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?

  • OED don't specifically say their definition #2 (cloister = a place of religious seclusion; a monastery or nunnery; a convent) is either dated or archaiac. It's not a common usage, but if you've got some problem with ignoring the gender issue and using monastery the same as everyone else, I can't see any reason why you can't use it. Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 17:41
  • @FumbleFingers I have no problems with using "monastery". I just want to know if the term "cloister" is okay or appropriate translation for the Buddhist building where monks and nuns do whatever they are doing.
    – Double U
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 17:44
  • Well, according to OED you can in principle, and here are a couple of C21 written instances, which I guess means you can do it in practice if you want. Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 17:48
  • @FumbleFingers Did you read in context? I am talking about Buddhism here.
    – Double U
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 18:02
  • Yeah - I vaguely noted that in passing. I don't actually know whether some/all of whatever you mean by "Buddhist monasteries" exclude women, but in the more general context, here are hundreds of written instances of She entered a monastery, and I've no problem with such "gender-neutral" usages (I'd also note that OED's first definition of monastery makes no reference to gender). Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 18:14

4 Answers 4


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.

  • 1
    I emailed Eric Curren, who wrote the book "Buddha's not smiling" which was excerpted in the China Buddhism Encyclopedia cited here. Curren is a solar energy consultant and councilman in Virginia. His response was "I'm going to say that, as Merriam-Webster defines a cloister as a monastery, then the term should correctly apply to a monastery of any religion, including Tibetan Buddhist or even Chinese Buddhist or Taoist." Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 14:00

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.

  • The Shakespeare example may be Shakespeare using his artistic license rather than a term that everyday people use.
    – Double U
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 19:32
  • I think it's a sangha. Maybe sangha is the closest equivalent.
    – Double U
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 19:33
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    OED defines that as a community of persons, not as a place or building. Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 19:36
  • I am still scratching my head over the contrast between artistic license and "everyday people." If Shakespeare lived only every other day between 1564 and 1616, it's news to me. As a dramatist earning his living by pleasing "everyday people" while complying with various forms of censorship, he faced tighter constraints on usage than most people did; and people who use language with no art at all are people who are not met with every day. Is there some kind of inverse snobbery at work here, whereby a documented usage may be dismissed out of hand just because it is Shakespeare's? Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 19:49

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


  • So, the actual presence of a cloister (architecture) does not matter, right?
    – Double U
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 18:01
  • 1
    This post does not answer the question in any way. The question is not asking for the definition of a cloister; I already know what that is. The question is concerned with whether or not it can be applied to non-Christian monastic buildings (in this case, Buddhist), even though they may not have the cloister architecture.
    – Double U
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 18:47
  • 1
    @Anonymous I think this does answer the question. Cloister is another word for monastery. Ignore the architectural meaning. So een is Japanese for monastery, Wat is Thai for monastery, Si yan is Chinese for monastery therefore they are all cloisters. Excuse my hopeless transcriptions.
    – Frank
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 19:22

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.”

  • This is completely unreadable. Please insert blank lines between paragraphs, and please also provide a summary, preferably at the beginning.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 22, 2014 at 22:38

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