A monk (μοναχός, monachos), derived from Greek monos (alone), in modern parlance also referred to as a monastic, is a person who practices religious asceticism, the conditioning of mind and body in favor of the spirit, and does so living either alone or with any number of like-minded people, whilst always maintaining some degree of physical separation from those not sharing the same purpose. The concept is ancient and can be seen in many religions and in philosophy.
In the Greek language the term can apply to men or women; but in modern English it is in use only for men, while nun is used for female monastics.
Although the term monachos (“monk”) is of Christian origin, in the English language it tends to be used analogously or loosely also for ascetics from other religious or philosophical backgrounds.
The term monk is generic and in some religious or philosophical traditions it therefore may be considered interchangeable with other generic terms such as ascetic. However, being generic, it is not interchangeable with terms that denote particular kinds of monk, such as cenobite, hermit, anchorite, hesychast, solitary.
Nowadays it is often wrongly assumed that it signifies a monk living in community, who is merely one kind of monk who lives with other monks, namely a cenobite (Greek: κοινοβιακός).
From early Church times there has been a lively discussion of the meaning of the term monk (derived from Greek: monos, alone), namely whether it denotes someone living alone/away from the rest of society, or someone celibate/focused on God alone. The Western rule giver Benedict of Nursia understood it as meaning the latter, namely a celibate dedicated to God. This is evident from the fact that his list of the four kinds of monks includes hermits.
In the English language, but not in German and French, a distinction is made between monks and friars, the latter being members of mendicant orders. A distinction is also made between monks and Canons Regular.
A monastery is the dwelling of one or more monks.
The term monastery is already used by the Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 20 BC - 50 AD, resident in Alexandria, Egypt) in his description of the life of the Therapeutae and Therapeutides, people with common religious aspirations who then were dwelling on a low-lying hill above the Mareotic Lake near Alexandria in houses at a distance of each other that safeguarded both solitude and security (cf. On the Contemplative Life ch. III, in the Loeb Classical Library edition see §25).
In each house there is a consecrated room which is called a sanctuary or closet (monastērion), and closeted (monoumenoi) in this they are initiated into the mysteries of the sanctified life. They take nothing into it, either drink or food or any other of the things necessary for the needs of the body, but laws and oracles delivered through the mouth of prophets, and hymns and anything else which fosters and perfects knowledge and piety. They keep the memory of God alive and never forget it … Twice every day they pray, at dawn and at eventide … The interval between early morning and evening is spent entirely in spiritual exercise. They read the holy scriptures and seek wisdom from their ancestral philosophy … For six days they seek wisdom by themselves in solitude in the closets (monastēriois) mentioned above … But every seventh day they meet together as for a general assembly … (in a) common sanctuary … (Philo, On The Contemplative Life, ch. III).
In the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, monasticism is a far more common lifestyle than in the Roman Catholic Church and holds a very special and important place. The Orthodox Church measures its health by the quality of its monks and nuns. Orthodox monastics separate themselves from the world in order to pray unceasingly for the world. They do not, in general, have as their primary purpose the running of social services, as is common in Western Christianity, but instead are concerned with attaining theosis, or union with God. However, care for the poor and needy has always been an obligation of monasticism, so Orthodox monasteries are not normally "cloistered" like some contemplative Western houses are, though the level of contact will vary from community to community. Orthodox hermits, on the other hand, have little or no contact with the outside world.
Orthodox monasticism does not have religious orders as are found in the West, nor do they have Rules in the same sense as the Rule of St. Benedict. Rather, Eastern monastics study and draw inspiration from the writings of the Desert Fathers as well as other Church Fathers; probably the most influential of which are the Greater Asketikon and Lesser Asketikon of St. Basil the Great and the Philokalia, which was compiled by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth. Hesychasm is of primary importance in the ascetical theology of the Orthodox Church.
Most communities are self-supporting, and the monastic’s daily life is usually divided into three parts: (a) communal worship in the catholicon (the monastery's main church); (b) hard manual labour; and (c) private prayer, spiritual study, and rest when necessary. Meals are usually taken in common in a sizable dining hall known as a trapeza (refectory), at elongated refectory tables. Food is usually simple and is eaten in silence while one of the brethren reads aloud from the spiritual writings of the Holy Fathers. The monastic lifestyle takes a great deal of serious commitment and hard work, it forces the person to overcome their own flaws and weaknesses; those newcomers with romantic notions about this sort of lifestyle usually do not last more than a few days. Within the cenobitic community, all monks conform to a common way of living based on the traditions of that particular monastery. In struggling to attain this conformity, the monastic comes to realize his own shortcomings and is guided by his spiritual father in how to deal honestly with them. Attaining this level of self-discipline is perhaps the most difficult and painful accomplishment any human being can make; but the end goal, to become like an angel on earth (an "earthly angel and a heavenly man", as the church hymns put it), is the reason monastics are held in such high esteem. For this same reason, Bishops are almost always chosen from the ranks of monks.
Eastern monasticism is found in three distinct forms: anchoritic (a solitary living in isolation), cenobitic (a community living and worshiping together under the direct rule of an abbot or abbess), and the "middle way" between the two, known as the skete (a community of individuals living separately but in close proximity to one another, who come together only on Sundays and feast days, working and praying the rest of the time in solitude, but under the direction of an elder). One normally enters a cenobitic community first, and only after testing and spiritual growth would one go on to the skete or, for the most advanced, become a solitary anchorite. However, one is not necessarily expected to join a skete or become a solitary; most monastics remain in the cenobuim the whole of their lives. The form of monastic life an individual embraces is considered to be his vocation; that is to say, it is dependent upon the will of God, and is revealed by grace.
In general, Orthodox monastics have little or no contact with the outside world, including their own families. The purpose of the monastic life is union with God, the means is through leaving the world (i.e., the life of the passions). After tonsure, Orthodox monks and nuns are never permitted to cut their hair. The hair of the head and the beard remain uncut as a symbol of the vows they have taken, reminiscent of the Nazarites from the Old Testament. The Tonsure of monks is the token of a consecrated life, and symbolizes the cutting off of their self-will.
Within Roman Catholicism, a monk is a member of a religious order who lives a communal life in a monastery, abbey, or priory under a monastic rule of life (such as the Rule of St. Benedict) and under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. St. Benedict of Nursia is considered to be the founder of western monasticism. He established the first monastic community in the west and authored the Rule of St. Benedict, which is the foundation for the Order of St. Benedict and all of its reforms such as the Cistercians and the Trappists.
The religious vows taken in the West were first developed by St. Benedict. These vows were three in number: obedience, conversion of life, and stability. Among later Western religious orders, these developed into the solemn vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. Obedience requires that monks are willing obey the Catholic Church, as represented by the superior. Chastity requires that since they were willing to dedicate their lives to God, they sacrificed the love between men and women and would not marry. Poverty requires they renounced any ownership of property or assets, except for items that were allowed to them by their superior (such as a religious habit, shoes, a cloak, etc.), and to live meekly, sharing whatever they might have with the poor.
To become a monk, one first must become a postulant, during which time the man lives at the monastery to evaluate whether he is called to become a monk. As a postulant, the man is not bound by any vows, and is free to leave the monastery at any time. If the postulant and the community agree that the postulant should become a monk, the man is received as a novice, at which time he is given his religious habit, and begins to participate more fully in the life of the monastery. Following a period as a novice, usually six months to a year, the novice is given the option to take the solemn vows, which can be renewed annually for a period of years. After a few years, the monk can make permanent vows, which are binding for life.
The monastic life generally consists of prayer in the form of the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office) and divine reading (lectio divina) and manual labor. Among most religious orders, monks live in simple, austere rooms called cells and come together daily to celebrate the Conventual Mass and to recite the Liturgy of the Hours. In most communities, the monks take their meals together in the refectory. While there is no vow of silence, many communities have a period of silence lasting from evening until the next morning and some others restrict talking to only when it is necessary for the monks to perform their work and during weekly recreation. Monks who have been or will be ordained into Holy Orders as priests or deacons, are referred to as choir monks, as they have the obligation to recite the entire Divine Office daily in choir. Those monks who are not ordained into Holy Orders are referred to as lay brothers. In most monastic communities today, little distinction exists between the lay brothers and the choir monks. However, historically, the roles of the two groups of monks within the monastery differed. The work of the choir monks was considered to be prayer, chanting the seven hours of the Divine Office and celebrating the Mass daily whereas the lay brothers provided for the material needs of the community by growing food, preparing meals, maintaining the monastery and the grounds. This distinction arose historically because generally those monks who could read Latin typically became choir monks, while those monks who were illiterate or could not read Latin became lay brothers. Since the lay brothers could not recite the Divine Office in Latin, they would instead pray easily memorizable prayers such as the Our Father or the Hail Mary as many as 150 times per day. Since the Second Vatican Council, the distinction between choir monks and lay brothers have become less important, as the council allowed the Divine Office to be said in the vernacular language, effectively opening participation to all of the monks.
Within western monasticism, it is important to differentiate between monks and friars. Monks generally live a contemplative life of prayer confined within a cloistered monastery while friars usually engage in an active ministry of service to the outside community. The monastic orders include all Benedictines, the Order of Saint Benedict and its later reforms including the Cistercians, and the Trappists. The Carthusians are also a monastic order, although they do not follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Orders of friars include the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians. Although the Canons Regular, such as the Norbertines, live in community, they are neither monks nor friars as they are characterized by their clerical state and not by any monastic vows.
Shortly after the beginning of the revival of the Catholic Movement in the Church of England, there was felt to be a need for a restoration of the monastic life. In the 1840s, Anglican priest John Henry Newman established a community of men at Littlemore near Oxford. From then on, there have been (re-)established many communities of monks, friars and other religious communities for men in the Anglican Communion. There are Anglican Benedictines, Franciscans, Cistercians, and in the Episcopal Church in the USA, Dominicans), as well as other monastic orders such as the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.
Some Anglican religious communities are contemplative, some active, but a distinguishing feature of the monastic life among Anglicans is that most practice the so-called "mixed life." Anglican monks recite the Divine Office in choir daily, either the full eight services of the Breviary or the four offices found in the Book of Common Prayer and celebrate the Eucharist daily. Many orders take on external works such as service to the poor, giving religious retreats, or other active ministries within their immediate communities. Like Roman Catholic monks, Anglican monks also take the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
In the early 20th century when the Catholic Movement was at its height, the Anglican Communion had hundreds of orders and communities, and thousands of religious followers. However, since the 1960s there has been a sharp falling off in the numbers of religious in many parts of the Anglican Communion. Many, once large and international communities have been reduced to a single convent or monastery comprised of elderly men or women. In the last few decades of the 20th century, novices have for most communities been few and far between. Some orders and communities have already become extinct.
There are however, still several thousand Anglican monks working today in approximately 200 communities around the world. The most surprising growth has been in the Melanesian countries of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. The Melanesian Brotherhood, founded at Tabalia, Guadalcanal, in 1925 by Ini Kopuria, is now the largest Anglican Community in the world with over 450 brothers in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and the United Kingdom.
Although the European term "monk" is often applied to Buddhism, the situation of Buddhist asceticism is different.
There is often a trial period prior to ordination, to see if a candidate wishes to become a Buddhist monk. If he does, he remains in the monastery; otherwise, he is free to leave.
In Theravada Buddhism, bhikkhu is the term for monk. Their disciplinary code is called the patimokkha, which is part of the larger Vinaya. They live lives of mendicancy, and go on a morning almsround (Pali: pindapata) every day. The local people give food for the monks to eat, though the monks are not permitted to positively ask for anything. The monks live in monasteries, and have an important function in traditional Asian society. Young boys can be ordained as samaneras. Both bhikkhus and samaneras eat only in the morning, and are not supposed to lead a luxurious life. Their rules forbid the use of money, although this rule is nowadays not kept by all monks. The monks are part of the Sangha, the third of the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the term 'Sangha' is in principle restricted to those who have achieved certain levels of understanding. They are therefore called 'community of the excellent ones' (mchog kyi tshogs); however, these in turn need not be monks (i.e., hold such vows).
Several Mahayana orders accept female practitioners as monks, instead of using the normal title of "nun", and they are considered equal to male ascetics in all respects.
The Bhikkhus are only allowed 4 items: a razor, a needle, an alms bowl and a water strainer. In Vajrayana Buddhism, monkhood is part of the system of 'vows of individual liberation'; these vows are taken in order to develop one's own personal ethical discipline. The monks and nuns form the (ordinary) sangha. As for the Vajrayana vows of individual liberation, there are four steps: A lay person may take the 5 vows called 'approaching virtue' (in Tibetan 'genyen' <dge snyan>). The next step is to enter the monastic way of life (Tib. rabjung) which includes wearing monk's or nun's robes. After that, one can become a 'novice' (Pali samanera, Tib. getshül); the last and final step is to take all vows of the 'fully ordained monk' (gelong). This term 'gelong' (Tib. <dge long>, in the female form gelongma) is the translation of Skt. bikshu (for women bikshuni) which is the equivalent of the Pali term bhikkhuni; bhikkhu is the word used in Theravada Buddhism (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand).
Chinese Buddhist monks have been traditionally and stereotypically linked with the practice of the Chinese martial arts or Kung fu, and monks are frequently important characters in martial arts films. This association is focused around the Shaolin Monastery. The Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, traditionally credited as the founder of Zen Buddhism in China, is also claimed to have introduced Kung fu to the country. This latter claim has however been a source of much controversy (see Bodhidharma, the martial arts, and the disputed India connection).
In Thailand, it is common for boys to spend some time living as a monk in a monastery. Most stay for only a few years and then leave, but a number continue on in the ascetic life for the rest of their lives.
ISKCON started as a predominantly monastic group but nowadays the majority of members live as lay persons. Many of them, however, spent some time as monks. New persons joining ISKCON as full-time members (living in its centers) first undergo a three-month Bhakta training, which includes learning the basics of brahmacari (monastic) life. After that they can decide if they prefer to continue as monks or as married Grihasthas.
Brahmacari older than fifty years can become sannyasi. Sannyasa, a life of full dedication to spiritual pursuits, is the highest stage of life in the varnasrama society. It is permanent and one cannot give it up. A Sannyasi is given the title Swami. Older grihastha with grown-up children are traditionally expected to accept vanaprastha (celibate retired) life.
Madhvaacharya (Madhvacharya), the Dwaita philosopher, established ashta matha (Eight Monasteries). He appointed a monk (called swamiji or swamigalu in local parlance) for each matha or monastery who has the right to worship Lord Krishna by rotation. Each matha's swamiji gets a chance to worship after fourteen years. This ritual is called Paryaya.