My mother told me she visited a Buddhist monastery (before I was born), simply because there were so many of them in China, and it couldn't hurt just to visit one and check it out for fun. She didn't exactly use the term "Buddhist monastery", because she described a place where Buddhist monks and nuns bow down to the Buddha with incense sticks. I inferred that she went to a Buddhist monastery and went to Yabla Chinese to search for the appropriate English words. Anyway, is it appropriate to call this building a cloister, even though it may not have a cloister? Or are cloisters only referring to a specific type of monastic building that was prevalent in Medieval Europe?
The following is an extract from the "China Buddhism Encyclopaedia" Buddhist Cloister:
I thought that it was possible that the warnings I had received about Rumtek were exaggerated. I did not imagine that the monastery would be managed by local thugs running a floating mahjong game in a secret room behind the altar. Could a Tibetan monastery in India really be so bad? At least the monks there were safely out of Chinese control and could live free of government restrictions or influence. Surely, they would be engaged in the traditional activities of a Buddhist cloister in a free country. They would be performing ancient rituals, studying scripture, and teaching each other the sublime philosophy of Shakyamuni Buddha, the way to end all suffering for all beings for all time. Even if this was done amateurishly, or without much school spirit, I could not imagine how it would be bad.
Ngram : though cloister is used with reference to a Buddhist worship place, as shown in Ngram "Temple" and "Monastery" are the most used terms.
By “cloister (architecture)” I presume our OP refers to an arcade surrounding a square courtyard, for the convenience of peripatetic contemplatives in foul weather (OED sense 3.a.). But the etymology and senior senses point to the radical meaning of a place sealed off, enclosed, locked in—same root as “claustrophobic.” The square arcade is a feature of some cloisters in that sense, and even survives as a vestige in a fair number of ex-cloisters turned by Henry VIII into places of public worship, such as Westminster Abbey and Gloucester Cathedral. The OED examples of cloister as a place of religious seclusion seem to involve non-Christian religious contexts as well as Christian ones, e.g., where Shakespeare’s Theseus threatens Hermia that if she refuses her father’s choice of husband for her she must become a votaress of Diana, “in shady cloyster, mew’d” (MND 1.1.71). I would hesitate to say that OP’s mother visited a Buddhist cloister only because it was so little sealed off as to let her in.
Cloister refers to the residence of either monks or nuns.
1clois·ter noun \ˈklȯi-stər\ : a place where monks or nuns live : a monastery or convent
: a covered path or hall with arches that is on the side of a building (such as a monastery or church) and that has one open side usually facing a courtyard
Full Definition of CLOISTER
1 a : a monastic establishment b : an area within a monastery or convent to which the religious are normally restricted c : monastic life d : a place or state of seclusion
From Latin claustrum, a place shut in. The word cloister has two rich heritages, one in Roman Catholic law, and the other in Christian architecture. In Roman Catholic law, Clausura (in English, cloister) has governed the separation of monks and nuns from each other and from the public. By decree of the Council of Trent, (Pope Pius V, 1445 - 1463), cloistered nuns could never leave the cloister except with permission of the bishop, in a fire, leprosy or contagious disease. For young girls committed by their families or as orphans, the cloister was a prison with a life sentence. Very easily was the word for a monk's bedroom, cell, adopted for the penitentiary.
Architecturally, the key concept of the cloister is its physical separation. Effectively a monastery within a monastery, the cloister consisted of those rooms which the lay could not enter, and the monks or nuns could not leave. Architectural historians trace its roots to the Haman region in what is now Syria and Jordan, which had an active Christian culture in the pre-Islamic era. Today, cloisters throughout the world are public tourist attractions, diluting the concept of separation. Lay understanding of cloister is now focused on the galleried courtyard, which was the monks only access to sun and sky. The picturesque juxtaposition of colonnade and garden is favored by photographers, who have saturated the public consciousness of cloister as a place of delicate beauty.
In order to apply the word cloister to a Chinese temple, one would have to ignore both of these Christian heritages.
China has it's own rich history of monastic life, both Taoist and Buddhist, so why invoke a word with powerful and complex Christian overtones?
In fact, the term 'Buddhist cloister" is a product of western demonization of the Chinese institution. James Robson, Assoc. Prof of Chinese Buddhism at Harvard, in “Neither too far nor too near: The historical and cultural contexts of Buddhist monasteries in medieval China and Japan,” challenges the appropriateness of comparisons between Christian monasticism and Chinese Buddhist monasticism. He argues that their similarities are superficial, and differences are profound. The Buddhist monastery was not separated from the lay world, and monks were free to come and go. Robson cites as the source of the term, “Buddhist cloister,” the 16th c. adoption of Buddhist monks robes by Jesuit missionaries. “The Jesuits chose monastic Buddhism as the initial mode of inculturation…since that guise was sure to not attract much attention or raise the suspicions of the Chinese.” “The Jesuits…did quickly demonize those religious institutions…as the product of ‘demonic plagiarism’…the Jesuits came to their senses and abandoned ‘the indigent trapping of the Buddhist cloister’ and eventually threw off their Buddhist monastic robes in favor of the ‘resplendent robes and headdress of the literati…’It would seem that use of the term "Buddhist cloister," however widespread, is based on a fundamental lack of appreciation of clausura, and the toxic history of western contact.
I checked Deng Ming-Dao’s “Seven Bamboo Tablets of the Cloudy Satchel.” Deng chose the word “temple” almost exclusively to describe the buildings atop the Huashan Peaks that sheltered the Taoist monks. He used the word “monastery” occasionally. Deng is a native of San Francisco, and a Taoist scholar. As an interpreter of traditional Chinese ways for a current American readership, his word choices seem relevant to this question. I would defer to Deng, and use “temple.”