A Very Short Introduction

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Stephen J. Davis
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


To some people, “monasticism” evokes images of severe restrictions, harsh mortification, and the intense discipline of religious fanatics living on the fringe of society. In Monasticism: A Very Short Introduction, Stephen J. Davis remedies such misrepresentations with an intriguing inquiry into the principles, processes, and places of Buddhist and Christian monasticism. He compares and contrasts diverse traditions and ideals, examines the formation of a variety of monastic identities and orders, and surveys how intentional communities based on spiritual values and ancient legacies exist now in the contemporary world. Davis draws from a wide range of sources and examples, and his writing is smooth, insightful, and cogent. The book will appeal to both a general audience and students of history, anthropology, and religious studies.

The ambiguous term “monasticism” is derived from monakhós meaning “solitary” and the root mónos meaning “single” (4). The word refers both to one living alone in the village, not in a remote location, and also to those living together but apart from the norms and routines of Greco-Roman householders and civil society. Davis adds four other words originating in late antiquity that refer to people pursuing an alternate lifestyle: “apotactite” living in town without property; “anchorite” withdrawn to isolation; “cenobite” in communal habitation with shared goods, beliefs, and practices; and, “ascetic” practicing restraint regarding money, food, sex, and other attachments (5).

The earliest model of asceticism is the Indian saṃnyāsin, a wandering renunciate and forest-dweller also known as a bhikṣu, or “beggar” (15). Small groups of mendicants banded together during the rainy season in temporary settlements, and students gathered around charismatic teachers (16). Siddhartha Gautama followed this pattern, and according to the Vinaya Piṭaka, an account of the Buddha’s life and code of conduct for his disciples, five aspirants approached him after he attained enlightenment. The Buddha simply said, “Come, monk.” They were joined by fifty-five others and authorized to give ordination with the formula: “I go to the Buddha for refuge; I go to the dhárma [doctrine] for refuge; I go to the saṅgha [assembly] for refuge.” Thus, Buddhist monasticism was founded on homelessness and a declaration of faith (7). As impermanent retreats evolved into year-round residences, more commitments and regulations were adopted. Novices made 36 vows; fully ordained monks made 253 vows; nuns adhered to 364 vows (8). Times were set for fasting, recitation of rules, group critique, confessions, and ceremonies to present new robes and bowls (30). 

Three monastic schools developed in Buddhism: Theravāda (“path of the elders”) emphasizing perfection as an arhat “free from rebirth”; Mahāyāna (“the great vehicle”) and the bodhisattva (“enlightened mind”) ideal of compassion and service; and Vajrayāna (“way of the thunderbolt”) which includes violation of taboos, ritual magic, and invocation of deities (30-31). As Buddhism spread beyond India, new branches and purposes emerged, including the Pure Land (“rebirth in paradise”) and Chan (“meditation”) sects in China, Korea, and Japan (32). Three “Red Hat” orders arose in Tibet: the Sakyapa (“pale earth”) seeking superhuman powers, the Nyingmapa (“ancient translations”) aiming for knowledge of Absolute Reality, and the Kagyüpa (“whispered transmission”) who negate phenomenal appearances and desire transcendence of all mental states. The “Yellow Hat” order of the Dalai Lama, the Gelukpa (“the family of the Future Buddha”), strive for liberation from the cycle of death-and-rebirth through discernment and annihilation of false identity (35-36).

Though monasticism is not accepted as a religious or social option in Judaism, there were groups in the ancient world living according to a common rule and regimen such as the Essenes in the desert outside of Jerusalem and the Therapeutae who lived beyond the city walls of Alexandria (10-11). St. Anthony exemplifies the oldest form of Christian monasticism, a loose affiliation between a mentor and disciple near an urban neighborhood slowly escalating to separation and trials in the wilderness (18-20). Monasticism became a semi-organized institution in the 4th-century lavra, a remote cluster of cells where a hermit and a few apprentices lived in cooperative seclusion (22). Pachomius of Egypt is recognized as the founder of formal Christian monasticism with the introduction of hierarchy, division of labor, entrance standards, and controlled schedule (23). Shenoute the Great further developed this system with a probationary period, oath of obedience, and vestiture (42-43). St. Jerome endorsed two classes of monks, solitary anchorites and also cenobites living according to a superior authority, but he vilified nomads and small groups living outside of a jurisdiction (6). The Rules of St. Basil oriented Byzantine monks (25). The Rule of the Master (6) inspired the Rule of St. Benedict (25), which condemned strict austerities in favor of worship protocols and behavior standards. The Cistercian order emphasized gardening, animal husbandry, carpentry, weaving, baking, and other manual labor (92). The Carthusian model focused on private prayer and scribal work (26). The Rule of St. Augustine stressed pastoral care and poverty; Dominican friars applied themselves to preaching and Franciscan missionaries to serving the poor (27). In Islam, Sufi lodges (zāwiyah) attracted Muslims seeking introspective prayer and mystical intimacy, and often included libraries for study and facilities for tending the sick (11).

According to Davis, monastic identity is formed through “world replacement,” a radical shift in character achieved by accepting and enacting the norms of religious precepts and practice (38). Davis argues that monastic rules are not external injunctions but articulate “form-of-life” agreements (39). He cites Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner in interpreting the process of transformation through stages of initiation: separation from previous connections and assumptions, a transitional examination of motives and instruction by authorities, then integration of a new status and immersion in fellowship (43). Specific virtues are cultivated in the imitation and veneration (57) of eminent teachers (64) and exemplary saints (68). Davis highlights the debate about the limits and value of mīmēsis through reference to Plato’s rejection of “simulated representation” as fraudulent contrasted to Aristotle’s defense for the purpose of purgation (katharsis) (60). 

This pocket-size text is concise without sacrificing necessary illustrations, expert but free from pedantry, and skillfully arranged by significant themes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a Public Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen J. Davis is Professor of Religious Studies, History, and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale University, specializing in the history of ancient and medieval Christianity, with a special focus on the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. Since 2013, he has served as Head of Pierson College, one of the fourteen residential colleges at Yale. He is the author of several books, including The Cult of St. Thecla: A Tradition of Women's Piety in Late Antiquity (OUP, 2001), and Coptic Christology in Practice: Incarnation and Divine Participation in Late Antique and Medieval Egypt (OUP, 2008). His most recent book, Christ Child: Cultural Memories of a Young Jesus, was published by Yale University Press in 2014. For over a decade (since 2006), Stephen has directed the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project, sponsoring archaeological and archival work at several ancient and medieval monastic sites in Egypt.


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