Having Buddhist monks and nuns and their monastic communities living in houses of faith separate from regular people was a fairly natural progression from the wandering ascetics and sadhus of earlier Hinduism. It is central to Buddhism.
What do they do: In Buddhism, monks and nuns are responsible for preserving their core teachings and communicating them to laypersons, helping them on the path of Dhamma / Dharma.
Where they live: Historically, Buddhist monks and nuns have lived in two types of dwellings: temporary houses called vihara, in which more than one monk lived, but each with his own individual cell; and more permanent, comfortable houses donated by more wealthy people, which often include gardens for meditation. In any case, monks and nuns tend to live in communities separated from laypersons, but not isolated from them.
Monasteries in India: A couple of well-known Buddhist monasteries in India include the impressive Namdroling Monastery in Karnataka, Bodh Gaya in Bihar, and the Tibetan Buddhist community in exile in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, where there are several monasteries. However, there are many more besides.
What they live by: The Vinaya Pitaka of the Tripitaka (Buddhist holy scriptures) prescribes 227 rules for monks (bhikkshu) to live by and more for the nuns (bhikkshuni). Sects outside of the Theravada / Hinayana group may have different or additional rules that apply.
How long are their vows for? It is unusual for Buddhist monks and nuns to take a lifetime vow. In some places in the Far East, a monk’s vows may be as short as a week or a month. Usually, it is for a period of years, after which the individual may resume a nonmonastic way of life. Males may take vows multiple times between the ages of 7 and 70, if they still meet the requirements, but females may normally take vows only once. This is usually done as an adult, since they are not expected to participate in monasticism as children.
Structure: Buddhist monasteries don’t follow the same rigidly hierarchical structure Christian monasteries do. Individual Buddhist monks and nuns give respect to their seniors and teachers, but they make decisions collectively, even for matters of discipline. (In Thailand, where there was a tradition of royalty engaging in temporary monasticism, the structure has had more of a hierarchy than in other places.) A vow of obedience isn’t central to their practice.
Who becomes a monk or nun: This varies from place to place and sect to sect, but it has been fairly common for ordinary people, especially men, to serve as a monk for some period of time to gain merit and a better understanding of Buddhism. Before the Chinese Communist government occupied Tibet, around 50 percent of Tibetan men customarily served as a monk at some point. Males tend to ordain younger than females, but usually no younger 8 years old. Females are usually adults before entering as a novice, or samanera, and have a longer period of novitiate than males do.
Diet and Lifestyle: Many Buddhist monks and nuns are vegetarians, but certainly not all. Tibetan monks, for example, are traditionally vegetarian; however, many now eat meat since their region and climate aren’t supportive of an exclusively plant-based diet. In general, monks and nuns live a life of simplicity, maintaining few possessions and having only three robes apiece. Among Theravadas, monastics may still be seen carrying their traditional begging bowls, but this is becoming less and less common, especially among those of other sects and those who live in urban areas. Nowadays, monasteries tend to accept donations of bulk food instead.
Marriage vs. Celibacy: Most Buddhist monks and nuns live in separate communities with others who have taken vows and only marry when they have completed their time and leave the monastery. However, in China, some monks and nuns live in shared communities, while in Japan Buddhist monks and nuns may marry after they have taken their higher-order vows and become full-fledged bhikkshu or bhikkshuni.
In general, yes — nonviolence is a central principle in the Buddhist faith. When most people think of Buddhism, that’s probably one of the first things that comes to mind.
That said, nonviolence hasn’t been universal. Buddhist monks in East and South Asia were key in the development of martial arts like kung fu. Buddhist kings and queens have historically gone to war, as with King Dutugamanu of Sri Lanka1. Even the mythical Chakravartin mentioned in the Kalachakra Tantra in Tibetan Buddhism displays aspects of both peaceful world ruler, before whose radiance they yield without battle, and the warlike “wheel turner” who conquers the world and establishes a theocracy with Buddha in place of God.
It is perhaps this sort of divergence between the peaceful norm and the sometimes-undercurrent of militance that best describes the mixed bag of peaceful protest and shocking violence we see happening sometimes in the news. Here are a couple of examples of each type:
However, Buddhist leaders, including the Tibetan Dalai Lama (who has no direct authority over the other sects), have criticised the instances of Buddhist extremism as counter to the explicit call to nonviolence central to Buddhist scriptures.
"Respect all religions and also respect non-believers, and no preference, this religion, that religion, but rather respect all religions and also include non-believer.”
~The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso