monks meditating

Thailand, Laos and Burma have among the highest monk to people ratios in the world. Monks are respected by everyone. Most Thai, Lao and Burmese men spend at least a few months of their lives living as Buddhist monks. Most Theravada monks live as part of monastic communities. Some join as young as seven, but one can join at any age. A novice is called a samanera and a full monk is called a bikkhu. The monastic community as a whole is called the sangha.

Because entering the monk hood is major merit-generating act. most men spend part of their lives as monks. A young man is initiated as a novice monk and remains in the monk hood—in most cases— temporarily for several days to several months. His initiation. a ritual reenactment of the Buddha's own renunciation of material wealth and assumption of monastic discipline. is a major festive occasion; the initiate's head is shaved. and he receives a new name. recites the monastic vows. and dons the monk's brown robe. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Thai villagers expect monks to be pious and to adhere to the rules. Beyond that, monks are expected to provide services to individual members of the laity and local communities by performing various ceremonies and chanting appropriate passages from the Buddhist scriptures on important occasions. The presence of monks is believed to result in the accrual of merit to lay participants.

In many villages monks play a key role in society by providing basic education to rural children. They are also involved in teaching trades and crafts to adults and organizing community development projects like building bridges, digging wells and constructing dams. Monks are allowed to travel free on buses and trains. Some river boats even have a special cabin for them.

Thai Buddhists generally do not expect monks to be directly involved in the working world; the monks' sustenance is provided by the members of the community in which the monks live. Their contribution to community life, besides their religious and ceremonial functions, is primarily educational. Beginning in the late 1960s, the government encouraged monks to engage in missionary activity in the remote, less developed provinces, particularly among the hill peoples, as part of the effort to integrate these groups into the polity. Leaders at the Buddhist universities have taken the stand that monks owe something to society in return for the support given them and that, in addition to the advanced study of Buddhism, the universities ought to include secular subjects conducive to the enrichment of the nation.

Most Theravada Buddhist monks have shaved heads and wear saffron or maroon robes. Buddhist monks in Thailand are prohibited from wearing anything other than saffron. Thai monks can be seen wearing various shades of robes, from dark brown to the familiar brilliant saffron. There are no rules, but the darker shades are preferred by monks in the Dharmmayuth sect and Thu-dong or forest monks. Forest monks generally make their own robes from cloth that is given. Plain white cotton is always useful (it can be dyed to the correct dull ochre). The basic 'triple robe' of, the Buddha is supplemented with sweaters, tee-shirts, socks, etc. and these, of an appropriate brown colour, can also be offered. The wearing of animal skin is particularly frowned upon. Monks are not even supposed to ride on animals.

Nuns are also similar to monks. They have clean shaven heads, but wear pink and orange robes.

Theravada Buddhism Websites: Readings in Theravada Buddhism, Access to Insight ;
Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica ; Pali Canon Online ; Vipassanā (Theravada Buddhist Meditation) Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Pali Canon - Access to Insight ; Forest monk tradition ; BBC Theravada Buddhism

The Sangha (Monkhood)

monks in Myanmar

The sangha in Thailand comprises two sects or schools, the Mahanikaya and the Dhammayuttika. The first has far more members than the second, but the Dhammayuttika--exercising a more rigorous discipline, having a reputation for scholarship in the doctrine, and having a close connection to royalty--continues to wield influence beyond its numbers among intellectuals and in sangha administration. Both schools are included in the same ecclesiastical hierarchy, which is very closely tied to the government. The strengthening of those ties began in the nineteenth century, ostensibly to deal with problems of internal disorganization in the sangha but also so that the sangha could be used to help integrate a government that was just beginning to extend and strengthen its administrative control over the North and Northeast. Each of these regions in effect had had its own sangha, and the unification of the sangha was seen as an important step toward the unification of Thailand. The pattern of legislative and other steps culminating in the Sangha Act of 1963 tended to tighten government control of the sangha; there was no significant resistance to this control from the monks. Conflicts existed between the two schools, however, over issues such as position in the hierarchy. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In spite of a long tradition of monkhood in Thailand, the great majority of males did not become monks. Those who did usually entered in their early twenties but did not necessarily remain monks for a long time. During the three-month holy season Khao (Phansa), sometimes referred to as the Buddhist Lent, monks go into retreat, and more attention than usual is given to the study of dharma. In the mid-1980s, Thai male civil servants were given three months leave with full pay if they spent the Lenten period as monks. It has been estimated that the proportion of temporary monks during this period varies between 25 and 40 percent of the total. The motivation for monkhood of such short duration is complex, but even the temporary status, for those who are unable or unwilling to commit themselves to the discipline for life, brings merit, not only to the monk but also to his parents, particularly to his mother. (Some Buddhist women live as nuns, but they enjoy lower status than monks do.) Whether temporary or permanent, a monk in principle is subject to the 227 rules of conduct embodied in that portion (basket) of the Tipitaka devoted to the sangha. *

Aside from the religious motivation of those who enter and remain in the sangha, another inducement for many is the chance to pursue the contemplative life within the monastic community. Other reasons in modern Thailand include the opportunity for education at one of the two Buddhist universities and the chance, particularly for monks of rural origin, to gain social status. *

Monk Rules and Prohibitions

According to the BBC: Monks (and nuns) undertake the training of the monastic order (the Vinaya) which consist of 227 rules (more for nuns). Within these rules or precepts are five which are undertaken by all those trying to adhere to a Buddhist way of life. The Five Precepts are to undertake the rule of training to: 1) Refrain from harming living beings; 2) Refrain from taking that which is not freely given; 3) Refrain from sexual misconduct; 4) Refrain from wrong speech; such as lying, idle chatter, malicious gossip or harsh speech; and 5) Refrain from intoxicating drink and drugs which lead to carelessness Of particular interest is the fact that Theravadan monks and nuns are not permitted to eat after midday or handle money. [Source: BBC]

The ten precepts recited by novice monks during their ordination are: 1) Refraining from killing living beings; 2) Refraining from taking what is not given; 3) Refraining from unchaste conduct; 4) Refraining from false speech; 5) Refraining from distilled and fermented intoxicants which cause carelessness; 6) Refraining from eating at the forbidden time; 7) Refraining from dancing, singing, music and going to see entertainments; 8) Refraining from wearing garlands, using perfumes; 9) Refraining from using high or large beds; 10) Refraining from accepting gold and silver

Buddhist monk and attendants

According to “The Discipline of a Buddhist monk is refined and is intended to be conducive to the arising of mindfulness and wisdom. This code of conduct is called the Vinaya. While it is not an end in itself, it is an excellent tool, which can be instrumental in leading to the end of suffering. [Source:

Apart from the direct training that the Vinaya provides, it also establishes a relationship with lay people without whose co-operation it would be impossible to live as a monk. A monk is able to live as a mendicant because lay people respect the monastic conventions and are prepared to help to support him. This gives rise to a relationship of respect and gratitude in which both layperson and monk are called upon to practise their particular life styles and responsibilities with sensitivity and sincerity.

Many of the rules of discipline were developed specifically to avoid offending lay people or giving rise to misunderstanding or suspicion (for example, the rules stipulating that another male be present when a monk and a woman would otherwise be alone together). As no monk wishes to offend by being fussy and difficult to look after, and no lay Buddhist would wish to accidentally cause a monk to compromise the discipline, this booklet is therefore intended to be a useful guide to the major aspects of the Vinaya as it relates to lay people.

T.V.'s and videos for entertainment should not be used by a monk. Under certain circumstances, a Dharma video or a documentary programme may be watched. In general, luxurious items are inappropriate for a monk to accept. This is because they are conducive to attachment in his own mind, and excite envy, possibly even the intention to steal, in the mind of another person. This is unwholesome Kamma. It also looks bad for an alms mendicant, living on charity as a source of inspiration to others, to have luxurious belongings. One who is content with little should be a light to a world where consumer instincts and greed are whipped up in people's minds.

Although the Vinaya specifies a prohibition on accepting and handling gold and silver, the real spirit of it is to forbid use and control over funds, whether these are bank notes or credit cards. The Vinaya even prohibits a monk from having someone else receive money on his behalf. In practical terms, monasteries are financially controlled by lay stewards, who then make open invitation for the Sangha to ask for what they need, under the direction of the Abbot. A junior monk even has to ask an appointed agent (generally a senior monk or Abbot) if he may take up the stewards' offer to pay for dental treatment or obtain medicines, for example. This means that as far as is reasonably possible, the donations that are given to the stewards to support the Sangha are not wasted on unnecessary whims.

nuns and monks at Doi Inthanon in Thailand

Vinaya also extends into the realm of convention and custom. Such observances, which it mentions, are not 'rules' but skillful means of manifesting beautiful behaviour. In monasteries, there is some emphasis on such matters as a means of establishing harmony, order and pleasant relationships within a community. Firstly, there is the custom of bowing to a shrine or teacher. This is done when first entering their presence or when taking leave. Done gracefully, at the appropriate time, this is a beautiful gesture, which honours the person who does it; at an inappropriate time, done compulsively, it can appear foolish to onlookers. Another common gesture of respect is to place the hands so that the palms are touching, the fingers pointing upwards and the hands held immediately in front of the chest. This is a pleasant means of greeting, bidding farewell, saluting the end of a Dharma talk or concluding an offering.

Body language is something that is well understood in Buddhist cultures. Apart from the obvious reminder to sit up for a Dharma talk rather than loll or recline on the floor one shows a manner of deference by ducking slightly if having to walk between a monk and the person he is speaking to. Similarly, one would not stand looming over a monk to talk to him or offer him something, but rather approach him at the level at which he is sitting.
"Good is restraint in body,
restraint in speech is good,
good is restraint in mind,
everywhere restraint is good;
the bhikkhu everywhere restrained
is from all dukkha free." [Dharmapada no. 361]

227 Rules for Monks

All monks must follow 227 strict precepts or rules of conduct, many of which concern his relations with members of the opposite sex. When a monk is ordained he is said to be reborn into a new life and the past no longer counts - not even if he was married. Women are, of course, forbidden to touch monks and should not even stay alone in the same room as a monk. If a woman wishes to offer an object to a monk, it must pass through a third medium, such as a piece of cloth. In fact, monks always carry a piece of cloth for this purpose. The monk will lay the cloth on the ground or table, holding on to one end. The woman places the offering on the cloth and the monk then draws it away. [Source:]

monks in Sri Lanka

These rules were laid down by the Buddha himself. So, you might find some of the rules a bit strange in a modern society. According to the Buddha, there are seven kinds of offences. In the following list, pacittiya is not so serious and all a monk has to do is confess his fault to the abbot or at least two or three other monks. [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, May 9, 2005/]

1) If a monk drinks intoxicating liquors, it is a pacittiya. 2) If a monk tickles another monk, it is a pacittiya. 3) If a monk swims in the water for pleasure, it is a pacittiya. 4) If a monk displays a stubborn attitude in regard to the vinaya, it is a pacittiya. 5) If a monk frightens another monk, making him scared of ghosts, it is a pacittiya. 6) If a monk, who does not have a fever, lights a fire himself or gets someone else to light it for the purpose of warming himself, it is a pacittiya. If it is lit for other purposes there is no offence. 7) If a monk is living in the middle provinces of India, he may wash himself once every fifteen days. If he does so within fifteen days, except at times as it is necessary, it is a pacittiya. In border countries such as Siam, it is not an offense to wash at any time. 8) If a monk has obtained a new cloth, he must mark it with one of three kinds of colour before using it. These are blue, mud coloured or dark brown. If he does not mark it before using it, it is a pacittiya. 9) If a monk, having shared a robe with another monk, uses it without the other party having relinquished his part-ownership, or given permission for its use, it is a pacittiya. 10) If a monk hides any of the possessions of another monk, these being the bowl, robes, sitting-cloth, needle case and belt, even as a joke, it is a pacittiya. /\

Here are some rules for when monks go out into inhabited areas: 1) I will cover my body properly. 2) I will properly restrain the movements of hands and feet 3) I will keep my eyes looking down. 4) I will not hitch up my robes. 5) I will not laugh loudly. 6) I will not speak loudly. 7) I will not sway my body about. 8) I will not swing my arms about. 9) I will not shake my head about. 10) I will not put my arms akimbo. 11) I will not cover my head with a cloth. 12) I will not walk on tiptoe. 13) I will not sit clasping my knees. /\

The monks have certain rules when teaching Dhamma to lay people: I will not teach Dhamma to someone who is not sick and... 1) ... who has an umbrella in his hand. 2) ... who has a wooden stick in his hands. 3) ... who has a sharp-edged weapon in his hand. 4) ... who has a weapon in his hand. 5) ... who is wearing wooden-soled sandals. 6) ... who is wearing shoes. 7) ... who is in a vehicle. 8) ... who is on a bed or couch. 9) ... who is sitting clasping the knees. 10) ... who has a head wrapping. 11) ... whose head is covered. 12) ... who is sitting on a seat while I am sitting on the ground. 13) ... who is sitting on a high seat while I am sitting on a low seat. 14) ... who is sitting while I am standing. 15) ... who is walking in front of me while I am walking behind him. 16) ... who is walking on a pathway while I am walking beside the pathway. /\

monks receiving alms in Thailand

When asked which of the 227 precepts was the hardest to follow, one monk told Barrow:"I don’t really know them all. There are too many. I think you have to be here a long time before you can remember them all. But for me, the difficult ones are: not being allowed to be alone with a woman, not eating after lunch, not sleeping with a long pillow or on a soft mattress. But some monks do have a comfortable beds and pillows. They even have air-conditioning, cable tv and computer in their room. There are different kinds of monks here. Some are serious about being a monk. Others are here because they cannot do anything else. If you stay in the right temple, it can be quite a comfortable life. Good food and good money. I think most monks make about 10,000 baht a month. There are of course some bad monks. I know that the ones in the kuti next door to mine take drugs. They order the drugs by mobile phone and it is delivered to their door by motorcycle taxi in the evening. Talking about delivery. Guess what I had for lunch today? My aunt ordered pizza for me!" [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, May 10, 2005]

Food, Shelter, Medicine and Providing Support to Monks

According to “The Vinaya, as laid down by the Buddha, in its many practical rules defines the status of a monk as being that of a mendicant. Having no personal means of support is a very practical means of understanding the instinct to seek security; furthermore, the need to seek alms gives a monk a source of contemplation on what things are really necessary. The four requisites, food, clothing, shelter and medicines, are what lay people can offer as a practical way of expressing generosity and appreciation of their faith in belonging to the Buddhist Community. Rather than giving requisites to particular monks whom one likes and knows the practising Buddhist learns to offer to the Sangha as an act of faith and respect for the Sangha as a whole. Monks respond by sharing merit, spreading good will and the teachings of the Buddha to all those who wish to hear, irrespective of personal feelings. [Source: ]

A monk is allowed to collect, receive and consume food between dawn and midday (taken to be 12 noon). He is not allowed to consume food outside of this time and he is not allowed to store food overnight. Plain water can be taken at any time without having to be offered. Although a monk lives on whatever is offered, vegetarianism is encouraged. A monk must have all eatables and drinkables, except plain water, formally offered into his hands or placed on something in direct contact with his hands. In the Thai tradition, in order to prevent contact with a woman, he will generally set down a cloth to receive things offered by women. He is not allowed to cure or cook food except in particular circumstances.

In accordance with the discipline, a monk is prohibited from eating fruit or vegetables containing fertile seeds. So, when offering such things, a layperson can either remove the seeds or make the fruit allowable slightly damaging it with a knife. This is done by piercing the fruit and saying at the same time 'Kappiyam bhante' or 'I am making this allowable, Venerable Sir' (the English translation). It is instructive to note that, rather than limiting what can be offered, the Vinaya lays emphasis on the mode of offering. Offering should be done in a respectful manner, making the act of offering a mindful and reflective one, irrespective of what one is giving.

“Buddhaghosa with three copies of Visuddhimagga”

Solitary, silent and simple could be a fair description of the ideal lodging for a monk. From the scriptures it seems that the general standard of lodging was to neither cause discomfort nor impair health, yet not to be indulgently luxurious. Modest furnishings of a simple and utilitarian nature were also allowed, there being a rule against using 'high, luxurious beds or chairs', that is, items that are opulent by current standards. So a simple bed is an allowable thing to use, although most monks prefer the firmer surface provided by a mat or thick blanket spread on the floor. The monk's precepts do not allow him to sleep more than three nights in the same room with an unordained male, and not even to lie down in the same sleeping quarters as a woman. In providing a temporary room for a night, a simple spare room that is private is adequate.

A monk is allowed to use medicines if they are offered in the same way as food. Once offered, neither food nor medicine should be handled again by a layperson, as that renders it no longer allowable. Medicines can be considered as those things that are specifically for illness; those things having tonic or reviving quality (such as tea or sugar); and certain items which have a nutritional value in times of debilitation, hunger or fatigue (such as cheese or non-dairy chocolate). As circumstances changed, the Buddha allowed monks to make use of other small requisites, such as needles, a razor, etc. In modern times, such things might include a pen, a watch, a torch, etc. All of these were to be plain and simple, costly or luxurious items being expressly forbidden.

The principles of mendicancy forbid a monk from asking for anything, unless he is ill, without having received an invitation. So when receiving food, for example, a monk makes himself available in a situation, where people wish to give food. At no time does the monk request food. This principle should be borne in mind when offering food; rather than asking a monk what he would like, it is better to ask if you can offer some food. Considering that the meal will be the only meal of the day, one can offer what seems right, recognising that the monk will take what he needs and leave the rest. A good way to offer is to bring bowls of food to the monk and let him choose what he needs from each bowl. Tea and coffee can be offered at any time (if after noon, without milk). Sugar or honey can be offered at the same time to go with it.

Monk Relationships

monks at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

According to “Monks and nuns lead lives of total celibacy in which any kind of sexual behaviour is forbidden. This includes even suggestive speech or physical contact with lustful intent, both of which are very serious offences for monks and nuns. As one's intent may not always be obvious (even to oneself), and one's words not always guarded, it is a general principle for monks and nuns to refrain from any physical contact with members of the opposite sex. Monks should have a male present who can understand what is being said when conversing with a lady, and a similar situation holds true for nuns. [Source:]

Much of this standard of behaviour is to prevent scandalous gossip or misunderstanding occurring. In the stories that explain the origination of a rule, there are examples of monks being accused of being a woman's lover, of a woman's misunderstanding a monk's reason for being with her, and even of a monk being thrashed by a jealous husband!

So, to prevent such misunderstanding, however groundless, a monk has to be accompanied by a man whenever he is in the presence of a woman; on a journey; or sitting alone in a secluded place (one would not call a meditation hall or a bus station a secluded place). Generally, monks would also refrain from carrying on correspondence with women, other than for matters pertaining to the monastery, travel arrangements, providing basic information, etc. When teaching Dharma, even in a letter, it is easy for inspiration and compassion to turn into attachment.

As a sign of respect, when inviting a monk it is usual for the person making the invitation to also make the travel arrangements, directly or indirectly. One can also make an invitation to cover any circumstances that may arise which you may not be aware of by saying, for example, 'Bhante, if you need any medicine or requisites, please let me know'. To avoid any misunderstanding, it is better to be quite specific about what you are offering. Unless specified, an invitation can only be accepted for up to four months, after which time it lapses unless renewed.

Monks as Dharma Teachers

monk with palm leaf manuscripts pointing to a painting of Sinxay

According to The monk as Dharma teacher must find the appropriate occasion to give the profound and insightful teachings of the Buddha to those who wish to hear it. It would not be appropriate to teach without invitation, nor in a situation where the teachings cannot be reflected upon adequately. This is a significant point, as the Buddha's teachings are meant to be a vehicle, which one should contemplate silently and then apply. The value of Dharma is greatly reduced if it is just received as chit-chat or speculations for debate. [Source: ]

Accordingly, for a Dharma talk, it is good to set up a room where the teachings can be listened to with respect being shown to the speaker. In terms of etiquette, graceful convention rather than rule, this means affording the speaker a seat which is higher than his audience, not pointing one's feet at the speaker, not lying down on the floor during the talk, and not interrupting the speaker. Questions are welcome at the end of the talk.

Lay People, Monks and Etiquette Towards Monks

The relationship between monks and lay people in Theravada Buddhism is very strong. This type of Buddhism could not, in fact, exist in its present form without this interaction. It is a way of mutual support - lay people supply food, medicine, and cloth for robes, and monks give spiritual support, blessings, and teachings. But this is not a tit for that situation. Monks are not allowed to request anything from lay people; and lay people cannot demand anything from the monks. The spirit of it is more in the nature of open-hearted giving. [Source: BBC ]

The system works well and is so firmly established in most Theravadan countries that monks are usually amply provided for, Monasteries often have facilities for lay people to stay in retreat. The accommodation is usually basic and one has to abide by Eight Precepts (to abstain from killing, stealing, engaging in sexual activity, unskilful speech, taking intoxicating drink or drugs, eating after midday, wearing adornments, seeking entertainments, and sleeping in soft, luxurious beds). There are numerous ceremonies and commemoration days which lay people celebrate, such as Wesak which marks the birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana (passing away) of the Buddha, and for these events everyone converges on the local temples.

Laymen are expected to eat after, walk behind and seat themselves lower than monks.Do not eat after noon; be mindful about eating or snacking around them. f a monk is sitting, show respect by sitting before starting a conversation. Avoid sitting higher than a monk if you can help it. Never point your feet at any Buddhist while sitting.Only use your right hand when giving or receiving something from a monk.

monk receiving alms

Women and monks: It is taboo for a woman to touch a monk or his robes or hand something directly to a monk. A woman should never touch or hand a monk something. Even accidentally brushing against their robes requires that they fast and perform a cleansing ritual. Food or donations must be passed to a man first and then on to the monk. Women also should not sit on the back seat of a bus because this is wear monks usually sit. Even the monk's own mother must follow these rules. If a woman does accidently touch a monk’s robes an elaborate purification ritual needs to be performed.

According to “If a layperson wishes to give something to a particular monk, but is uncertain what he needs, he should make an invitation. Any financial donations should not be to a monk but to the stewards of the monastery, perhaps mentioning if it's for a particular item or for the needs of a certain monk. For items such as travelling expenses, money can be given to an accompanying anagarika (dressed in white) or accompanying layperson, who can then buy tickets, drinks for a journey or anything else that the monk may need at that time. It is quite a good exercise in mindfulness for a layperson to actually consider what items are necessary and offer those rather than money. [Source:]

Daily Life of a Thai Monk

Monks eat one or two meals a day, their last by noon but they also beg for food on the streets which is where they are given unhealthy treats which have been blamed for the weight gain.The monks leave their monasteries early in the morning and walk single file, with the oldest monk first, with their bowls in front of them, collecting food from people as they go. It is believed that the giving and receiving of alms creates a spiritual connection between the monastic and lay communities who make the offerings. Some monks eat their only one meal a day, others eat two but all of them have consumed their last meal by midday. Their diet consists of staples, desserts, preserved and dried food, fish and meat. Increasingly oily, sweet foods monks are offered by worshipers

The daily routines of Theravada Buddhist monks according to 4.00 am - The monks wake up and meditate for one hour, followed by one hour of chanting. 6.00 am - The monks walk barefoot around the neighbourhood while the local people make merit by offering them food. 8.00 am - Returning to the temple, the monks sit together to eat breakfast, then make a blessing for world peace. Before 12.00 noon - Some monks choose to eat a light lunch at this time. This is the last solid food they are allowed to consume until sunrise the following morning.Row of seated Buddhas 1.00 pm - Classes in Buddhist teaching begin. Some monks may attend school outside the temple. 6.00 pm - A two-hour session of meditation and prayer begins. 8.00 pm - The monks retire to do homework. [Source:]

meditating at dawn

Besides these duties, all monks are given specific roles to play in the day-to-day running and maintenance of the temple and its surroundings. After being in the monkhood for several years and demonstrating extreme dedication to both social work and spiritual study, a monk can be promoted gradually until he reaches the Sangha Supreme Council, the governing body presided over by the Supreme Patriach.Novice monks.

The monk Phra Nattawud told Richard Barrow:"I usually get up at about 5 a.m. and then take a shower. I then prepare myself to go out on the alms round. It takes a while for me to put on all of the robes. I then leave at about 6 a.m. When I come back, I put all the food on a tray and sort it out. For example: curries, desserts and drinks. We then give some food to the Buddha image and do some chanting. After that we just eat until we are full. I then usually go back to sleep for a few hours. Sometimes I walk around the temple grounds and chat with other monks. Sometimes we watch t.v. We do this until lunchtime which is about 11 a.m. We cannot sit down for lunch later than 11.30 a.m. Most people think we cannot eat after mid-day. But that isn’t true. If we don’t get up from the table, we can actually eat all afternoon! But no-one is going to do that because that is crazy. In the afternoon I might sleep again or chat with the other monks. Sometimes I watch t.v. In the late afternoon, when it has become cooler, we then do our chores. We sweep around the temple and water the plants. At 7 p.m. I go with a group of other monks to the big meeting hall to chant. Not everyone goes. It is your choice. We chant for about one hour. After that, my group of monks usually goes to sit by the river and drink and chat. When I say drink, I mean soft drinks! We are not allowed alcohol. We chat there until about 9 p.m. Then we go to bed." [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, May 10, 2005~~]

What things have you found the hardest so far? Barrow asked. "The hardest thing for me so far is studying the yellow book. This is full of chants that we have to use during the day. Some chants we use everyday and they are the easiest to remember. However, sometimes we are invited to people’s houses or funerals and there are different chants for us to remember. To help us, one of the monks is a senior and he leads the chanting and we follow. I cannot just pretend I am chanting by moving my lips. I really have to chant. I go outside the temple to do this about once or twice a week. We all take turns. The abbot is the person who chooses which monks can go. But he makes sure everyone has an equal chance. This is because we usually make money when we go and everyone wants to do it. And the food is always very good. I sometimes get between 200 and 500 baht each time. But, one of my friends recently got 1000 baht for chanting at an ordination. It wasn’t my turn that day." ~~

Barrow wrote: “Well, I don’t know about you, but I was pretty shocked by the layback attitude of the monks. It almost seems too simple. I thought it was supposed to be a hard life. If all temples are like this then I think it could be easy for me to be a monk. But then, what would the point be? If I am going to do something like this, I would want to do it properly.

Morning Alms Round

alms bowl

Lay people give monks food such as curry and soup that can be bought locally. It doesn't really matter how much or how little a person gives. It is the intention of giving that is important.

Describing his experience accompanying monks on their morning alms round, Richard Barrow wrote in Thailand Life: “At about 6.10 a.m., two monks and a dek wat farang left the temple for the morning alms round. They were both barefoot. I think you would have to have pretty tough skin to be able to walk down some of these roads because of the gravel and rusty nails. Fortunately I was allowed to wear shoes. I had always thought that monks would walk slowly along the road with their head bowed down in contemplation. I thought with my long legs I would easily keep up - but I didn't reckon on this monk being a reincarnation of Speedy Gonzales. I had a hard time keeping up with them. [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, April 27, 2005]

“Our first "customer" of the day was a man driving his car towards us. He stopped and got out of the car and then approached the two monks who were by now standing still looking downwards. As the monks are barefoot it was then proper for him to take off his shoes before he offered them some food. In Thai, this is called dtukbaht. He then got down on his hunches while the two monks chanted a short blessing in unionism. A very beautiful scene. I asked Phra Nattawud later what the blessing meant. But he said he had no idea as it was in Pali. However he knew that the end part was wishing them a long life.

“Then it was soon over and they moved on. While monks are walking, they are not allowed to keep looking around for the next meal. They should look straight ahead with their heads slightly bowed. If someone wanted to make merit by offering food, they would then call out "nimmon" to the monks. But, in reality, it was obvious who was about to offer food and I don't think I ever saw anyone utter those words. Most people were waiting for them by the side of the road. They had set up a low table with a bowl of rice and plastic bags containing curries. These people weren't offering food to just one monk. They would wait for others to come too.

“The route that Phra Daeng took was exactly the same every day. He would also leave at roughly the same time. People knew he was coming a certain way and if they passed outside their house they would wait for him there. Otherwise they would go to the top of a soi (small lane) and wait for him. Phra Nattawud later told me that some of the laziest monks would just stand outside places like 7-eleven or the market and wait for people to come to them. They would then take a motorcycle taxi back to the temple.

After we had stopped for the sixth time, their bags were completely full of curries and deserts. All of the rice had been placed in their alms bowl. As the bags were to heavy for them, they passed them both onto me and I gave them the two empty bags. It had by this time, crossed my mind why they needed to collect so much food. I pondered this as I struggled under the weight of the bags as we stopped for the seventh, eighth and ninth times. I then asked Phra Nattawud why we had to stop so many times? Couldn't we just go straight back? "No", he said. "We are helping them make merit by allowing them to give us food. If we didn't let them do this, then it would be extremely rude." Fair enough, I said, but what about all the food that is left over? "Wait and you will see" was all he said.

giving alms to a monk during Bun Vat Phu in Laos

After about one hour of walking we finally returned to the temple. Here waiting for us were Phra Nattawud's own parents waiting to give an offering. Something tells me that out of all the food he was given today, the food he received from his parents was what he was going to eat first. A little side note that I want to mention at this time is how the tables have now been reversed. Before it was Phra Nattawud who had to wai and be respectful towards his parents. Now they had to wai him and crouch down out of respect. Not only that, they also had to address him more politely than before. Earlier I saw his grandmother call out to Phra Nattawud by saying "Gor" which is his nickname. She quickly corrected herself and said "phra" instead. There is in fact a new set of words to be learned which I will talk about later. By now you are probably wondering what happens next. Well, with your permission, I will continue this story tomorrow. I have a lot more to tell you on the subject of monks and food.

The monk Phra Nattawud told Richard Barrow:""It made me very uncomfortable to walk around because everyone had to wai me and pay me respect. Even my parents. It was hard to get used to that. I also had to walk with bare feet and it hurt a lot. Sometimes it is a concrete road and sometimes it is gravel. I think there is something in a cut in my foot as it still hurts now. I have to walk several kilometers every day. I have never walked so much in my life. Wan Phra is the worst day. This is the Buddhist holy day like your Sundays. A lot of people come out to make merit on those days. I had so much the other day that it filled up three or four bags. I had to come back by motorcycle taxi as it was too much to carry. We cannot refuse them because it would be very rude. That is also the day when we get a lot of money. They put it in envelopes for us as a way of making merit. Some monks can get 1000 baht or more. These monks have been here a long time so they know the good places to hang out. But I only got less than 200 baht. We keep the money ourselves because we have to pay for everything at the temple. We have to pay for electricity and water and things like that." [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, May 10, 2005]

What Theravada Buddhist Monks Eat

Some monks only eat once a day. Others eat twice a day. However, all monks have to finish their last meal before mid-day. There are five categories of food that can be presented to monks only in the morning. These are: staples, desserts, preserved and dried food, fish and meat. The following five nutriments can be presented to and eaten by the monks at any time of day and night: honey, sugar and syrup, fat, ghee and butter, and cheese. There are ten kinds of meat that monks and novices are not allowed to eat. They are: human flesh, elephant, yellow tiger, tiger, leopard, bear, lion, snake, dog and horse.

On what monks eat, Richard Barrow wrote in Thailand Life: “Monks are not allowed to hoard food. Nor are they allowed to cook. So, in order to survive they have to go out in the morning to receive food from Buddhist followers. When they come back, they sort through the food. Some food they will eat straight away for breakfast. Other food they will save for their last meal of the day at 11 a.m. The food that is left over is not wasted. Some may be given to the nuns or children who help out around the temple. Other food is given to poor people who come to the temple at mid-day. Any left-over food is given to the temple dogs and cats. [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, April 28, 2005]

Before Phra Daeng and Phra Nattawud could eat, they first had to offer some food to the Buddha image. They chanted in Pali for a while and then prostrated three times. As you can see from the picture, Phra Nattawud still hasn't learned all the words and is reading from his yellow book of chants. After they have made the offering, they then sit in front of the food that they have already sorted and chant a bit more. Finally, they can start to eat. As predicted yesterday, Phra Nattawud tucks into the food that his parents had offered him earlier. Monks are not allowed to request particular types of food, however, his parents knew what he would like to eat.

Rules About What Theravada Buddhist Monks Can Eat

Food cooked for the Buddhist monks of the temple of Don Det, Laos: pieces of watermelon, boiled green leaves (like spinach), pork cooked with quarters of chayote, pieces of fermented fish and green chilis, cucumber, a red chili sauce, grilled chicken and straw basket with fresh sticky rice; Traditionally, these preparations are made by the locals in their own kitchens, and are delivered early morning to the monks, eating together in the temple with the people (but before them)

There are quite a few rules regarding monks and food. For example, they are not allowed to put food in their mouth that hasn't been offered to them first. If the food was offered to them yesterday, they then cannot eat it today. If someone told a monk that he will come with certain foods to offer the following day, then the monk cannot eat it. There is also quite a long list of 30 rules regarding food which monks must obey. It is worth taking note of these because Buddhism is so much an important part of Thai culture. [Source: Richard Barrow, Thailand Life, April 28, 2005]

A monk should train himself thus: 1) I will receive binderbaht food attentively. 2) When receiving binderbaht food, I will look only into the bowl. 3) I will receive curries in the right proportion to the rice. 4) I will receive binderbaht food only until it reaches the rim of the bowl. 5) I will eat binderbaht food attentively. 6) When eating binderbaht food, I will look only in the bowl. 7) I will not dig up the rice making it uneven. 8) I will eat curries in the right proportion to the rice. 9) I will not eat rice only working from the top down. 10) I will not cover up curries - or curry mixed with rice - because of a desire to get a lot. 11) When I am not sick, I will not ask for curries or rice for the purpose of eating them myself. 12) I will not look at another's bowl with the idea of finding fault. 13) I will not make up a very large mouthful of food. 14) I will make food up into suitably round mouthfuls. 15) I will not open my mouth until the portion of food has been brought to it. 16) When eating, I will not put my fingers into my mouth. 17) When food is still in my mouth, I will not speak. 18) I will not throw lumps of food into my mouth. 19) I will not eat by biting off mouthfuls of rice. 20) I will not eat stuffing out my cheeks. 21) I will not eat and shake my hand about at the same time. 22) I will not eat scattering grains of rice about so that they fall back into the bowl or elsewhere. 23) I will not eat putting my tongue out. 24) I will not eat making a champing sound. 25) I will not eat (or drink) making a sucking sound. 26) I will not eat licking my hands. 27) I will not eat scraping the bowl. 28) I will not eat licking my lips. 29) I will not take hold of a vessel of water with my hand soiled with food. 30) I will not throw out bowl washing water which has grains of rice in it in a place where there are houses. [Source: "Instructions for newly-ordained Bhikkhus and Samaneras" ]

Nuns in Theravada Buddhism

Buddhist nuns are similar to monks. They have clean shaven heads, but wear pink and orange robes. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “At one time the Theravada world had a separate Buddhist monastic lineage for females, who called themselves “bhikkhuni “ and observed more vows than monks did—311 precepts as opposed to 227 followed by monks. Started in Sri Lanka around two centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime by the daughter of King Ashoka (a Buddhist king in India) the bhikkhuni tradition in Sri Lanka eventually died out and was unfortunately never restored. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

According to Wikipedia a bhikkhuni (in the Pali language ) or bhiks.un.i- (in Sanskrit) is a fully ordained female Buddhist monastic. Male monastics are called bhikkhus. Both bhikkhunis and bhikkhus live by the vinaya. Bhikkhuni lineages enjoy a broad basis in Mahayana countries like Korea, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan. According to Buddhist scriptures, the order of bhikkhunis was first created by the Buddha at the specific request of his foster-mother Mahapajapati Gotami, who became the first ordained bhikkhuni, relayed via his attendant Ananda (who also urged for the Buddha's acceptance of it). The bhikkhuni order spread to many countries.

novice nun in Thailand

Nunhood is not considered as “prestigious” as monkhood. Cummings wrote: “The average Thai Buddhist makes a great show of offering new robes and household items to the monks at their local wat but pays less attention to the nuns. This is mainly due to the fact that nuns generally don’t perform ceremonies on behalf of laypeople, so there is often less incentive for self-interested lay people to make offering to them. Furthermore, many Thais equate the number of precepts observed with the total Buddhist merits achieved, hence nunhood is seen as less meritorious’ than monkhood since male chiis keep only eight precepts. The rail is that wats which draw sizeable contingents of mae chiis are highly respected, since women don’t choose temples for reasons of clerical status . When more than a few nuns reside at one temple, it’s usually a sign that the teachings there are particularly strong.

In the Southeast Asian Theravada tradition, many women are allowed to ordain as “mae jis “ (literally “mother priest”) . These women attempt to lead a life following the teachings of the Buddha. They observe 8–10 precepts, but do not follow exactly the same codes as ordained Buddhist monks. They receive popular recognition for their role. But they are not granted official endorsement or the educational support offered to monks. Some cook while others practice and teach meditation. [Source: Wikipedia]

The traditional appearance of Theravadan bhikkhunis is nearly identical to that of male monks, including a shaved head, shaved eyebrows and saffron robes. In some countries, nuns wear dark chocolate robes or sometimes the same colour as monks. White or pink robes are worn by Theravadan nuns who are not fully ordained. These nuns are known as Dasa sil mata in Sri Lanka, silashin in Myanmar (Burma), Mae ji in Thailand and Laos.

In the Theravada tradition, some scholars believe that the bhikkhuni lineage became extinct in the 11th to 13th centuries, and that no new bhikkhunis could be ordained since there were no bhikkhunis left to give ordination. For this reason, the leadership of the Theravada bhikkhu Sangha in Burma and Thailand deem fully ordained bhikkhunis as "untrue." Based on the spread of the bhikkhuni lineage to countries like China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and Sri Lanka, other scholars support ordination of Theravadan bhikkhunis. Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, now known as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, is a Thai scholar who took bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka and returned to Thailand, where bhikkhuni ordination is forbidden and can result in arrest or imprisonment for a woman. She is considered a pioneer by many in Thailand.

Buddhist Nationalism, Politics and Radical Anti-Islamic Monks in Southeast Asia

Hannah Beech wrote in Time magazine: Radical Buddhism is thriving in Asia. “In Sri Lanka, Buddhist nationalist groups with links to high-ranking officialdom have gained prominence, with monks helping orchestrate the destruction of Muslim and Christian property. And in Thailand’s deep south, where a Muslim insurgency has claimed some 5,000 lives since 2004, the Thai army trains civilian militias and often accompanies Buddhist monks when they leave their temples. The commingling of soldiers and monks–some of whom have armed themselves–only heightens the alienation felt by Thailand’s minority Muslims. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time magazine, July 1, 2013 =*=]

“Although each nation’s history dictates the course radical Buddhism has taken within its borders, growing access to the Internet means that prejudice and rumors are instantly inflamed with each Facebook post or tweet. Violence can easily spill across borders. In Malaysia, where hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrants work, several Buddhist Burmese were killed in June–likely in retribution, Malaysian authorities say, for the deaths of Muslims back in Burma. =*=

Myanmar's U Wirathu

“In the reckoning of religious extremism–Hindu nationalists, Muslim militants, fundamentalist Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews–Buddhism has largely escaped trial. To much of the world, it is synonymous with nonviolence and loving kindness, concepts propagated by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, 2,500 years ago. But like adherents of any other religion, Buddhists and their holy men are not immune to politics and, on occasion, the lure of sectarian chauvinism. When Asia rose up against empire and oppression, Buddhist monks, with their moral command and plentiful numbers, led anticolonial movements. Some starved themselves for their cause, their sunken flesh and protruding ribs underlining their sacrifice for the laity. Perhaps most iconic is the image of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk sitting in the lotus position, wrapped in flames, as he burned to death in Saigon while protesting the repressive South Vietnamese regime 50 years ago. In 2007, Buddhist monks led a foiled democratic uprising in Burma: images of columns of clerics bearing upturned alms bowls, marching peacefully in protest against the junta, earned sympathy around the world, if not from the soldiers who slaughtered them. But where does political activism end and political militancy begin? Every religion can be twisted into a destructive force poisoned by ideas that are antithetical to its foundations. Now it’s Buddhism’s turn. =*=

“In the deep south of Burma’s neighbor Thailand, it is the Buddhists who complain of being targeted for their faith. This part of the country used to be part of a Malay sultanate before staunchly Buddhist Thailand annexed it early last century, and Muslims make up at least 80% of the population. Since a separatist insurgency intensified in 2004, many Buddhists have been targeted because their positions–such as teachers, soldiers and government workers–are linked with the Thai state. Dozens of monks have been attacked too. Now the Buddhists have overwhelming superiority in arms: the Thai military and other security forces have moved into the wat, as Thai Buddhist temples are known. =*=

“If Buddhists feel more protected by the presence of soldiers in their temples, it sends quite another signal to the Muslim population. “[The] state is wedding religion to the military,” says Michael Jerryson, an assistant professor of religious studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio and author of a book about Buddhism’s role in the southern-Thailand conflict. Muslims too are scared: more of them have perished in the violence than Buddhists. (By proportion of population, more Buddhists have died, however.) Yet Buddhists are the ones who receive the greater state protection, and I listen to monk after monk heighten tensions by telling me that Muslims are using mosques to store weapons or that every imam carries a gun. “Islam is a religion of violence,” says Phratong Jiratamo, a former marine turned monk in the town of Pattani. “Everyone knows this.” =*=

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook , Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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