Monasticism is a way of life in which individuals pursue holiness. Many religions have monastic elements, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, though the expressions differ considerably. Those pursuing a life of holiness are usually called in English monks (male), nuns (female), brothers, or sisters.
The legendary Shaolin monasteries are perhaps best known in the West, but most information about them is of dubious quality. They practiced Chan Buddhism, which led to Zen Buddhism in Japan. According to legend, their founder is known alternatively as Bodhidarma or [Ta Mo].
Institutional Christian monasticism seems to have begun in the deserts in 4th Century Egypt as a kind of living martyrdom. Some scholars still present monasticism as a seeking for martyrdom after the legalization of Christianity meant that one could no longer be persecuted for being a Christian. Others point to historical evidence that individuals were living the life later known as monasticism before the legalization of Christianity. Anthony the Great and Pachomius were early monastic innovators in Egypt. Eastern Orthodoxy looks to Basil of Caesarea as a founding monastic legislator, as well as the example of the Desert Fathers. Benedict is often credited with being the 'father of Western monasticism.'
From a very early time there were probably individuals who lived a life in isolation - hermits - in imitation of Jesus's 40 days in the desert. They have left no confirmed archaeological traces and only hints in the written record. Anthony of Egypt lived as a hermit and developed a following of other hermits who lived nearby but not in community with him. This variety of monasticism is called eremitical or "hermit-like." Pachomius, a follower of Anthony, also acquired a following; he chose to mould them into a community in which the monks lived in individual huts or rooms (cellula in Latin, "cell", which has a different connotation in modern English) but worked, ate, and worshipped in shared space. This method of monastic organization is called cenobitic or "community-based." All the familiar monastic orders are cenobitic in nature. The head of a monastery came to be known by the word for "Father" in Syriac, Abba, in English, "Abbot".
Christian monasticism was and continued for centuries to be a lay condition - monks depended on a local parish church for the sacraments. However, if the monastery was isolated in the desert, as were many of the Egyptian examples, that inconvenience compelled monasteries either to take in priest members, to have their abbot ordained, or to have other members ordained. A priest-monk is sometimes called a hieromonk. In many cases in Eastern Orthodoxy, when a bishopric needed to be filled, they would look to nearby monasteries to find suitable candidates. Since many priests were married (before being ordained to the priesthood), but bishops were required to be celibate, monasteries were a good source of celibate men who were also spiritually mature and generally possessing the other qualities desired in a bishop. Gregory Palamas is one such example.
Christian Monastic Orders