Proposal for an Evolving Secular Monastery

Part I. An Evolving Monastery

Part II. The Structure of the Evolutions

Part III. Discussion of Basic Questions

Part I. An Evolving Monastery

This document is a sketch of plan for an evolving secular monastery, whose ideological focus includes critical thought, art, pursuit of knowledge, advancement of living conditions, and community service. The plan calls for a small group of founding members who initiate the monastery and guide it through a series of evolutions aimed at increasing the monastic community’s social and economic stability, developing its culture and identity, raising its living standards, and increasing time available for higher pursuits.

One might describe a monastery as commune with a higher purpose. During an initial period a (possibly small) number of founding members assemble and work out all the details required to form a commune along with a rough idea of the commune’s higher purpose and its evolutionary trajectory; this is the zeroth evolution. Subsequently, they form the commune, and work out any basic social and logistical problems and set a routine; this is the first evolution and the germ of monastic life. In the second evolution they begin a series of discussions and projects, which aim to develop the their culture and practices as a monastic community in rudimentary ways. During further evolutions, they develop their culture and practices in more sophisticated ways, becoming more self-sufficient, attracting and assimilating members, performing community serive, finding time for higher pusuits, harness the power of their accumulated wealth, and set goals for future evolutions.

Part II contains rough descriptions of the various evolutions and aims capture their structure more than their details. These details are variables, dependent upon qualities of the founding members and the shape the monastery takes through its evolutions.

Part II provides a context for Part III, a discussion of the basic questions that must be answered before beginning the commune, and a basic discussion of its goals and trajectory. These questions interact, but group roughly into sections like: goals and ideals, location, economics, social structure, and so forth.

Part II. The Structure of the Evolutions

Zeroth Evolution

In the beginning there are a few gung-ho founding members with a vague set of goals and ideas. They have varying skill sets, resources, jobs, living habits, communications skills, social requirements, and family aspirations. They are distributed around the world in various places and varying concentrations, and they have varying levels of attachment to those places. They are presumably open to shifting their mindsets and habits, may or may not be open to moving, and must be open to working hard for the sake of bringing the monastery to life. They have a lot to figure out.

They come up with a list of questions, which must be answered before founding the commune. The answers to these questions are dependent on who is interested, where they live, their current social ties, their level of commitment, resources, jobs, and so forth.

Part of this plan should be a budget, but one should note that a few people with decent jobs living frugally and communally should have no problem saving a high percentage (say, at least 50%) of their income, even living fairly comfortably. If people have to move, then obviously the plan would need to include new jobs. I have some ideas for decent-paying jobs in college towns for those who have at least some specialized knowledge of stem fields. Organized correctly over a few years, these jobs can be fairly lucrative, especially in NYC.

Following are example questions, which are discussed further in Part II, below:

What are the main long term goals? Does everyone live together? And where? Does the monastery collect wealth? What is the initial standard of living? How are private and public space organized? What sort of commitment is expected from members? Is there personal wealth? Is there personal allowance for each member? Are there membership ranks? Do members and founding members have to donate all their personal wealth to the monastery? What work will everyone do? Is money pooled? To what degree are members required to interact with each other? What degree can members interact with outsiders? How structured is life? Is there a strict schedule? How is time organized? Can someone leave on a vacation? How are problems worked out? Is there a TV? Internet access? Do I get to wear a funny hat?

GOALS. Work out all the basic questions required to start a commune, and work out basic goals and a rough trajectory for the monastery.

First Evolution (lasting ~one month)

The founding members move in together, preferably into one building, but perhaps into a few buildings in different areas. These buildings ought to have extra space to add new members (unused can be rented out). Everyone knows exactly what their job is and roughly what to expect in the short term. Presumably, all or most members have outside jobs. Income is pooled. If possible, there is a community head whose primary job is not to gather wealth, but organize the group and run the commune. The head can take care of problems and make sure everyone is in line.

The group settles into a routine, and is forced to deal with any basic logistical and social problems that arise.

GOALS. Work out basic logistical and communication problems, and make sure the very basic communal structure is instated and works. If there is a schedule, is being followed? Are basic expectations being met? Is everyone doing their job? Is the commune solvent? And so forth.

Second Evolution (lasting ~a few months)

After the dust settles, but before focus is lost, the group begins a series of discussions and projects aimed at immediately developing the community’s culture, values, rituals, cohesiveness, and increasing their standard of living.

The discussions are moderated and focused, and full participation by all members is mandatory. The results of the discussions are summarized and recorded. The discussions might involve setting short term goals and developing the culture/mindset and practices of the group. They discuss rituals and routines, expectations of members, values, and learn express gratitude to each other. Someone keeps notes on the discussions and makes sure the results are remembered and implemented.

The group also forms a list of community projects, which are prioritized and doled out. The projects are recorded and progress noted. Projects with high priority in this early period should concern long-term investment of community funds, figuring out health insurance, increasing household efficiency, a system for organizing health care checkups, obtaining public bicycles and other community property, perfecting the living space, and planning group events. If there is a community head, they can be in charge of organizing the discussion and carrying out most the projects. If high priority tasks are left over, or in lieu of a community head, they are doled out to members.

If the group is small, high priority is made of attracting more members and figure out how to assimilate them.

GOALS. Immediately grab the group’s focus with discussions and projects. Develop the culture and activities of the group in rudimentary ways, and practice in the structure for running the community. Begin gathering wealth. As soon as economically feasible, the group should appoint a community head and find ways to keep them busy.

Third Evolution (lasting ~a few to several years)

The community is presumed to be reasonably stable and functional, financially solvent, relatively comfortable, and is beginning to develop the culture and practices. There are regular meetings and a system to deal with problems. There is a clear list of priorities and tasks, a reasonably clear picture of the monastery’s trajectory. Presumably all or most members still have external jobs to bring in funds, but the startup costs have been born and the community has ordered its finances and is gathering wealth. There is presumably a member whose job is not to gather wealth, but work for the monastery.

Now the group can take on more sophisticated projects, which require a higher degree of planning and collaboration. At least some of these should involve higher pursuits (community service, arts, critical thinking, …). Other projects should involve attempting to shift work from external jobs, to internal jobs and should involve higher pursuits if possible, or at least increase further the goals of the monastery.

The group could start a business that uses members’ high-level knowledge, and if successful, other members can be trained with this knowledge and incorporated into the business. Or they could start a business that requires mundane work, but which can be used to easily assimilate new members. They could start a program for youth or young scholars, which survives on some mix of payments, grants and donations.

As members are added, the community will have to refine its economic structure, logistical and power structures and likely move to larger locations. Older and recently-adopted members may begin to diverge in status. The monastery should grow in a controlled manner and carefully consider its stability and goals during any transitions.

The group begins considering how to develop its image and attract donors. It learns how to attract and assimilate new members. The group continues to hold discussions to refine its culture and practices.

GOALS. Learn to attract and assimilate new members. Refine culture and practices, develop a reputation, gather wealth increase self-sufficiency. Form a public image, assert the monastery as a force for good in the community, and try to attract donors. As always, consider longer term plans and make sure the monastery is headed along an appropriate trajectory.

Fourth Evolution (lasting ~several or more years)

Now we presume the monastery culture is somewhat developed and beginning to flourish. It is economically stable and has gathered a fair amount of wealth. Its members mostly perform internal work that is at least somewhat related to the community goals and higher pursuits. Membership is presumably reasonably large, and the monastery is making a name for itself. It is somewhat self-sufficient, has fairly developed culture and activity, comfortable lifestyle. Likely, some of its members still work outside, but mostly by preference. Some members may be seasonal, or have other considerations.

Presumeably the monastery has gathered enough wealth to start taking on more major projects, on the scale of, for example, building and marketing cheap and superefficient tiny houses.

The monastery is presumably in an urban location. Given sufficient interest, another major project could be bifurcating to a rural location, where a much higher degree of self-sufficiency and isolation are possible, and life has a different flavor (slower, more time for higher pursuits, different kind of work). Preferably, the urban and rural locations would function in concert, and members can serve a variety of roles and choose among different lifestyles.

GOALS. The goals from here out are less easy to predict, but presumably involve shifting a larger portion of time to higher pursuits, and becoming more highly self-sufficient, making a facility that can survive economic and social upheaval. The monastery may wish to continue collecting wealth so it can take on more major projects.

Fifth Evolution

GOALS. (Highly speculative!) Become a political force and promote public and government understanding of science. Replace some of the functions religious organizations and universities have traditionally served in society.

23-rd Evolution (lasting ~a few centuries)

The Freethinkers Secular Monastery has gathered considerable wealth and its members spend their days hiking, serving communities, playing music, and celebrating life with wine and postprandial orgies.

Part III. Proposed Answers to Basic Questions

Following is a discussion of certain questions that presumably must be answered prior actually founding the monastery.

Main Goals and Ideals

  • What are the main long term goals?
    1. Form a monastic community whose members have the freedom to focus on “higher pursuits” like art, thought projects, etc.
    2. Develop an appropriate value system, culture, practices and identity.
    3. Survive as an institution, be self-sufficient.
  • What are the basic ideals?
    1. Advances and improvements should benefit everyone who has participated.
    2. Participation is open to anybody.
    3. ???


  • Does everyone live together?

Everyone lives together. This makes it easier to interact, form bonds, form an community identity, practices and culture, save money, maintain focus, and guarantee participation. It forces the group to work through all kinds of problems together and have difficult conversations, and it keeps people from drifting away.

  • Where do they live?

Where everyone lives depends on who joins. In more urban locations there are more economic opportunities, more new members or donors to attract, and an abundance of opportunities to serve the outside community, but also more distractions, a higher degree of outside dependence and generally higher costs. In more rural locations, there are fewer distractions, costs are generally lower, and a different opportunities are available, both economic and otherwise. If the members are diffuse, they may have to move and get jobs somewhere. If they are concentrated in an urban center and have jobs, or where it is easy to find an income, they can begin there. (I have suggestions for how those with high-level knowledge in a STEM fields can make a decent wage in certain college towns, especially in NYC).

I think an ideal plan is to begin in an urban setting (when money and attracting new members are top priority), and bifurcate to a rural setting when possible (to find self-sufficiency and isolation). The two locations can serve complementary purposes and offer different lifestyles.


  • Are there membership ranks?

Perhaps there can be temporary members and permanent members (or some other system) with different privileges. For example: temporary members may allowed outside wealth, but be afforded fewer privileges and given lower allowances. Permanent members have no outside wealth, but are given higher privileges and higher allowances.

There could be other designations and seasonal members; this has to be worked out with time.

  • How are new members added?

This is something that has to be worked out over time, as it becomes relevant and logistics are clearer.

In any case, expectations from new members should be clear, their goals should be clear, and they should prove some level of commitment. They should not be trying to join to avoid problems in their life, as evidenced perhaps by a psychologists note. They should be given a chance to experience monastic life. Much of this is the norm in certain current monasteries.


  • Does the monastery collect wealth?

Yes–enough to meet its goals. Having the freedom to focus on higher pursuits means not having to focus so much on collecting wealth, but still has costs (living costs, supplies, etc.). Thus the monastery should endeavor to cover these costs while providing a high level of freedom. It seek donations or even try to form an endowment. However, state-level social and economic systems are unstable over the long term, so to be stable over the very long term, a piece of the monastic community should retreat into wilderness and learn to be very highly self-sufficient.

  • What is the initial standard of living? How are private and public space organized?

There needs to be a balance between members’ comfort and economics. The faster the community gathers wealth in the beginning, the better off it will be in the medium and long term. But it must also spend enough to make its members comfortable enough to keep them and attract new members. Being efficient and comfortable with less makes it easier to achieve this balance, so these should probably be fundamental values.

Living together in a frugal and communal manner reduces overall costs. Probably everyone should have a private bedroom, because people have grown so accustomed to it, but other space should be communal to ensure efficient usage of space. The monastery should ideally have communal supplies: transportation, tools, games, food, furniture, clothing. Meals should be communal.

Members may have to get used to reducing high-cost activities to some degree. They may have to learn to share. Perhaps everyone could get a personal allowance for individual projects and personal expenditures, which can grow with respect to length of membership.

  • Is there personal wealth?

Members must be more interested in community gain than personal gain, and this may simply not be for everyone. Some personal wealth should be guaranteed, perhaps in the form of allowances and personal belongings. Perhaps there can be bonuses for people who bring in gobs of cash, but the underlying assumption is that members are not guaranteed personal wealth… at least not initially.

If there is eventually enough money for the community to function at its desired level, and someone wants to get rich. Great. Do it. And contribute some to the further success of the community.

  • Is there personal allowance for each member?

A personal allowance is a great way to make sure everyone gets to take care of personal needs and personal projects, and avoid problems like having ask the community for money every time someone wants to do something. Allowance could depend on the success of the community or length of membership.

If someone wants to join who has significant outside wealth, they may keep it during their trial period. One option is to require permanent members to invest outside wealth in the community. Another is to allow them to keep it and use it as they see fit. There are monastic communities that disallow personal wealth, but this is often to keep them from straying or religious and philosophical reasons. I don’t see other good reasons to ban members from collecting personal wealth.

  • Do founding members have to donate all their personal wealth to the monastery?

One solution is to agree that founding members are temporary members (thus get to keep their outside wealth, but must contribute new income). After some period, founding members become permanent members and then follow whatever the norm is at that point.

  • What work will everyone do?

Initially, most need some sort of outside jobs and perhaps a fraction can pursue inside jobs, like cooking, cleaning, running the house, executing community projects or starting a business venture. Eventually, those who desire can be incorporated into monastery business ventures, along with new members. In the long term, it depends on the shape of the community.

Structure of Daily Life

  • To what degree are members required to interact with each other?

They must fully participate in group discussions and community functions, as is necessary to maintain group cohesion and cultural development. If someone wants solitude, they should be allowed it, given it doesn’t disrupt community functions.

  • What degree can members interact with outsiders?

There are monastic communities that allow varying degrees of outside interaction. Some outside interaction may be necessary to attract new members or to perform community service. Members may desire various levels of outside interaction. Outside interaction may cause distraction or other problems.

The easy answer is that members may interact with outsiders however much they want, given their full participation in the community. But I think inside interaction should be encouraged, over outside interaction.

  • How structured is monastery life? Is there a strict schedule? How is time organized?

There needs to be enough structure to guarantee all community functions work and community expectations are met, and beyond this, it is personal preference. Some may desire extra structure, for example, to help them focus or keep them on a regular schedule. And some claim they naturally prone to certain sleeping habits.

Since, presumably, meals will be communal, everyone should be up to eat at the same time. Everyone should must be available for group dialogs. A common, strict, routine may be highly desirable or necessary for community function. Good sleeping habits keep people from distracting each other. It is probably healthier to experience the full brunt of the sunlight every day, and healthier to sleep regularly. A high level of structure can substitute for the fact humans have low personal control and low ability to keep a routine on their own over long periods, and probably anyone can adjust to a standard sleep/life routine without too much trouble. One might note that social norms regarding seemingly-mundane things like noise are highly culturally-dependent and too-restrictive norms could end up alienating people. The group probably ought generate its own norms, and avoid piling up on those of the dominant culture.

The answer may change over time, and between different settings (ie urban or rural), and may depend on peoples varying work requirements and other special considerations.

  • Can someone go on a vacation or leave to pursue an external goal?

As long as community needs are met, why not? Some monasteries think time away leads to distraction and straying, both from spirituality and monastic values. Others have no problem with it. People might begin to feel trapped or isolated from their families and outside friends if they can’t leave from time to time. Others might feel jealous if someone wants to leave for half the year and be funded by the monastery if they can’t, too. Probably expectations from the monastery should be clear to avoid such problems. Or appropriate social and value system could be deployed: for example, the abbess could decide someone needs a break to resolve a personal crisis, the monastery can afford to fund their time away, and that others have no right complain.

Perhaps special arrangements can be made. Someone could choose more intense seasonal contribution over less intense but year-round contribution. Others could be seasonal members, adhering to a separate set of expectations.

Perhaps there could be sabbatical to pursue outside projects, or the monastery could arrange extended outings (like hiking the Japanese nature trail).

This may be one of the many questions that can only be worked over time and subject to logistics.

  • Is there a TV? Internet access? Phones? other technology?

These are temptations, distractions, highly addictive, time pits, and should probably be banned or highly limited. Technology should be used as long as it benefits furthers the community, and limited when it hinders.

  • What sort of commitment is expected from members?

Members must be committed and personally invested in the success of the monastery, especially the founding members. They must perform community functions and contribute their income if they work externally. They must agree assimilate to the values, practices and culture of the community, and they must submit to the economic realities of the monastery.

Members may have to accept some level of inequality for the community to function, and perhaps not necessarily getting to do exactly the work they want. Someone with particular skill set may be required to perform a specific function that affords them less time to pursue their personal projects. Highly educated Buddhist monks are sometimes required to contribute by holding external jobs, affording them less time for other activities.


  • Do I get to wear a funny hat?

Yes, but you have to get permission from the pope, first.

Social Structure

  • Is there an abbess, abbot or community head?

I suspect a community head would be highly desirable. In the early period, they can organize people, cook, clean while others work, and execute the community projects. Later on they can help resolve problems, and administrate. Probably someone should study small community structures and see what is effective.

  • How are problems worked out?

When people go to outdoor programs often surprised to find they won’t be spending most of their time learning survival skills, but rather social and communication skills. I think this will be a major point that will take time to work out and will probably always be an issue. The answer depends on community size, community norms and values, and the nature of the problem If the community is very small, perhaps problems can be decided by discussion and group concensus.

Are relationships allowed? Spouses? Children?

In theory, yes, but depends on economics, logistics, community values, and so on. Childrearing in an adaptive commune can be much easier than outside.

Some may be of the mindset that all worldly things are distractions and thus should be avoided. Or maybe the monastery will take after bonobos and no one will even know whose children they are, and they will be the community’s children, adopted by all.

C Crowe December 1, 2016