What Is the Importance of Monasticism in Buddhism?

The entrance of a Chinese monastery.
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Monasticism, or communal life characterized by simplicity and devotion to religious practice, is a fundamental aspect of Buddhism. The mutually beneficial relationship between monastic and lay communities has contributed greatly to the religion's long-term strength -- laypeople offer daily material support and monastics give back through spiritual guidance. Perhaps most important, monasteries create optimal conditions for spiritual practices thought to lead to enlightenment.

1 Practices

Monastic practices found in all Buddhist traditions include waking before sunrise, chanting scriptures, daily chores, communal meals and providing blessings for the laity. With the exception of those in Japan and a minority in Korea and China, all Buddhist monastics are required to be celibate. In Theravada temples, monastics do not eat after noon and accept whatever food is offered by the laity, including meat unless it was killed explicitly for the monastery. Mahayana monastics eat two or three strictly vegetarian meals per day.

2 Functions

Some monasteries focus on meditation while others are dedicated to scriptural study, but virtually all include some aspects of both. Those centrally located in cities or towns often double as community centers, schools, medical clinics, hospices and homeless shelters. Monasteries in remote settings are usually devoted to spiritual development through meditation rather than to community involvement. Meditation monasteries are often found deep in forests, in caves or at the top of mountain peaks. All monasteries contain shrine rooms, where monastics and lay practitioners offer prayers and prostrations to images of the Buddha.

3 Lay Community

Lay practitioners contribute to the Sangha, or community of monastics, through donations of food, robes, medicine and other supplies. Wealthy laypeople often donate large sums of money for the construction of temple buildings. No matter how small the gift, or puja, it's believed that anyone who contributes to the Sangha accumulates positive merit, one of several factors thought to lead to a fortunate rebirth. While it's fairly common for laypeople to practice meditation in monasteries for short periods, the focus of lay life is generally on morality and generosity rather than on meditation or scriptural study. An exception is the far younger Buddhist tradition of the West, in which lay practice is heavily associated with meditation.

4 Monastic Community

Monastics give back to the lay community through blessings, guidance and the performance of rituals at weddings and funerals. The doors of monasteries are always open to any layperson in need. Particularly in the Mahayana tradition, some monastics perform charitable service within the lay community. Lay people also benefit in an indirect way from the positive karma that stems from the awareness, wisdom and compassion developed by monastics through study and meditation. In Theravada Buddhist countries, it's common for young men to ordain as monks and temporarily stay in monasteries, a custom that's thought to bring positive merit to their families while readying them for householder life.

5 Refuge

Monasteries are intended to be peaceful places where monastics and visiting lay practitioners take refuge from the mundane affairs of the world. Many monastics do not use clocks or calendars, instead attuning themselves to the natural cycles of the sun and moon. Monastic routines change little from day to day. The often rigorous codes of discipline make clear which actions are skillful and unskillful. Apart from the standard eight moral precepts, Theravada monastics adhere to no less than 227 rules.

While some view Buddhist monasticism as a restrictive way of life, the many rules and monotonous routines are thought to encourage monastics toward the transcendence of craving, viewed in Buddhism as the root of suffering and a sort of prison that makes it impossible to experience true freedom. Through meditation practice, scriptural study, quietude, simplicity and ethical guidelines, monastics are believed to cultivate freedom from craving and potentially realize enlightenment.

Based in Thailand, David Luekens has explored and written about Asian spiritual traditions since 2005. He is a regular contributor to Travelfish.org and author of the book, "Every Drop." David holds a Bachelor of Arts in Eastern Studies from Burlington College, Vermont, USA.