Buddhist Monks and Nuns

Details and Origins

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.

Buddhist Monks and Nuns: Nonviolence?

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: 

  • Self Immolation: Even though all violence, including violence against oneself, is considered wrong in many forms of Buddhism, it was historically a form of martyrdom in which the self was sacrificed for some great cause. It could take the form of walking off a cliff or ritually disemboweling oneself, but self immolation is most commonly associated with suicide by fire these days. In modern times, it has become a form of political protest. One well-known example is Tibetan monks protesting Chinese oppression — more than 120 burning themselves in protest just in the last several years, a practice the Dalai Lama has praised, if not encouraged. The Lotus Sutra’s Medicine King also ritualistically engaged in this practice to spread the light of the Dhamma. 
  • Nepalese Buddhist Nuns Fight Human Trafficking: Buddhist nuns in Kathmandu responded to the problem of girls from poor, uneducated families being “married off” as young as 12 and landing in brothels at home and abroad, particularly across the border in India by creating the Dhamma Moli project. They go to the families of girls in in-danger communities and arrange to bring them to their monastery to be educated and learn basic life and work skills that give them other options — the ultimate in practical, peaceful protest against injustice.
  • The appearance of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian militance in Sri Lanka: Members of the Buddhist Brigade (Bodu Bala Sena), led by Buddhist monks, organise to boycott Muslim businesses and critique Muslim customs, most especially halal slaughter of animals. They were arrested for violating antiterrorism laws and accused of destroying the worship places of Sri Lanka’s faith minorities (Sri Lanka has a Buddhist Sinhalese majority of around 69%). Between 2009 and 2013 the Buddhist Brigade, including monks, has been involved in a disputed number of attacks on Christian and Muslim individuals, numbers ranging anywhere from government figures of 61 to civilian estimates of up to 300.
  • The so-called Saffron Revolution of 2007 in Myanmar (Burma): This nonviolent civil protest against the military dictatorship in Myanmar was led by thousands of Buddhist monks (who wear red robes there, not saffron). Large numbers of citizens, both men and women, participated. The immediate catalyst was the dictatorship’s removal of fuel subsidies — a big deal, considering Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world.
  • Mob violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (Burma): The 969 movement, containing both monks and Buddhist laity, seeks to stamp out what they perceive as threats coming from the destitute Muslim minority known as the Rohingyas, who are denied Burmese citizenship. Although a leading monk connected with the movement, U Wirathu, denies inciting violence directly, he was arrested for it and later released. He is at least indirectly connected due to the graphic billboards and sermon reminders of the Muslim “threat,” and some monks were certainly participants in the mob violence at Rohingya that resulted in the deaths of 200 Muslims and the displacement of many more locals, mostly Muslims.

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

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