Introduction on Buddhist monasteries

The word sangha is used in the Teravada tradition to indicate the monastic community, while in Mahayana it also includes the lay community (Samuel 1998 8). So the sangha in the Tibetan definition exists of monks, nuns, lay man  en lay woman and everything in between (like novices). In Mongolia lama used to be the term for a fully ordinated monk (Miller 1959: 11), but nowadays there doesn't seem to be any ordination and a lot of lama's live independently.

In Tibetan is referred to what I will call monastery as gompa[1]. According to Samuel:

  “…anything from a small village temple where local lay practioners do occasional rituals to a sizeable monastic town containing temples, colleges, and residential halls for monks.” (Samuel 1993: 32). 

In Mongolian there are three terms: süme, küriye and keid (khiid[2]) (Miller 1959: 12). Although the (English) words monastery and temple derive from a Christian tradition, they are in that way generally applied on the Buddhist tradition. [3]. Temple than refers to “one building used for specific religious services or housing one or more images” and a monastery to “a number of buildings, together with their lama inhabitants”(Miller 1959: 11)

In the monastery there are different functions. The Abbot, the chanting-master, the disciplinarian, the caretaker for the shrine-room, his assistant and the kitchen duty[4]. (Havnevik 1989: 47). Some of these functions shift every year

Monks are not supposed to have any material belongings except for the few attributes described by the Buddha. In contrast with the Theravadin tradition, and the time of the historical Buddha, monks of the Mahayana traditions don’t go around collecting alms. So they don’t gather their money actively Although in The hidden tradition a photo is shown of monks begging for alms by chanting scriptures at the roadside (Zi & Pen 1993: 114-5 ).

In The Cult of Tārā Beyer describes a day in the life of monastery for the monk Bongpa trüku. In the morning he performs his individual contemplation and prostration[5] for one and a half hour. After breakfast there is a collective morning gathering* for the evocation of the most important gods of his sect and monastery. Here also is time for special “serious wishes” or “verses of good fortune” which are requested by other monks or lay people. This ritual takes about two hours. After this time has come for the individual task for the monastics. In Bongpa trüku´s case this is the librarian. His spare time is mostly dedicated to reading or copying texts. His lunch is being served by an older monk – at a meal there should always be waited for a high incarnation. After this meal Bongpa goes to monastic the workshop where he works as a supervisor and performing artist



There is a great variety in the number and sort of buildings at a monastery. The number and size of the buildings of course depends on the present or historical size of the monastery expressed in the number of monks. The sort of the buildings also depends on the type of monastery and it´s function. A monastery orientated on education may be supplied with classrooms, while a monastery focused on medical consult is likely to have some sort of waiting room or surgery. The monastery described by Stephan Beyer (1973) has to main temples or assembly halls, workrooms, and the monks´ quarters which all are surrounded by a wall. In front of the main temple there is a big open space for the performance of ritual dances. The monastic college is situated outside of the wall (Beyer 1973: 17).

The key building of every monastery is the (main) temple. Here the most important collective rituals take place. Furthermore there will be a residence for the monks. This might be in the form of one single building with separate rooms or small houses for each individual monk, like in the monastery of Beyers study and Baldan Baraivan. Other important constructions on the monastic compound are those for worship. These contain stupa´s, prayer wheels and sculptures.




[1] This term finds its equivalent in Therāvada in vihāra or wat (Samuel 1993: 32).

[2]  The three terms given here are in the transcription Miller users. Between brackets is the now more commonly  transcription.

[3] See also (Miller 1959: 11)

[4] That is, these functions exist in a nunnery, and it’s my assumption that they also apply in male monasteries.

[5] Also for lay people prostration is regular ritual. Often in front of stupa´s or other holy objects there are places where lay people may prostrate.


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