Taungkalat temple and monastery in Myanmar
Buddhist religious life has traditionally centered around “sanghas” ("Orders of Disciplines"), a word used to describe communities of monks who preserve and transmit Buddha’s teachings and live at monasteries. Buddhists believe that the spiritual quest of monks benefits the entire community and their rituals bring prosperity and protection.

The monk ideal is most important in Theravada Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. Monks have traditionally been an important part of religious life in Theravada-dominated Thailand, Laos Myanmar, and Sri Lanka and in Tibet. Even today in these places, teenage boys and young men boys are expected to serve as monks for period of some months, ideally after they finish school and before they get married or start a career. Most towns and even villages have own monasteries connected to local temples. The families of monks earn large amounts of merit. In According to the BBC: "Theravada Buddhism, monks are considered the embody the fruits of Buddhist practice. Monks' responsibility is to share these with lay Buddhists through their example and teaching. Giving to monks is also thought to benefit lay people and to win them merit."

Monk culture is not as widespread in China and Japan and other places where Mahayana Buddhism dominated because Mahayana Buddhism does not place as much importance on the monk ideal as Theravada Buddhism and because political pressures, namely Communism, and modern life have discouraged men from seeking to become monks.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ;

Sangha: the Buddhist Monk Community

The Buddhist monk community is referred to as the “Sangha”. “The word ‘Sangha’ means those who are joined together, thus a Community. However, "Sangha" does not refer to the entire Buddhist Community, but to the two kinds of Communities within the larger Buddhist Society. They are: 1) The Noble Sangha (Ariya Sangha), the community of the Buddha’s true disciples; and 2) the conventional Sangha, fully ordained monks and nuns. In principle, the word Sangha includes bhikkhunis - that is, fully ordained nuns — but in Theravada countries the full ordination lineage for women has become defunct, though there continue to exist independent orders of nuns.

On the Sangha,the Theravada Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote: “The Buddha’s dispensation is founded upon three guiding ideals or objects of veneration: the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. The Buddha is the teacher, the Dhamma is the teaching and the Sangha is the community of those who have realized the teaching and embody it in their lives. These three are together called the Three Jewels or Triple Gem. They are called the Three Jewels because for one who is seeking the way to liberation, they are the most precious things in the World. The Buddha established the Sangha in order to provide ideal conditions for reaching the ariyan state, for attaining Nibbana. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

“The holy life requires purified conduct but household life stimulates many desires that run contrary to pure conduct. The homeless life is a life of meditation calling for constant mindfulness, clear awareness and contemplation. All this needs time, a calm environment, freedom from external pressures and responsibility. The Buddha founded in Sangha in order to provide such objective conditions.

“The bhikkhu, the Buddhist monk, is not a priest; he does not function as an intermediary between the laity and any divine power, not even between the lay person and the Buddha. He does not administer sacraments, pronounce absolution or perform any ritual needed for salvation. The main task of a bhikkhu is to cultivate himself along the path laid down by the Buddha, the path of moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom.”

The Three Jewels — The Buddha, “Dharma” (The Buddha's teachings), and the “Sangha” (the community of monks) who preserve and transmit Buddha’s teachings — are central to the understanding and teaching of Buddhism and are the Buddhist equivalent of the Christian Holy Trinity. One definition of a Buddhist is “one who takes refuge in the Three Jewels.” The vow taken by Theravada monks — "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the law, I take refuge in the Sangha — is asserts their embrace of the Three Jewels.

Buddhist Monasteries

Ganden monastery in Tibet
Buddhist monasteries are not communal places for ordinary people to worship; they are places set aside for people who have decided to devote themselves entirely to Buddhism. Even so they are generally open to the public. Lay people are generally welcome at the monasteries any time and sometimes even encouraged to reside there for a while.

Monasteries are often found in conjunction with temples. They have traditionally been centers of learning and quiet reflection. Up until recently, monasteries were where young children went to learn how to read and write, and many monks served as teachers.

In medieval times Buddhist monasteries played a role that was similar to their counterparts in Europe. They helped to educate people and provided medical care and places to stay for travelers and orphans. Through gifts and patronage they were able to amass great wealth and large land holdings and even open up pawnshops and banks. Sometimes monasteries were like fortresses and had their own armies.

Monasteries usually consist of main prayer hall, dormitories, a library, schoolrooms, a rooms for Buddha statues and religious objects and a crematorium. Some famous ones are as opulent as palaces. Others are simple village facilities. The monks sleep in small austere rooms or dormitories and meditate inside rooms, sometimes filled with smoke from candles and incense burners, and chant in low moaning voices to the rhythm of stick striking an instrument that looks like a wooden cowbell.

Buddhist Monastery Structure and Hierarchy

Monasteries are set up as places for monks to live, pray and work. Unlike Christian churches, which are often hierarchical institutions that emphasize community worship and social service, monasteries are generally democratic and anti-authoritarian institutions run for monks by monks, who keep the monastery going with donations and money earned from presiding over important ceremonies.

wider view of Ganden monastery

Local monasteries are essentially self sufficient and rely on their own lands and support from the local lay community. Property belongs to the community. The religious practices are passed down from generation to generation from student to teacher.

Theravada Buddhism traditionally has not had an overarching theocratic structure like the Vatican nor are No1 leader like the Pope or Dalai Lama. Each country where Theravada Buddhism where is found has its own organization that does not extend beyond the national level. Thailand's chief Buddhist monk is known as the Supreme Patriarch.

Even the Dalai Lama is not really a leader of Tibetan Buddhism rather he is the highest-ranking monk at Tibetan Buddhism’s main monastery in Tibet. The hierarchies tend to exist mostly on the monastery level with abbots or senior monks serving as leaders of the monastery. Their rank in turn is based on the history and prestige of the monastery and the number of monks that are there.

Lifestyle of Buddhist Monks

According to the BBC: “Admission to the monastic sangha involves two rites of passage: 1) Renunciation of the secular life; and 2) Acceptance of monasticism as a novice Since in many cases, acceptance as a monk could not be made before the age of 20, the two rites could be separated by many years. Ordination is an important ceremony in all traditions. In the Theravada, for example, ordination means becoming a monk. To become a Theravadin monk a postulant shaves his head and beard and adopts the yellow robes of the monk. Various vows are exchanged, including the repetition of the Ten Precepts. Then the postulant is questioned about past behaviour and their suitability for the position. If satisfied, the officiating abbot admits the postulant. [Source: BBC ]

The Theravada Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote: A “special aspect of the lifestyle of the Buddhist monk is that he lives in dependence on the offerings of others. He does not work for his living, he does not receive payment for his religious services, but he lives entirely in dependence on the support of the laity. Those who have confidence in the Dhamma provide him with the basic requisites, his robes, food, dwelling place, medicines, and whatever other simple material support he might need.” [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

Buddhist monks are often known in their own cultures by a word that means "sharer." A large portion of the Buddhist cannon consists of doctrines attributed to The Buddha on how monks are supposed to behave and what they were supposed to do. Traditionally monks have renounced all personal possession and sexual relations and relied on the charity of lay-people for necessities. Temples and monasteries are paid for with donations and fees paid to monks for performing funerals and other ceremonies.

In Buddhist societies, monks are generally respected by everyone and most families have a son who is monk or was a monk at one time. Monks are given free food and often allowed to ride free on buses and trains. Even the girlie bars and brothels on Patpong Road in Bangkok welcome saffron-robed monks who show up periodically recite mantras and make blessings to ensure good profits.

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monks debating in Tibet

In Tibetan Buddhism and some other sects, monks retreat to caves or remote huts to meditate and live as hermits. But generally most monks live in a community with other monks in a monastery. Theravada Buddhism devotes a great deal of literature to monks and their role in the monk community and society as a whole. In Mahayana Buddhism, there is more emphasis on pursing individual enlightenment.

Few monks are monks their entire lives. Those that are often become scholars, teachers, and healers. Some specialize in folk magic and even work as astrologers. Many spend much of their time presiding over funerals.

Monks are free to a leave anytime they want. In Southeast Asia, many young men often serve a few weeks as a monk as a sort of coming of age rite, and then resume their ordinary lives. Undisciplined children are sometimes taken to monasteries by parents to set them straight.

Shaved Head and Robe of Buddhist Monks

The Theravada Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote: “The distinctive marks of the bhikkhu [monks] in all the Buddhist countries are the shaven head and the saffron robes. The reason the bhikkhu adopts this appearance is rooted in the very nature of his calling. The Buddhist monk seeks to realize the truth of anatta, of selflessness. This means the relinquishing of one’s claims to stand out as a special individual, to be a "somebody". The aim of the bhikkhu is to eliminate the sense of ego of self identification. Our clothes, hairstyle, and beard often become subtle ways by which we assert our sense of identity or express our self image. Bhikkhus give up their personal identity and blend into a larger body the Sangha. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

“The robe and the shaven head is also the theme for their daily reflection. "My life is different from that of worldly people". Unlike the common people, he leads a life of restraints self-control, and inner cultivation. The robe also serves to make others aware of the Buddha’s teaching. His conduct has the effect of impressing on others the fruits of the Buddha’s teaching.

Purpose and Aims of a Buddhist Monk

On one hand monks are perceived as sort of mini-Buddhas in that not only are they seeking enlightenment for themselves but devote a great amount of energy and devotion to teach and inspire and instruct other to purse the Way of The Buddha. One the other hand, they remain seekers of knowledge themselves, or ones who has not found nirvana but are still striving for and have things to learn and achieve, and are advancing in a gradual, step-by-step process.

Monks are not removed from world. They spend a large amount of their time in monastery schools teach children reading and writing as well religion. This is one reason why many Buddhists countries have traditionally had a high rate of literacy. Buddha himself chose not spend his time on Earth in an enlightened state; rather he decided to be in the real world, teaching people about Buddhism.

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Tibetan prayer drums

The first reward fir a fully-realized monk is to escape being reborn as an animal or a ghost or caste into a Buddhist hell. The is regarded as the first stage of entering the stream that flows towards nirvana. The next stage is to reach such a level that attachment to world is a minimal and one has to endure only one more human birth to reach nirvana. In the last stage the monk experiences nirvana and transcends life on earth, breaks the cycle of reincarnation and has no reason to be reborn.

History of Buddhist Monks

The first Buddhist monks were called “arhats” . They were regarded as men well on their way down the path to seeking nirvana. One passage from an early Buddhist text goes: “Ah, happy indeed the Arhats! In them no craving’s found. The “I am” conceit is rooted out; confusion’s net is burst. Lust-free they have attained; translucent is the mind of them. Unspotted in the world are they...all cankers gone.”

The first five ascetics who became the first monks under The Buddha were joined by 55 others. They together with The Buddha are known as the 61 arhats. The were ordained by The Buddha by repeating the simple phrase: “Come monk; well-taught in the Dharma; fare the attainment of knowledge for making a complete anguish.” Others that came later were ordained after cutting their hair and beard, donning a robe and uttering three times: “I go to The Buddha for refuge, I go to Dharma for refuge, I go to the sangha for refuge.” This ritual remains the basis of the Theravada monk ordination process today.

Aanada was The Buddha constant companion. His two chief disciples—Sariputta and Moggallana — were two ascetics who for were known for seeking the Dharma to deathlessness Mahkaccan was ranked the highest for his ability to interpret the Buddha’s brief statements.

In the years that followed The Buddha gave more sermons and instructed his disciples on methods that could be used to discover the eternal truth. The Buddha spoke on a number of subjects and often used stories about monkeys, wealthy lords and fishermen and similes such as comparing “hold of the mind” to “trainer’s hook” used to pacify a “savage elephant” to make his points. He presented himself as a man not a god of myth and thereby argued that anyone could achieve what he had done.

Tibetan Buddhist parable of the Arhats

Renunciation and Deliverance of Buddhist Monks

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote: “The key move that charactrizes the act of becoming a monk is renunciation, going forth from the household life into homelessness. Homelessness is not absolutely essential for this work, true renunciation is an inner act, not a mere outer one. But the homeless life provides the most suitable outer conditions for practising true renunciation. But anyone who has correctly grasped the drift of the Dhamma will see that the path of renunciation follows from it with complete naturalness. The Buddha teaches that life in the world is inseparably connected with dukkha, with suffering and unsatisfactoriness, leading us again and again into the round of birth and death. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

“The reason we remain bound to the wheel of becoming is because of our attachment to it. To gain release from the round we have to extinguish our craving. That is the highest renunciation, the inner act of renunciation. But to win that attainment we generally must begin with relatively easy acts of renunciation, and as these gather force they eventually lead us to a point where we no longer are attracted to the pleasures of the world. When this happens, we become ready to leave behind the household life, to enter upon homeless state in order to devote ourselves fully to the task of removing the inner subtle clinging of the mind.

If a person finds himself unsuitable for monastic life he is free at any time to leave the robes and return to lay life without any kind of religious blame attached to himself.

Buddhist Nuns

There is no equivalent of the order of monks for women. Women can serve as lay nuns but they are much lower status than monks. They are more like assistants. They can live at temples and generally follow fewer rules and have less demands made on them than monks. But aside from the fact they don’t perform certain ceremonies for lay people such as funerals their lifestyle is similar to that of monks.

The Theravada Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote: “In principle, the word Sangha includes bhikkhunis - that is, fully ordained nuns — but in Theravada countries the full ordination lineage for women has become defunct, though there continue to exist independent orders of nuns.”

Nuns spend much of their time in meditation and study like other monks. Sometimes nuns shave their heads, which sometimes makes them almost indistinguishable from the men. In some cultures their robes are the same as the men (in Korea, for example, they are grey) and other ones they are different (in Myanmar they are orange and pink). After the head of a Buddhist nun is shaved, the hair is buried under a tree.

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young monks and nuns in Thailand

Buddhist nuns perform various duties and chores. Nuns-in-training make around 10,000 incense sticks a day working at easel-like desks at a building near the pagoda. carol of Lufty wrote in the New York Times, "The women, all in their 20s and exceedingly friendly...wrap a sawdust-and -tapioca flour mixture around pink sticks and roll them in yellow powder. These are then dried along the roadside before they are sold to the public."

At one time there was a nun movement in which nuns had a similar status of monks but this movement has largely died out.

Buddhist Lay People

The is strong supportive relationship between the monk community and lay people. With lay men and women providing monks with food, lodging and medicine for monks and monks giving them Dharma in return.

Lay people are supposed to follow the basic tenets of Buddhism and provide alms to monks and temples. They are considered a lower incarnation than monks and are not required to spend as much time praying and meditating as monks.

Buddhist texts describe the relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, employers and employees, etc., and also describe to some degree how these people are supposed to behave to one another.

Buddhist Sources on Holy Men and Teachers

The religious mendicant, wisely reflecting, is patient under cold and heat, under hunger and thirst, ... under bodily sufferings, under pains however sharp.—Sabbasava-sutta. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

As he who loves life avoids poison, so let the sage avoid sinfulness.—Udanavarga.

Reverence ... is due to righteous conduct.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

The wise man ... regards with reverence all who deserve reverence, without distinction of person.—Ta-chwang-yan-king-lun.

They also, resigning the deathless bliss within their reach, Worked the welfare of mankind in various lands. What man is there who would be remiss in doing good to mankind? —Quoted by Max Muller.

Go ye, O Brethren, and wander forth, for the gain of the many, the welfare of the many, in compassion for the world, for the good, for the gain, for the welfare of ... men.... Publish, O, Brethren, the doctrine glorious.... Preach ye a life of holiness ... perfect and pure.—Mahavagga.

Go, then, through every country, convert those not converted.... Go, therefore, each one travelling alone; filled with compassion, go! rescue and receive.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

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senior Tibetan monks

Ariyan Sangha

On the Ariyan Sangha, Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote: “The Ariyan Sangha is the Community of noble persons, all those who have reached the supramundane paths and fruits. This Sangha consists of eight types of individuals joined together into four pairs. The four pairs are: 1) The person on the path of stream entry and the stream enterer; 2) The person on the path of once returner and the once returner; 3) The person on the path of non-returner and the non-returner’ and 4) the person on the path of arahantship and the arahant. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

“What unites all these persons and makes them a community is that they all share a penetration through direct experience of the innermost essence of the Dhamma. All these persons have followed the Buddha’s path to the height of wisdom and seen for themselves the ultimate truth, the truth of the unconditioned. The experience that makes a person an ariyan disciple is called the arising of the eye of the Dhamma. We all have physical eyes by which we can see. We also have mental eyes through which we can understand ideas intellectually, but what the Ariyan person has that an ordinary person lacks is the dhammachakkhu, the eye of truth, the penetrating vision that sees into the real nature of things, the vision that sees the unconditioned element, Nibbana.

“Once a person becomes an ariyan disciple he gains absolute confidence in the Triple Gem, in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. He can never go for refuge to any other teacher other than the Buddha, or take as his guiding principle any teaching other than the Dhamma. He has been spiritually reborn, born with a noble birth. The status of an Ariyan is not established by any formal act of ordination. Any person - monk or nun, layman or laywoman - who penetrates the Dhamma, who arouses the eye of the Dhamma, immediately becomes an Ariyan disciple of the Buddha. Lay persons living at home can also reach all four levels of liberation. But the lay people who have become Arhants are very few and when they do so, according to natural law they immediately renounce the household life and enter the monastic order.

“Those who become ariyans have entered the definite path to final liberation. They have stepped beyond the ranks of the multitude caught up in craving and ignorance revolving in birth and death. They can never fall back to the level of a worldling because they have realized the truth by direct experience. They are now bound to reach full enlightenment and final liberation. The highest of the noble disciples is the arhant. He is the one who never comes back to any form of existence high or low. He has reached enlightenment right in his body, he has cut off all craving and extinguished all defilements. He lives out his day in the bliss of liberation until the break up of the body. With the break up of the body, he attains the final goal, the Nibbana element without residue.

early 20th century Buddhist monks and their attendants

“When Buddhists recite "Sangham saranam gachchâmi" (I go for refuge to the Sangha), they are referring to the Ariyan Sangha. The Ariyan Sangha is absolutely essential to the Buddha’s dispensation, for the ariyan disciples stand as living proof of the truth of the Buddha’s teaching. The Ariyans are the ones who have put the teaching to the test, who have practised the path and verified the Dhamma in their own experience. They are the ones who have accomplished the aim of the Dhamma. The Buddha’s teaching aims at transforming ordinary people from worldlings into noble people, at bringing them to the stages of liberation. They are the guides and models. They encourage us to follow the path, since they began as ordinary people like ourselves, but by practising the path they have risen up above the ordinary plane and reached the state of spiritual nobility. Through their own attainments they can give effective instructions to others instruction that is not based on mere guesswork or book learning but on personal experience.”

Conventional Sangha

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote: “The monastic order is called the conventional Sangha because admission to the order depends entirely on the convention of ordination, which can be given to any properly qualified candidate. It does not require any special spiritual attainment, but simply a person who wishes to enter the order and is free from any of the conditions that obstruct ordination. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

“The monastic Sangha is regarded as extremely precious, and worthy of deep reverence and respect for two basic reasons. Firstly because the monks continue to follow the holy life laid down by the Buddha in its fullness, and secondly because they transmit the teaching from generation to generation, out of concern for the welfare of others.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Purdue University, Julie Chao, Joho.com

Text Sources: “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” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2019

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