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What is a Monk?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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A monk is a man who has chosen to dedicate his life to religious service and contemplation. Such men can be found in the Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist traditions, among others, and there are a number of different types of monk, ranging from brothers in active service to anchorites who choose to cut themselves off from society to pursue a life of asceticism and contemplation.

In order to become a monk, a man must generally first apply to a monastery, where he will be interviewed by the residents before being accepted on a trial basis. If his trial is successful, he will be admitted as a novice, meaning that the opportunity to take vows will be offered at some point. After a period as a novice, which can vary depending on the rules of the community, he will be offered vows and be accepted fully into the community.

Monks can live in a variety of communities. Some monasteries are dedicated to active service in the surrounding region, with residents working both on the monastery grounds and outside. Others are more cloistered, fostering a more serious and focused environment that is dedicated specifically to religious pursuits, and residents are typically expected to work on the grounds of the monastery to produce food, garments, and other needs. In some cases, monks may even take vows of silence to increase the contemplative atmosphere.

Many religions also have a tradition that considers hermits and other solitary religious ascetics to be monks. In most cases, people choose to pursue a period of hermitage or isolate asceticism after serving in a monastery for a set period of time. While living as a hermit, a man relies on the kindness of others and his own abilities to support himself, with some choosing to live in harsh, isolated environments to enhance the experience. In some cultures, such periods are said to be very important for personal growth and religious development.

Religious ascetics must generally take vows of poverty, obedience, work, service, and chastity. These vows are not to be taken lightly; the choice to become a monk should be considered a permanent life choice, although individuals are offered opportunities to depart the monastery before they take their vows. Typically, those who join are expected to have no outstanding debt or obligations, and they must demonstrate a genuine commitment to the religious life before they will be accepted into a monastery on a trial basis.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ysmina — On Feb 17, 2013

@ZipLine-- Yea, Zen monks are allowed to marry too.

My friend is married to a Zen monk who actually doesn't work as a monk full-time. He is a monk but works as an engineer full time and sometimes participates in ceremonies at the local temple when necessary. They also have two kids.

I think that celibacy is very much a Western tradition for monks. It's not that common in the East.

By ZipLine — On Feb 16, 2013

@dbuckley-- Why are Western monks required to remain celibate? Where did this practice originate from?

It's interesting because monks in some religions, like Islam, are allowed to marry.

By bluedolphin — On Feb 16, 2013

I do have respect for hermits and appreciate the difficulties they go through to experience a spiritual or religious enlightenment. But I find it odd that they sometimes have to beg people for food in order to survive.

This might be a way to control the ego but I think that being a monk is something to be proud and grateful about. I do not think that monks should put themselves in such a situation.

Working to make one's own living is one thing, but roaming from place to place and begging, as some ascetics do in India, is not meaningful in my view. What do you guys think? Do you think that this is a beneficial practice for monks?

By Renegade — On Feb 14, 2011

Monks used to be printing presses. Before there was massive availability of literacy and copying devices, Monks would spend much of their time making copies of various works. Books were expensive and limited at that time, and monks would often use flowery and decorated lettering to make a new Bible, as is evidenced by the ancient Irish masterpiece, the Book of Kells.

By BostonIrish — On Feb 12, 2011


I have heard that married Lutheran and Episcopalian clergy who convert to Roman Catholicism are allowed to be priests and monks. I would think that the smart route for any Catholic minister to go would be to get ordained in one of these other churches first, and then revert back to Roman Catholicism. Unmarried clergy is a bad idea, and has caused a lot of trouble.

By dbuckley212 — On Feb 10, 2011

Ancient Western monks used to castrate themselves. This tradition has not carried on, but celibacy is emphasized for monks all over the world. Denying physical desires and seeking a higher spiritual state is a value of monasteries all over the world, and is a value which exists in Buddhism and Platonic thought. Roman Catholicism has retained much of this earlier Greek thinking.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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