In most religions some members have always been more special than others. On the span between priests and lay members of the religion, we encounter a group of “professional” worshippers: monks and nuns. Their usual habitation would be a monastery.
We have the historically significant fact that very much education has been supplied by religious institutions. Students were taught to read and write by clergymen and -women. At the same time the sharing and development of knowledge was also kept in check by these institutions, if not deliberately hidden against better judgment.
This applies at least to Islam and Christianity, where new knowledge sometimes was perceived with scepticism or hostility if it was deemed contrary to current doctrines. These two large religions separate in the view of monasteries: Islam actually prohibits monasticism. On the other hand Islam has been very active in promoting schools – madrassas – sometimes with more subjects studied than the Islamic religion.
This article is part of a series of articles about religious buildings, introduced here.
The former monastery at Mont Saint-Michel is on the Brittany-Normandy coast of France
A word on terms: Monasteries are inhabited by monks, whereas the parallel system for nuns generally are called convents. A convent was historically used to denote a house for friars (men). I am using the term monastery as a general term.
Monastic life is most often described as belonging to Buddhism and Christianity, but it is also found in Hinduism.
Wikipedia puts it this way: “There has been a long tradition of Christian monasteries providing hospitable, charitable and hospital services. Monasteries have often been associated with the provision of education and the encouragement of scholarship and research, which has led to the establishment of schools and colleges and the association with universities. Christian monastic life has adapted to modern society by offering computer services, accounting services and management as well as modern hospital and educational administration.”
In my knowledge such activities are rarer in Buddhist monasteries. They are more concerned about personal meditation and studies of holy scriptures than performing charitable community work. Indeed, in the Bagan area of Myanmar, I was invited into an underground cave monastery. Here, in total darkness, monks would come and meditate for days at a time. The picture below was taken with the use of flash when the place of meditation was guaranteed empty.
Meditation corridor inside the Kyat Kan Kyaung cave monastery in Bagan, Myanmar
It is fascinating when Buddhist monks, and nuns, emerge early in the morning in their long robes to collect their food rations. Old and young will form a long line and walk streetwise until their bowls have been filled.
Buddhist monasteries thrive very well in Myanmar. It was easy to tell during my latest visit (2013) to a Buddhist country. A couple of years ago I would notice that one of the most important monasteries in Mongolia, the Gandantegchinleng Khiid in Ulaanbaatar and been restored. The Communist leadership had years ago destroyed most temples and monasteries, but they are now slowly coming to life.
Such destructions have not befallen the beautiful temples and monasteries of Luang Prabang, Laos. Here I met a young man who had behind him a few years as monk, and was facing a few more years. He had, at the monastery, become quite good at English and was eagerly planning to enter a university in due time. The young monk needed a scholarship to accomplish his dream. Monastaries are, in Southeast Asia, a way out of poverty for the impoverished, and it is generally acknowledged that everyone should spend some years as a monk during ones lifetime. (Or should I say, this lifetime.)
Wat Xieng Thong temple and monastery in Luang Prabang, Laos
Many years ago, witnessing the prayers at the Lama monasteries of Sera and Drepung in Tibet was an extremely thrilling experience. I managed to sneak this picture.
Praying monks in the Sera Monastery, Tibet
In Christianity there are quite a few notable monasteries designated as World Heritage Sites. The Mont St Michel in France is pictured above. In Portugal there are three important ones, Jeronimos, Alcobaca and Batalha. These monasteries are fantastic sites to visit. The cloister gardens and surrounding hallways are tranquil and wonderful.
Cloister garden inside the monastery of Alcobaça, Portugal
The “Last supper” by Leonardo da Vinci is painted on the wall of the former Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. Imagine having such a masterpiece in the room where you are having your lunch!
The Last Supper, painting by Leonardo
Cordoba in southern Spain was a full university at the time of the Moors, the Muslim invaders. By the 10th century it is estimated it was the most populous town in the world, and had become an important university town hosting several medical schools, libraries and making advances in mathematics and astronomy. The tolerant atmosphere with regards to knowledge declined rapidly after the so-called “reconquista”. The lovely palace was turned into torture cells by the Inquisition.