As a mode of life that vows obedience to a rule, monasticism originated not in the Near East but in India with Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha (c. 563–c. 483 B.C.E.). His rule or vinaya governed conduct of life initially for the Buddha's community or sangha of immediate followers. Nine months of the year they wandered, but during the three months of the monsoon they settled in a vihara or monastery. Eventually the Buddha delivered a separate rule for women. Parallel phenomena coexisted within Jainism and Hinduism. Christian monasticism emerged six or seven centuries later in the deserts of the Eastern Mediterranean. Although Rabbinic Judaism (together with Islam) repudiates asceticism, Jewish precedents for Christian extremism emerged in a wanderer such as John the Baptist (c. 7 B.C.E.–c. 27 C.E.) or in the Qumran community. Christian ascetics of whom little is known roved the deserts of Syria and Egypt. The lifestyle of these spiritual "athletes" crystallized in figures such as Anthony of Egypt (c. 251–356) and Pachomius (c.290–346). Experience as a soldier equipped Pachomius to write a rule for, as it were, an army-camp of ascetics. By mid-fourth century in Egypt, hermits living alone or in loose groups practiced eremitical monasticism, while desert fathers and mothers living in community practiced cenobitical monasticism. The head of a consecrated community was called an abba (father) or amma (mother). From the start monks were copying manuscripts, as they would continue to do for the next twelve centuries. Eastern desert monasticism passed to France through fourth-century intermediaries such as Martin of Tours (c. 316–400), Hilary of Poitiers (401–449), and above all John Cassian of Marseilles (360–435). Epitomized in the disputed figure of St. Patrick (c. 385–461), an Englishman who may have dwelt at Cassian's houses near Marseilles, Irish monasticism emerged in the mid-fifth century through contact with France. In sixth-and seventh-century Ireland, an island that had never known Roman cities, an abbot ruled as a kind of tribal chieftain who outranked bishops. No amount of asceticism could, however, prevent Celtic monasticism from collapsing in the Viking raids of the ninth century.
By 450, Eastern Christian monasticism was coalescing not just in the desert but also in cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople, while its Western counterpart kept spreading in self-sufficient rural communities. Monastics lived in an enclosure or cloister that fenced a church, a refectory, a library, dormitories, and subsistence farming. Monasticism produced vastly more varieties in Western Europe than anywhere else. Proliferation of types—notably during two periods, one from 1100 to 1250 and the other from 1520 to 1700—complicates the task of classifying Western monasticism. Fundamental differences separate cloistered orders who, at least until the thirteenth century, preferred to dwell in the country and Mendicant friars who, in the wake of St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), frequented cities and towns preaching and begging for alms. Stemming from the Black Monks, who only in the seventeenth century acquired the name of Benedictines, other rural orders were the Carthusians (founded 1084) and the Cistercians (founded 1098). Following the example of the Franciscan friars (organized 1209), thirteenth-century Mendicants came to include three other orders: the Dominicans (organized 1215), who preached against heresy; the Carmelites (organized by the pope in 1247) who originated as hermits on Mount Carmel in Palestine; and the Augustinian Friars (organized by the pope in 1256), whose most famous member was Martin Luther (1483–1546). Whereas the pre-1200 Benedictines had cultivated son-to-father obedience to an abbot, Mendicants cultivated sibling-to-sibling relations to one another. Excelling all these in martial vigor were the warrior monks of Crusader Palestine, including the Knights Templar (who emerged c. 1119 and were dissolved in 1312) and the Knights Hospitaller (who emerged c. 1080 and in 1530 took the name Knights of Malta).
A second crucial distinction differentiates contemplative orders founded before 1215 from post-Reformation active orders and congregations such as the Jesuits (founded 1540) or Oratorians (founded 1575). The latter comprise not monastics but clerks regular: priests who follow a rule while ministering in the world. Having no lay brothers, the Jesuits and Oratorians are not monastics, and neither are the numerous post-1520 female teaching or nursing congregations such as the Ursulines (founded 1535) or Sisters of Charity (founded 1633). Nevertheless, from 1298 until the early 1970s, canon law obliged women's congregations in solemn vows to stay cloistered.
A third distinction pertains to Eastern and Western Christianity. In contrast to Western organizational fecundity, Eastern Christian monasticism functions under just one rule: that ascribed to St. Basil the Great (329–379). As a result, Eastern Christian monasticism has upheld one model through sixteen centuries, while Western monasticism has initiated reforms in nearly every generation. To be sure, monastic reform means not launching a fresh departure but rather attempting to install a better version of the past. In Western Christianity the idea of monasticism implies constant renewal in quest of a founder's vision or "source experience."
Buddhist monasticism differs structurally from Christian or Hindu forms. When the Buddha founded his religion, he conceived it solely as a monasticism. Lay Buddhism emerged after his lifetime and in Asia still presupposes proximity to a sangha. In Christianity and Hinduism, by way of contrast, monasticism competes with many other embodiments of the religion. This means that at least until the late twentieth century, classification of types of Buddhist monasticism amounts to classification of the religion as a whole, whereas classification of Christian monasticism does not. Three major types of Buddhism stand out: (1) In Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, Theravada or the "Way of the Elders" claims to descend directly from the historical Buddha. It offers to individual monastics rules for working out during this or later lifetimes gradual passage to enlightenment. (2) In India and then in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, Mahayana emerged at least six to eight centuries after the historical Buddha, and the first three of those countries generated numerous schools of thought and practice, each with its own ritual, texts, and lineage of masters. Some schools promised enlightenment to laypeople and not just to monastics, while innovative "pure land" leaders in Japan such as Shinran (1173–1262) discarded monasticism. (3) Starting in the eighth century, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana fostered many sects or schools in Northern India, Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia. Under the leadership of the present Dalai Lama (1935–), leader of the Gelukpa school, Tibetan Buddhism has spread throughout the world. Many non-Buddhists in the early twenty-first century mistakenly regard Tibetan forms as synonymous with Buddhism per se. This misperception overlooks the dozens of schools of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana that thrive throughout Asia and increasingly in the West.
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