A Critique Of Monasticism

Let me begin a critique of monasticism with a couple of reflections that come from people who have observed the unhelpful role monasticism has played in other religions.

A Confucian critique of monasticism insists there is no basis for monasticism in the Confucian tradition. It asserts monasticism encourages the ‘unnatural renunciation of pleasure’, ‘un-filial self-immolation’, ‘anti-family celibacy’ and ‘withdrawal from (and opposition to) social structures’ – all of which are contrary to the Confucian tradition.[i]

A Buddhist critique of monasticism is based on the fact that there is a tendency for monastics to see ‘monastic ordination as the act by which one becomes a truly committed Buddhist’. They tend to suggest that one can only become a ‘truly committed Buddhist’ is by becoming a monastic. But Sangharakshita says that a ‘truly committed Buddhist’ finds their refuge ‘in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha’ – not in the monastery.[ii]

One of the most famous Christian critiques of monasticism was by Erasmus. Erasmus, who had been educated in a monastery, wrote to a friend saying; ‘Monastic life should not be equated with the virtuous life. It is just one type of life ….a life for which I was averse both in mind and body: in mind, because I shrank from ceremonies and was fond of liberty; in body, because my constitution was not adapted to such trials.’[iii] In 1509 Erasmus wrote In The Praise Of Folly as a full-frontal attack on monasticism. Erasmus argued that monasticism was based on ‘man-made’ vows and that Christians should make only one vow – ‘the first and only vow we take in baptism – not to man, but to Christ.’[iv]

Following on from Erasmus, in 1521 Luther wrote his attack On Monastic Vows.  Luther condemned monastic vows as ‘works’. He attacked the vows of poverty and celibacy, saying they should be voluntary not mandatory. And he attacked the vow of obedience saying we are called by Christ to serve one another not just ‘one’ person – an abbot.[v] identified with that longing in his own book, but outlined a vision to carry it forward within the Christian tradition’.[vi]

[i] ‘Critique of Buddhist Monasticism – Confucian’ in Encyclopedia Of Monasticism by William M Johnston Vol 1 p 333

[ii] ‘Critique of Buddhist Monasticism’ Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia – Google Books Result by Christopher S. Queen, Sallie B. King – 1996 p 86

[iii] ‘Critique of Christian Monasticism – Erasmus’ in Encyclopedia Of Monasticism by William M Johnston Vol 1 p 339

[iv] ‘Critique of Christian Monasticism – Erasmus’ in Encyclopedia Of Monasticism by William M Johnston Vol 1 p 339

[v]Critique of Christian Monasticism – Luther’ in Encyclopedia Of Monasticism by William M Johnston Vol 1 p 340-41

[vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Monasticism

1 Comment »

  1. sanjitagnihotri says:

    A few comments here. I am wary of anyone who says that monasticism/mysticism is not a part of so-and-so tradition.After all,who makes these traditions? We-the people.We can be initiators of new traditions-the traditions of the future.Then,I have met a few people who claimed that monasticism/mysticism is not part of Islam.Seeing mystically means to see the interconnectedness among all components of creation.This quality is found in some people only;not in all.Anyone can have this quality-be he/she a Hindu,Muslim or Christian.The trick is to be able to use this quality effectively.By saying that monasticism/mysticism is not part of certain traditions,we invalidate those who have the capacity to respond to life at this level.Another man said to me that marriage is part of the divine mandate in his religion;hence,everyone should get married.I insist that marriage is a personal choice;it cannot be imposed on anyone in the name of fitting into a tradition.


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