What does a Buddhist monk do?


There is a recent surge of attention towards Buddhism in recent times. As a result, you may have observed the ascetic lifestyle of Buddhists monks. Now, you may be wondering, “what does a Buddhist monk do?”. Thus, what are their contributions to the growth of Buddhism?

A Buddhist monk otherwise known as the Bhikkhu in Pali or Bhiksu in Sanskrit can never be written off in the practice of Buddhism. Hence, the Buddhist monks help to preserve the monastic orders in Buddhism. The roles and observations of the monks came from the Buddha himself. In general, these roles are contained in the Vinaya-Pitaka. Consequently, the monks follow the Vinaya for their monastic activities.

Basically, this page explains how the Buddhist monastic order originated. And, most importantly, the basic activities of the monks.

The Origin Of the Monastic Order In Buddhism

The Buddha originally ordained the first set of Bhikkhus. At this time, there was no specific ceremony or procedure for ordaining. Perhaps, this is because the Buddha needed help in presenting his new path to the audience. However, as time passed, the number of followers the Buddha had increased. As a result, he established a number of rules for ordaining new Bhikkhus.

This rule also recognized the Buddha’s absence. Thus, even without the Buddha himself, the elder Bhikkhus may ordain new Bhikkhus into the order.

The rules also pointed out an important observation. That is, during the ordination of new Bhikkhus, the fully ordained senior Bhikkhus must be present. Similarly, also during the ordination of Bhikkhunis, the fully ordained bhikkhunis in addition to the Bhikkhus must be present. The Buddha used this to form a kind of lineage tradition that is unbroken. Thus, every ordination goes back to the historical Buddha.

Today, the practitioners of Buddhism still abide by these rules. However, there are always exceptions. That is to say, some monastic orders claim to have deviated from the lineage tradition. But, then, others still practice it fully.

Theravada Buddhism is a branch of Buddhism known to still maintain the lineage tradition of ordination for Bhikkhus. However, this no longer applies to Bhikkhunis. Therefore, it is quite difficult to witness a full ordination of Bhikkhuni in the Theravada tradition. Basically, this is because there is no fully ordained Bhikkhuni to be present at the ordination of new Bhikkhunis.

The Place Of Buddhist Monks In the Triple Gem

The Triple Gem includes the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. These are the Buddhists object of reverence. In addition, you can refer to them as the Three Jewels. Certainly, they are very important to a Buddhist seeking absolute enlightenment.

In the Triple Gem, the Buddha refers to the teacher, the Dharma refers to the teachings of the Buddha, and the Sangha refers to the community of monks. Of course, the Sangha includes fully ordained Bhikkhus and Bikkhunis. They are the true practitioners of Buddhism. Hence, they devote themselves fully to Buddhism.

The Sangha preserve the teachings of the Buddha and generally pass down these teachings. Moreover, the Triple Gem serves as a central point in truly understanding Buddhism. And, also in the passing down of the teachings.

Taking refuge in these Three Jewels makes one an official Buddhist. As a result, this involves a ceremony where the participants are officially pronounced Buddhists.

The Buddhist Monks Ordination Procedure

Most Buddhist monastic orders observe a kind of ordination involving two stages. As a result, there exist two ordination ceremonies for Buddhist monks.

At first, there is a novice ordination. This is the ordination ceremony which involves usually young people. At least, a child participating in the novice ordination should be up to eight years of age. Most times, Buddhists refer to this first ordination as going forth. Or, on the other hand, as home leaving. Most of all, this ordination does not require a commitment for life. Instead, one can always return to a lay life if he wishes to not continue.

However, if an ordained novice monk continues in this path until the age of twenty and above, he has the right to make a request for full ordination. Hence, full ordination is the second kind of ordination ceremony. This ordination ceremony requires the observation of the lineage tradition. That is to say, a fully ordained monk must be present for the ordination.

Also, just like the novice ordination, the ordained monk can still choose to return to lay life. A typical example is the sixth Dalai Lama. He chose to return to lay life renouncing his ordination. Even at that, he still retained the Dalai Lama.

Basically, in some traditions such as the Theravada tradition, young boys take up novice ordination for at least a few days. This is usually as a part of service to the monastic order.

Rules For Buddhist Monastic Orders

The Buddha made rules for the monastic orders to follow. Generally, he enshrined these rules in the Vinaya-Pitaka. The Vinaya is one part of the three baskets of the Tipitaka.

There are variations in the Vinaya-Pitaka. This is as a result of preserving the Vinaya by various sects under the different schools of Buddhism. Also, some Buddhist schools do not follow the Vinaya completely any longer. The reason is specific to the schools.

Some of these variations explain why some Buddhist monks in a sect may marry, but, others may not. Of course, generally, the Vinaya has it that the Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis remain celibate. However, today Buddhist monks in Japan for instance marry. This is a consequence of revoking celibacy in Japan in the 19th century by the then Emperor.

The Life of Buddhist Monks – how they operate

During the time of the Buddha, the monks had to survive through begging for alms. Hence, they do not work in order to feed. Instead, they depend on the alms given to them by the public.

The monks, however, spend most of their time in meditation and studying the path of enlightenment. Thereby, they mostly live a secluded life.

Today, the Buddhist monks practice of alms begging still exist within the Theravada tradition. In other words, the monks still depend on gifted items to live. Also, here, housekeeping is a job for the novice Bhikkhunis. Most of the time, these Bhikkhunis do not hope to attain the level of a fully ordained Bhikkhuni. This is because of the observance of the lineage ordination tradition. Hence, there is no fully ordained Bhikkhuni to be present for the ordination.

However, on the other hand, Buddhists under the Mahayana tradition make their monasteries independent. That is to say, their monasteries are self-sufficient as much as it could be. They provide their food and do the housekeeping as part of their monastic training. Hence, no work is left to the novice monks alone. This practice came into existence as Buddhism met with a culture that does not accommodate begging. Mostly, this is the practice in China.

Buddhist Monks of Recent Times

As Buddhism is traveling the world, it mixes with various cultures. Consequently, you are likely to see a Buddhist monk with a job outside the monastery. Not only that, but they can also live outside the monastery and live with their families and children. An example of the Buddhist Sect practicing this is the Tibetan Buddhists. More so, the Buddhists in Japan also have these attributes.

Do Buddhist Monks Officiate the Practice of Buddhism?

Actually, the Buddhist monks only focus on the path of enlightenment. That is to say, they devote themselves to the path of meditation, discipline, and morals. Their goal is to achieve awakening just like the Buddha himself.

The monks do not function as priests. Therefore, they do not officiate the practice of Buddhism in any way. More so, they do not serve as a mediation between the lay community and any divine being. Of course, they do not even link them to the Buddha. On the same note, monks do not perform rituals of salvation. They only focus on the path of liberation.

Why Did the Buddha Choose Monastic Lifestyle for the Monks?

To focus on the path of enlightenment, one requires a serene and quiet environment. Most importantly, he needs to be free from external distractions and pressures. Also, he will need enough time for himself. Thus, for his monks to be right on track, the Buddha introduced the monastic life. Hence, the need for monks to live and work together.

By so doing, the monks will be able to achieve pure conduct, be mindful always, contemplate clearly, and surely, attain awareness. Basically, the monks may find it difficult to attain this kind of lifestyle living a household life. Hence, the need for the monastic life.

Buddhist Monks and the Monasteries

A Buddhist monastery is a place for the monks to stay and focus on the path of awakening. As a result, the monks live here, meditate, and perform their duties here. Usually, there is no leadership in the Buddhist monastery. The monks run the monastery for themselves.

The monasteries consist of a major hall for prayers and small living spaces for the monks. Other important spaces in the monastery include a library, room for symbolic statues, crematorium, and school rooms. Some major monasteries are magnificent. However, some others are still simple and especially found in the villages.

Monasteries in Buddhism are always open to the public. As a result, the lay community is free to visit at any time. More so, they have the freedom to live in the monastery for some time. Even at this, a Buddhist monastery is not a center of worship. Instead, it is a place for the devotees of Buddhism to come together for the common purpose of driving toward enlightenment.

The monks run the monasteries basically from the support and donations of the lay community. Also, the monasteries can gain favor after the monks preside over some important public ceremonies.

Buddhist Monks Among the Society

The people have great respect for the monks. As a result, they tend to help the monks as much as they could. Thus, in the Buddhist society monks may transport free in trains and even buses. They also get free food, robes, medicine and other added benefit from the public.

Of course, the monks depend much on the lay community. They do not work nor get paid for their monastic activities. Above all, they renounced social life and family life altogether. Hence, they devote fully to the practice of Buddhism. Therefore, the people who trust in the Dharma provides for them.

All these apply to a typical Buddhist community. Hence, every family has a member usually a male who is a mono. Or, at least, was a monk at a time.

While most Buddhist monks live in monasteries, in Tibetan Buddhism and few other Sects, monks sometimes live as hermits. That is to say, they move to caves where available. Or, on the other hand, they move to remote huts as a form of retreat. There, they focus mainly on meditation.

Monkhood and Returning to Lay Life

After Ordination, a monk can serve for as long as he wishes. There is no obligation to serve for a lifetime. In general, not many monks serve as monks for life. However, those do may later become teachers and scholars. Others may engage in other things such as presiding over burials.

A monk can leave the monkhood anytime and return to lay life. Often times, young boys in Southeast Asia serve as monks for a short while and return back to their normal lifestyle. They do this usually as a rite marking their coming of age.

Sometimes, parents take their stubborn and undisciplined children to the monasteries. Of course, if observe the monk rules for a while, they should behave right.

The Important Habits of Buddhist Monks

To be a Buddhist monk requires the observation of certain rules. Hence, they usually form a set of habits. These habits may appear difficult to observe. However, they are really what makes the monks different. Thus, here are common habits among Buddhist monks:

Minimal Material Possessions

Buddhist monks just like the Historical Buddha abandon material possessions. They only keep those things they really need for survival. Anything more than that appears as a weight holding them back from enlightenment. Above all, the Buddha pointed out the frustration that comes with material possessions. Hence, the need for monks to de-clutter their lives in order to focus.

This is the outer-decluttering lifestyle of Buddhist monks.

Caring More For Others

Buddhist monks learn to do most things in favor of the world at large instead of focusing on themselves.

As a result, their meditation is to Cultivate compassion for everyone. More so, they strive to attain enlightenment just so they could help others in need.

As they do this, they pay less attention to their personal problems. Therefore, there would not be much to worry about. Hence, they develop a calm mind.

When the monks dump personal matters and create a space for accommodating others, they are practicing inner-decluttering. This basically gives rise to self peace.

Frequent Meditation

Of course, monks focus more on daily meditation as part of the process of awakening. After all, it was during meditation that the Buddha awakened. Hence, meditation is a major habit of monks.

This practice makes the monks more conscious of their surroundings. Also, they gain inner peace and other benefits attributed to meditation.

Living Here and Now

Buddhist monks do not wander in an unchangeable past. Also, they do not worry about a future they cannot get hold of. Instead, they live their lives within the moment.

As a result, they are able to focus on the present and tackle the issue at hand. The monks are able to do so by developing mindfulness through meditation. Consequently, they eliminate the suffering brought by worry and desire.

This may appear difficult. However, through constant meditation, one can achieve it.

Not Judging Anyone

Monks do not judge anyone for any reason. This also includes themselves. Basically, Buddhist monks see no point in judging anyone when the goal is to help reduce world sufferings.

As a result, instead of passing judgment, they remain mindful of every situation. Hence, they just observe.

It is natural for the human mind to judge. However, mindfulness is a state free of judgment. And, one can attain such a state through mindful meditation.

One Thing at a Time

Buddhist monks channel their focus on a particular course at a time. That is to say, they give absolute attention to what is happening at the moment.

By so doing, they are able to adequately attend to whatever they engage in. Moreover, focusing on one thing at a time tend to produce better results.

Giving All They Got

When a Buddhist monk meditates, he puts all of himself in the activity. This they do also for all the activities they perform. Basically, they avoid any distraction and embrace concentration.

This does not mean that they create stress for themselves. Or, work in a bitter manner. Instead, they work with peace of the mind and focus on the task at hand. This is more like focusing on one thing at a time, but then, they do what it takes to achieve their goals.

Not Attaching Themselves to Things

This habit is a very big part of a Buddhist monk’s life. Hence, Buddhist monks let go of things they cannot influence.

They avoid attachments to things of the world that creates suffering. Moreover, everything in life is impermanent and always changing. Thus, attaching to them means going against nature. Of course, doing so will lead to suffering.

Therefore, it is better to let go of things and be free.

Last Thoughts

In Buddhism, the relevance of monks cannot be overemphasized. As a result, this page covers all you need to know about the Buddhist monks, their lifestyle, and the monastic orders.

In general, if the lives of Buddhist monks interests you, then you are sure to keep this page handy. Of course, we already answered the question “what does a Buddhist monk do?”