From Samanera to Bhikkhu: The Life of a Traditional Theravada Monk


From Samanera to Bhikkhu:
The Life of a Traditional Theravada Monk

In this article we will explore the life of a traditional Buddhist monk, as seen through the eyes of a Theravada practitioner.  If you don’t know anything about Buddhism, I highly recommend you check out my article, “The Middle Way and the Turning of the Wheel” which will explain where this spiritual path came from, the varying branches of Buddhism, and the core tenets of beliefs.

For someone born in the countries of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos, where Theravada is the most prominent, life as a monk typically starts young.  I have chosen the Theravada branch of Buddhism for this article because it has the highest ratio of monk to total population than any other branch.  While laypersons can be Theravada practitioners, choosing the monastic life is seen as both a noble and respectable path.  For those that choose to remain laypersons, their life is lived with far less rules, but must still follow five core precepts in order to adhere to Theravada teachings:

  • Refrain from harming living beings.
  • Refrain from taking that which is not freely given.
  • Refrain from sexual misconduct.
  • Refrain from wrong speech such as lying, idle chatter, malicious gossip, and harsh speech.
  • Refrain from intoxicating drink and drugs.

In many cases, due to the poverty in these countries, parents cannot provide for all of their children and choose to give up their youngest son to a nearby monastery to become a samanera, which is a word used for a student who has not yet taken his vows and become a full-fledged monk.  Once he takes his vows and is ordained, he will then be known as a bhikkhu, a term used for male Theravada monks.  While girls can join female monasteries as nuns in Theravada Buddhism, they are less common and for that reason I will be focusing on only male initiates.

A Theravada monastery is known as a sangha and I will be using both terms interchangeably throughout this article.  Sanghas accept initiates of almost any age provided they are in good health.  Even people who are foreigners are permitted to join, and in modern times the monastic life is not one that must be chosen forever.  On the contrary, many men in countries like Thailand join a monastic order when they are young and spend less than five years of their life within a sangha before returning to civilian life.  Much in the same way people serve in their country’s military for a set number of years and then return to civilian life if they choose.

The process of becoming a traditional samanera as we will be exploring here, however, usually takes place when the child is old enough to perform essential personal functions for himself such as bathing, eating, using the bathroom, dressing himself, etc.  When a boy becomes a samanera he is typically between five and seven years of age, so in the United States imagine kindergartners.

Though certainly a shock to the system for any boy that age, being given to a sangha is hardly an act of heartless abandonment, nor are they held there against their will.  On the contrary, Theravada monasteries in these countries are held in high regard and monks are revered and respected for their piety, and it brings pride and honor to the families of the samanera if they choose to stay until they become a full bhikkhu.

A monk’s spiritual life begins years before he is formally recognized as a bhikkhu.  Before he can claim such a title he must first prove himself as a samanera within the sangha.  This process is called the Vinaya and is full of ritual, education, reading, chanting, doing chores, listening to dharma talks, transcribing sutras (also spelled sutta), visiting the nearby community with his alms bowl, memorizing and reciting the Vinaya Pitaka rules (also known as precepts and there are 227 of them!) eating only twice a day, sleeping, and repeating.

There are many sub-branches of Theravada and each has their own rules and teachings. In most cases, male and female samanera and bhikkhus are not allowed to intermingle or even speak to one another, hence the separate monasteries for each gender.  Theravada is the most orthodox branch of Buddhism and is the most strict, having more rules than any other branch.  If a samanera or bhikkhu breaks a rule or precept, it is known as pacittiya, and he must confess to other monks, or to an elder, or perform certain rituals or acts of cleansing, or if it’s bad enough he may be removed from the sangha completely.  As previously stated, the rules vary from sangha to sangha, but there are certainly some rather unusual rules for some monks to follow.

For instance, male samaneras and bhikkhus in some sanghas are not allowed to come into contact with any female who happens to be inside or even those outside of the sangha, and if they accidentally brush up against one while out in the community they must return to the sangha immediately and wash themselves and their robes, and undergo fasting.

In some sanghas, males are not allowed to pass beneath public clotheslines that have female clothing hanging on them.  Some sanghas require them to never eat gourds such as butternut squash or pumpkins, most cannot eat any food at weddings or funerals, nor eat left-overs, some cannot sit on ceramic urns, cannot tickle another person, cannot scare another monk with the idea of ghosts, cannot light a campfire if they are cold, cannot walk on their tip-toes, cannot lift their robe above their ankles, cannot sleep in beds that are up off the ground, they cannot cover their head or face, and the examples go on and on.

Learning the Vinaya and preparing to become a bhikkhu can go on for years, anywhere from two or more depending on the samanera’s ability to learn and practice the Vinaya Pitaka within the Pali Canon as well as other particular sections of the canon and Sutras within Buddhist scripture.

Once he is believed to be ready to become a bhikkhu, the process of ordination within each sangha may have its own specified rules, but a general example would consist of a samanera taking his vows by reciting the first ten precepts, reciting three sections of the Kammavaca (a monastic decree found within the Vinaya Pitaka), and answering fifteen questions honestly.  The ten precepts include the five I’ve already mentioned above that Theravada laypersons adhere to, but also includes the following five:

  • Refrain from consuming food between noon and dawn.
  • Refrain from dancing, singing, listening to music, and watching entertainment.
  • Refrain from wearing deodorant, cologne, and jewelry.
  • Refrain from sleeping in a bed that is lifted off the ground or has a box-spring mattress.
  • Refrain from accepting gold and silver (money).

The fifteen questions the samanera must answer honestly are as follows, and also included are the acceptable answers:

  • Do you have leprosy?  –  No
  • Do you have boils?  –  No
  • Do you have eczema?  –  No
  • Do you have tuberculosis?  –  No
  • Do you have epilepsy?  –  No
  • Are you a human being?  –  Yes
  • Are you a man?  –  Yes
  • Are you a free man?  –  Yes
  • Are you free from debts?  –  Yes
  • Are you free from government service?  –  Yes
  • Do you have your parents’ permission?  –  Yes
  • Are you at least 20 years of age?  –  Yes
  • Do you have your bowl and robes?  –  Yes
  • What is your name?  –  My name is Naga
  • What is the name of your preceptor (ordaining elder)?  –  Venerable Tissa

Clearly these questions do not apply to everyone, as a girl is also allowed to join a sangha and become a full-fledged nun, known as a bhukkhuni.  The age limit also does not always apply to new bhikkhus, as samaneras can begin their journey to the monastic life as young as five and can attain bhikkhu status within two years time (though such a feat would be astonishing).  All of these rules and questions may vary depending on the sangha administering ordination.  The names given in response above (Naga, Venerable Tissa) are traditional names used solely for the ceremony, and a permanent name will be bestowed upon the new bhikkhu after the completion of the ordination process by his teacher or the abbot/elder of the monastery.

At this point a samanera must surrender all possessions, including his street clothing.  From this point forward he cannot acquire anything by his own request, but can only receive objects and clothing as offerings from the community or his family.  By now he will have been given saffron (golden-orange) robes although some sanghas will allow the color maroon instead, they will receive a cloth belt (leather and other animal products are forbidden), a meditation mat, an alms bowl (beggar’s bowl), and depending on the sangha he belongs to he may also receive a cup, plate, two sleeping mats (one to be rolled up and used as a pillow), and a toothbrush.

His head will be shaved along with his eyebrows as a sign of devotion to the monastic life and the surrendering of the self (an act against the ego).  Individualism is frowned upon in monastic life because such things can breed envy and jealousy between bhikkhu, having a standard of conformity keeps the focus on dharma practice.

Renouncing one’s possessions, titles, and hair is a sign of piety in other branches of Buddhism including Mahayana and Vajrayana, as well in some Christian monasteries where tonsure is practiced.  A bhikkhu may continue to shave his head for as long as he remains a part of a sangha or he may only shave it for special ceremonies and occasions such as the anniversary of his ordination or on Buddha’s birthday.  These practices depend upon the rules established at the sangha.

You may wonder why eczema would be a disqualifying factor in becoming a bhikkhu, the reason for this is that it’s a medical condition that often requires treatment.  Part of becoming a Theravada monk requires you to give up all possessions which includes money and any non-essential hygiene equipment or medical supplies such as creams or ointments.

To avoid complications with these types of situations, those with pre-existing medical conditions or those who are quite elderly are dissuaded from joining.  When you belong to a sangha you cannot seek medical attention without first asking permission.  As you are not allowed to handle money, you cannot purchase medical supplies or medicine without permission from the elders in charge of the monastery.

All finances within a monastery are controlled by a chosen layperson.  Any required medical expenses for monks must be requested and the layperson will then cover the costs incurred by the monk.  This is one of the rare circumstances in which a monk is allowed to make a request, otherwise, any items received by a monk must be solely offered to them without the monk knowing about it beforehand.  For example, a monk cannot ask for a pair of sandals and is typically not given them by the monastery.  He can only attain them if a member of the local community offers them to him or a member of his family offers them.  The same goes for books, clocks, cloth used for robes, etc.

If a monk needs to travel somewhere they must be accompanied by a layperson, lay steward or what is known as an anagarika – someone who has given up their life to be a permanent attendant to the monks within a monastery.  An anagarika is required for traveling monks as they are not allowed to interact with women, make any type of monetary transaction or even touch money, and cannot order food or drink, request a ride from a taxi, or make any kind of requests from members of the community.

Once ordained the bhikkhu will continue to study the various sections of the Pali Canon and the many sutras.  The daily life of a Theravada monk is quite uneventful.  Much of their time is spent receiving or giving Dharma talks, attending secular classes to further their education (some even hold degrees), performing daily chores, traveling through the community from house to house in the morning seeking alms from the public, performing chants at weddings and funerals, performing chants at community events, practicing meditation, and reciting the precepts.

The average day for a traditional Theravada samanera and bhikkhu looks like this:

  1.  Wake up before sunrise, depending on where they are this can be as early as 4:00 AM.
  2.  For the next hour or so the monks will meditate and chant.  A samanera may practice memorizing the Vinaya Pitaka, while bhikkhus may continue studying the entire Pali Cannon.
  3.  Depending on the sangha, monks may brush their teeth before or after having morning tea.  Tea plays a big role in their lives, it is one of the few things they can drink throughout the day.  Part of the job of an anagarika or lay steward of the monastery is to assist elder bhikkhus in the preparation of tea and food for the sangha.  It’s interesting to note that Theravada monks, in the traditional sense, are not vegan, and only some are vegetarian.  In fact, some Theravada monks do eat meat if it is offered to them.  Consuming honey, milk, and cheese is a necessary part of the average monk’s daily life.
  4.  After morning tea they perform morning chores.
  5.  By 6:00 or 7:00 AM, they travel out into the local community to collect offerings with their alms bowels.  It’s important to note here that in some sanghas this is not performed every day, and in fact some retain storage rooms (sometimes off sangha grounds) of food supplies that have been donated to the monastery.  Because samaneras and bhikkhus are not allowed to accept more than they need, these donations are made to the anagarika or lay steward of the sangha who then in turn prepares and offers the food to the monks at breakfast and lunch.
  6.  At 8:00 AM they perform a ceremony and make a food offering to Buddha.  Followed by their own breakfast.  As with all aspects of their life, there are rules for how to eat and there are 30 of them ascribed by Buddha.  These rules range from not putting your fingers in your mouth to not touching your vessel of water with the same hand that you’re eating with, and not playing with your food.  Essentially these 30 rules can be allotted to the following:  Do not be rude, do not be messy, do not be greedy, do not be wasteful.
  7.  Afterwards they chant more verses of various Buddhist scripture.
  8. Between this point and noon, they will bathe and wash their robes.  Samanera will attend Dharma talks with elder monks and practice meditation and their chants.  Secular education is important in monastic life, both bhikkhu and samanera will attend classes led by elder bhikkhu and lay teachers.
  9.  At or near 12:00 PM, they will eat lunch, their last meal of the day.  Solid food after this time of day is forbidden.  They are permitted to drink coffee and tea, and consume cheese, honey and non-dairy chocolate as they are not considered staple foods.
  10.  From the afternoon until evening the monks will continue their personal studies, recite chants, memorize sections of the Pali Canon, meditate, perform chores around the sangha, take personal time, and retire for the night between 8:00 and 10:00 PM depending on the sangha.
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