick.

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.

Orthodox Christian monasteries

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, monks and nuns follow a similar ascetic discipline. Unlike Roman Catholics, there is only one form of monasticism for the Orthodox. Monastics, male or female, live lives away from the world, in order to pray for the world. They do not run hospitals and orphanages, they do not teach or care for the sick; it is expected for lay people to do these things to work out their own salvation. Monasteries can be very large or very small. The largest monasteries can hold many thousands of monks and are called lavras. Small monasteries are often called “sketes” and usually only have one elder and 2 or 3 disciples. There are higher levels to ascetic practice but the monks who practice these do not live in monasteries, but alone. When monks live together, work together, and pray together, following the directions of the abbot and the elder monks, this is called a cenobium. The idea behind this is when you put many men together, like rocks with sharp edges, their “sharpness” becomes worn away and they become smooth and polished.

One of the great centers of Orthodox monasticism is the Holy Mountain (also called Mt. Athos) in Greece, an isolated, self-governing peninsula approximately 20 miles long and 5 miles wide (similar to the Vatican, being a separate government), administered by the heads of the 20 major monasteries, and dotted with hundreds of smaller monasteries, sketes, and hesicaterons. Even today the population of the Holy Mountain numbers in the tens of thousands of monastics (men only) and cannot be visited except by men with special permission granted by both the Greek government and the government of the Holy Mountain itself.

The leading monasteries of the Holy Mountain are:

  • Great Lavra
  • Vatopedi
  • Iveron
  • Chelandari
  • Dionysiou
  • Koutloumousiou
  • Pantokrator
  • Xeropotamou
  • Zographou
  • Docheiariou
  • Karakallou
  • Simonos Petra
  • St. Paul
  • Stavronikita
  • Xenophontos
  • Gregoriou
  • St. Panteleimon (Russian)
  • Esphigmenou
  • Philotheou
  • Konstamonitou

Other famous Orthodox monasteries include:

  • Meteora, Greece
  • St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai
  • Troitse-Sergieva Lavra/The Trinity-Sergius Lavra, Russia
  • Kiev Pechersk Lavra/Kiev Monastery of the Caves, Ukraine
  • Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
  • Putna Monastery, Romania
  • Solovetsky Monastery, Russia
  • Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, Russia
  • Alexander Nevsky Lavra, St. Petersburg
  • Novodevichy Convent, Moscow
  • Pochayiv Lavra, Ukraine
  • Valaam Monastery, Russia
  • Studenica Monastery, Serbia
  • Sopocani Monastery, Serbia
  • Visoki Decani Monastery, Serbia
  • Gračanica Monastery, Serbia
  • Ostrog Monastery, Montenegro
  • Kykkos Monastery,Cyprus
  • Monastery of the Cross,Jerusalem
  • Mar Saba,Kidron Valley
  • Monastery of Saint John "the Theologian" and the Cave of the Apocalypse on the Island of Pátmos, Greece

Eastern (Oriental Orthodox) monasteries

The Oriental Orthodox Churches, distinguished by their Myaphisite beliefs consist of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (whose Patriarch, is considered first among equals for the following churches), as well as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Indian Orthodox Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. The now extinct Caucasian Albanian Church also fell under this group.

St. Anthony's (Deir Mar Antonios) is the oldest monastery in the world and under the patronage of the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Latin Catholic and Eastern Catholic monasticism

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

  • Augustinian/Augustinian canons ('The Black Canons'), which evolved from the Priests Canon (priest) who would normally work with the Bishop: now living together with him as monks under St. Augustine's rule
  • Benedictine/Benedictine monks ('The Black Monks'), founded by St. Benedict, stresses manual labor in a self-subsistent monastery.
  • Cistercian monks ('The White Monks') / *Trappists
  • Camaldolese
  • Bridgettine sisters
  • Carthusian/Carthusian monks
  • Gilbertine
  • Poor Clares
  • Byzantine Discalced Carmelites
  • Premonstratensian canons ('The White Canons')
  • Tironensian monks ('The Grey Monks')
  • Valliscaulian/Valliscaulian monks

Famous Christian monasteries include:

  • Taizé Community
  • El Escorial
  • Monte Cassino
  • Melk Abbey
  • Buckfast Abbey
  • Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos

In the nineteenth century, monasticism was revived in the Church of England, leading to the foundation of institutions such 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).

Hindu monasteries

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

Recent trends

The number of dedicated monastics in any religion has waxed and waned due to many factors. There have been Christian monasteries such as "The Cappadocian Caves" that used to shelter upwards of 50,000 monks, or St Pantelaimon's on the "Holy Mountain" in Greece, which had 30,000 in its heyday. Today those numbers have dwindled considerably. Currently the monasteries containing the largest numbers are Buddhist: Drepung Monastery in Tibet housed around 15,000 monks prior to the Chinese invasion. Today its relocated monastery in India houses around 8,000 - nearly five times the current monastic population of the entire Holy Mountain.

On the other hand, there are those among monastic leaders that are critical of monasteries that are too large. Such become institutions and lose that intensity of spiritual training that can better be handled when an elder has only 2 or 3 disciples. There are on the Holy Mountain areas such as the Skete of St Anne, which could be considered one entity but is in fact many small "Sketes" (monastic houses containing one elder and 2 or 3 disciples) who come together in one church for services.

Additionally, there is Christian neo-monasticism growing, particularly among evangelical Christians. Established upon at least some of the customary monastic principles, they have attracted many who seek to live in relationship with other, or who seek to live in an intentionally-focused lifestyle, such as a focus upon simplicity or pacifism. Some include rites, novitiate-periods which a newly interested person can test out living, sharing of resources, while others are more pragmatic, providing a sense of family in addition to a place to live.