What is the meaning of monasticism?

Many people are in dilemma about the genuine meaning of monastic life. You can call monasticism the pursuit by some people who will work beyond their devotional religious people. There are many ways to lead a monastic life but if someone truly wants to know monasticism meaning then, one needs to know that monastic life can be led by isolating himself or herself from his/her society. Let’s first define monasticism in its true sense: Monasticism is derived from the Greek word “monachos” which means “to live alone” but many times people have mistaken themselves by this meaning. Today, many people live a monastic life in a cenobitic manner that means they join a community with the same belief.

Importance of Monasticism

It is noticed that for generations monastics have been protecting their thoughtful skills by transmitting their learnings to enhance religious beliefs among people. What is the meaning of Monasticism? A monastic life goes beyond the religious teachings in order to work for the benefits of people. The monastic life isolates itself from society to lead a life of a hermit or accompany itself with a community who detach themselves from society with the same intentions. Monastic life is very different and it does not include not so literate societies as it follows a well-established concept of religion. One needs to understand the true self and that’s where monastic life is important. It is significant in its own way and is a path where people follow with their religious beliefs.

Why Monasticism: Purpose of a Monastic Life

People define monasticism, where living life in society cannot be a completely spiritual way of specifying religious founders. “Monasticism” in its own way means the “true self to all the imperfections”, which implies that a person owns all the sins or imperfections by himself or herself. One can discover his/ her true self by leading a monastic life and that is the true purpose of it. A monastic life breaks all the barriers of a soul mind which is full of darkness by identifying one’s true self. The purpose of monasticism is deep, where one’s body, state of mind, everything needs to be controlled as well as disciplined. This is the true reason for their isolation from society, they need to leave their normal routine of life to conquer their soul and follow their religious beliefs.

Another purpose of a monastic life is spiritual perfection. When one leaves the way other people live their life, one leaves the norms and barriers of society. This withdrawal is necessary because perfection cannot be acquired in those norms or in everyday routine. A monastic life supports the body as well as mind to reach their religious goal. Their self-inflation in different forms of prayers or incantations in varied forms separates them from other people.

When one leads a monastic life, one is free from all the servitude! In some South Asian religions like Hinduism, redemption or moksha can be achieved during one’s lifetime but in some religions like Islam and Christanity, it is believed that one cannot achieve redemption as long as one’s body is alive. One needs to know that monastic life is a path to seek salvation or what we call redemption. Monasticism is a way to seek redemption from one’s sins. Many believe that due to this path or philosophy of redemption they detach themselves from their society. Due to this personal sacrifice, they improve their chance of redemption by mortifying their minds as well as their bodies to benefit the lives of people. They also help themselves by following a spiritual path.

As per Hindu belief, moksha or you can call it liberation, monasticism is to disperse the method of liberation. This is another purpose of monasticism as it acts as a disseminator from the cycles of birth and death ( moksha).

A monastic life is somewhere very different and in many traditions, monasticism fulfils all social and institutional purposes as their social goals connect with the devotional thoughts. Monastic life is a very thoughtful approach and for ages, it has promoted the progress of civilisations. Monasticism is a religious tradition that is not universal but eventually, it has the same purpose in different religions. Monastics play a great role for the betterment of society.

In many religions, there are institutional centres for religious leaders. In all Indian religions, it’s seen that there are different collateral institutions for priests and monastic careers. The purpose of monasticism is to serve spiritual, social as well as redemptive path to people who want to live a monastic life.

Types of Monasticism

  • Eremitic Monasticism
    This is the very first type of monasticism that includes the Christian hermits. You can also consider the ” Rishis or Munis” of Vedic India as an Eremitic monastery. They led eremitical institutions that taught them to live alone in order to pursue introspective life.
  • Quasi-Eremitic Type of Monastery
    This kind of monasticism was found in Greece in the 10th century. Also, in Hinduism, ashrams are the best example of quasi-eremitic monasticism. Monastic Buddhism, Buddhist monks and nuns are great examples of this kind of monasticism. They don’t have any external hierarchies. We can take an example of “Kumbh Mela” which was held every sixth year at pilgrimage centres where all Indian monastic assemblies were held.
  • Cenobitic Monasticism
    The above two types of monasticism explain more about one’s self-imposed disciplines. The very first cenobitic community was prepared by Pachomius of Thebaid (It’s a Christian cenobitical community) that built nine monasteries for men and women. It refers to a group of monks living in a community and is common in Buddhism and Christanity.                                                                                                            Also, a good example of cenobitic monasticism is Buddhism – Vinaya. According to its tradition, historically Buddha didn’t desire women monastics first and there were more constraints on them. Cenobitic monasticism also has an example of the order founded by Hindu reformer “Shankara” who strictly believed in the abdication of all worldly desires. Jain reformer “Mahavira” was also considered as a cenobitic monasticist that has many regulations for leading a monastic life. Their regulations include a considerable amount of three hours of sleep, the remaining of the hours should be invested in meditation as well as begging for alms.
  • Quasi-Monastic life:
    They are another type of monasticism. Many Christian orders of this type fulfilled healing commitments whereas non-christian communities of quasi-monastic type did not serve the sick ones. One good example of this type is Sikh community in Hindhus whose founder was Guru Nanak, who was a married man with 9 Gurus and did not entertain monasticism. However, in the 17th century, Nirmal-akhada was created on the same principles of monasticism. Nihang Sahibs ( Belonged to Sikh community) were quasi-monastic as well as military organisations to fight against the penetration of Muslims in their communities. Nihang Sahibs are married but when they serve as Nihangs (military service), they live in a cenobitic manner. Thus, they are classified as quasi-monastics.

Significance of Buddhist Monasticism

Why is Buddhist monasticism important? Buddhist monasticism is known to be one of the earliest forms of monasticism. Not only this monastic buddhism is considered to be an important institution. Bikkhu and Bikkhuni in monasticism uphold Buddha’s preachings. Bhikkhu meaning monks and Bhikkhuni meaning nuns who guide people. Traditionally there are three regions where monasticism in Buddhism-Vinaya are found. Those regions are Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, East Asia and Tibet. Now a question may arise in your mind that when was Buddhist monasticism formed? Well, monastic Buddhism originated as a traditional practice made by ascetics, who left their well-settled lifestyle.

Monasticism Buddhism includes the order of bhikkhu and bhikkhuni which was founded by Gautam Buddha. He accepted ascetics as his followers. They were not necessarily eremitic as the lay community provided all the necessary requirements to Sangha. Soon, there were groups of monks, teachers, students who started living on the outskirts as well as took time to meditate in forests. Lay community provided necessary things like food and shelter(as per requirement) to the monks and nuns. Sutras have a great description of how people were dedicated to the monastic Buddhism that wealthy citizens donated gardens for their comfortable stay during different seasons.

Monasticism Buddhism History states that there were two different kinds of living arrangements for monks and nuns:


It is also known as vihara, where Buddhist monastics live temporarily. Here monks stay together but in their own cell which is also known as parivena.


It has a better arrangement for bhikkhus and is more comfortable than avasa. It has more space including parks. Wealthy people used to donate this kind of place to Buddhist monastics. Ananthapindikassa Arama is a well known Arama built on the grave of Prince Jeta.

After the death of Buddha, monasteries grew. In northern India, with the growth of monastic institutions, thousands of monks were housed. In India, there was a decline in monastic Buddhism in the medieval era. While monastic Buddhism disappeared in India, it became an Asian phenomenon in other parts. This still survives in South Asian communities of Tibet as well as the Himalayan region. Buddhist monasticism has also expanded itself in other parts of the world as the tradition of Buddha attracted foriegn countries in the 20th century and this culture emigrated from Asia to Europe, Africa, America etc. Historically, it has developed its philosophy and people practice it differently.

In Buddhist monasticism, there are different roles of monks and nuns. Here are some of the vital roles they are expected to follow:


  • They need to perpetuate the concept of Buddhism.
  • They need to deliver lay followers with the fortuity to earn merit by supporting monks.
  • They need to lead a sober life that centres the Buddhist doctrine.
  • They need to set an example of ideal moral character.


Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni in buddhism

Buddhism started with a different concept and according to the sutras, it only consisted of men but after Buddha’s stepmother, Mahaprajapati received the permission of being a practitioner in Buddhist monasticism, Buddha recognised many women followers too. In Vajrayana community of Tibet, bhikkhuni lineages were never experienced whereas Theravada community experienced its decline in the 14th century. Only East Asian communities have bhikkhuni lineage that includes Sri lanka as well as Southeast Asia.

There are two stages in monastic life. A Bhikkhu or Bhikkhuni firstly enact as a Samanera, and learn about the life of Buddhist monasticism. The second stage of their life is upasampada, which gives them the status of a monastic Buddhist with a higher ordinance.

It is believed that Theravada tradition ordains male novices at a very young age whereas in East Asian countries the stage of Samanera (First stage of monastic buddhism) cannot be attained before the age of nineteen but one needs to note that monastic community can be followed by anyone since their young age but they need to wait for the ordinance in their stages. Samaneras live as per ten etiquettes but they are not bound with a full set of monastic principles. In Southeast Asian countries, learners may learn about buddhist monasticism in weeks or months. One can achieve higher ordination that is Upasampada, the fortune of becoming a full bhikkhu or bhikkhuni only after 20 years of age. Women monastics need to live as a Samanera for a longer period of time compared to that of men. One receives higher ordination in front of a minimum five to ten monastics.

Monastics with higher ordination need to follow strict principles of buddhism. This can also be termed as a stage of Pratimoksha, this higher ordinance governs the behaviour and dignity of monastics. Vinaya traditions have laid down a set of rules such that Theravada monks have set of 258 rules, Dharmaguptaka monks experience about 250 rules as well as Mulasarvastivada monks experience 258 rules. The same goes with bhikkhunis too. They also need to follow some set of rules but they observe additional rules than bhikkhus. Theravada nuns have to follow 311 rules, Dharmaguptaka nuns have to follow 348 rules and Mulasarvastivada nuns have to follow 354 rules.

Higher ordination rules are different for different countries. In Theravada tradition, buddhist monastics opt for upasampada ordination as soon as they are eligible ( at the age of 19) but bhikkhus in East Asia often remain as learners at this age. One reason for less upasampada in East Asian countries may be that there are less qualified buddhist temples that provide higher ordination with perfection. They tend to take Bodhisattva paths that are basic precepts of buddhist monasticism. There are many early Buddhist schools which are also known as Nikayas, that provide ordination lineages. The development of Nikayas might be because of geographical as well as physical differences in practices of buddhist monasticism. Nikayas may clear the interpretation of monasticism and remove all the barriers that differentiates it.

There are many principles and regulations for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis that help them to be focused and lead a simple as well as a sober life. In monastic discipline, celibacy is of prime importance and this one factor differentiates a householder with that of a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni. Not only this, a monastic life is a very different one. They may be restricted to eat only one meal a day as per their traditional belief. They have lay followers that support them with food as well as shelter directly or they may also support their monastery kitchen by stocking the required items in it. All these rules and perceptions are vital in a monastic buddhism life.

Monasticism in buddhism need not lead a life of reverence to their superiors but it is expected from monastic buddhists to respect their senior monks. However, its history does not reflect any kind of study that shows the successor of Buddha. Thus, monastic buddhists form individual groups and collaborate in the decision-making process. They have regular meetings where they discuss monastic rules or make decisions regarding negligence of monastic rules. In buddhist monasticism there are no formal positions of any kind of monastics as well as no one is authorised to give orders to the other monks. Generally, a senior monastic is chosen as an abbot responsible for a day to day administration of a monastery who may appoint other monks to help him out in his work.

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