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Monastery: Definition and Types

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn what a monastery is and what it does in various religions throughout the world. When you're finished, take the quiz and see what you've learned.

Monasteries for Monks and Convents for Nuns, Right?

Think of a monastery and you imagine a group of celibate men living a life reading religious books, praying, and generally being quiet. That's a stereotype, though. Monasteries can have all women or all men (even though most Christians call a women's monastery a convent). Some have people devoted to books and learning, while others focus on meditation or yoga, and still others work the land. Combinations are common too. Some monasteries, like in Japan and medieval Britain, allow their members to get married. Really, a monastery is any place, building, or cave where a religious person or persons come to get a closer relationship with their god or gods. Usually, a monastery requires people to be celibate and have little or no personal property.

Forest or Desert Monastery

Different people have different ways of approaching their religion. Probably the most extreme is the forest or desert monk. The first desert monks were the Christian ascetics of the Sahara desert. They would find isolated places in the desert or build pillars to live on so they could avoid any contact with the outside world and focus on better understanding the nature of God. As the idea spread, people throughout Europe would find isolated spots where they could hide away and focus on God. The Muslim sufi wear monastic clothing, but don't live away from society. Muslims can't be actual monks, so that's as close as they can get.

Forest monks, or Theravda, are mainly Buddhists who wander through the wilderness. They go in small groups and share their resources, with an elder monk teaching his disciples.

Communal Monasteries

The Orthodox Christian monastery on the island of Cyprus
Christian monastery

Living a life alone and without a home is a very difficult life, though, so Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity developed monasteries where larger groups of people could gather. The land they built on was donated. In the west, monks would spend most of their day in prayers with their other time copying manuscripts or working the soil. Buddhists and Hindus would spend their time in meditation and collect alms for food.

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