Short-Term Buddhist Monk And Nun Ordinations

What is it like to be a Buddhist monk or nun for a couple of weeks or months? What could you learn from it? Are there truly any advantages to be a monastic for the serious spiritual seeker?

In this article we'll examine the very heart of Buddhism, its monastic community. I'm sure you have seen photos of Buddhist monks and nuns in colorful robes, perhaps looking peaceful, perhaps smiling; but what is hiding behind this romantic image of Buddhist monastics, and what would it be like to be in their shoes?

Along my spiritual path, I have ordained three times. First in the UK, then in Thailand and Malaysia. All the ordinations were in different Buddhist traditions.

The first one was in the Thai Forest Tradition, the second one in a Thai city monastery and finally in the Burmese Mahasi tradition.

Drawing on the above experiences and the time I have spent in Buddhist monasteries as a layman, let me share my personal reflections with you...

Buddhism In The East And West

Buddhism has much to offer the sincere spiritual seeker. For one, its monks and nuns have cultivated meditation and morality for over 2500 years. Imagine the wealth of wisdom and know-how that is kept alive by Buddhist communities around the world.

On the other hand, Buddhism in the West is still in its infancy. To the very best of my knowledge, the first Buddhist monastery in the West was established in Scotland, in 1967. It belongs to the Tibetan Black Hat Sect.

Buddhist countries in Asia are filled to the brim with Buddhist culture while the West has been steeped in Christian conditioning. Moreover, it's no secret that the East is more religious than the West.

Often times you can ordain on the spot in Asia, while you may have to wait for over a year in the West. In Western countries, the Buddhist monasteries want to make sure you will fit in and that you are familiar with the monastic lifestyle before ordaining.

The first time I ordained was in the UK. So, rather than ordaining as a junior monk, who wears a robe, I was ordained into white clothes, which is a form of preparation for monk and nun ordinations.

Another fact that should not be overlooked, is that overall Western nations are more developed than Eastern countries. As a result, the vast majority of Asians ordain for socio-economic reasons. In short, it's a way out of poverty.

Other reasons for ordaining, which applies to both the East and West, include escapism, striving to overcome unhappiness and having a deep interest in spirituality.

Monastics who have ordained for the wrong reasons, generally take little or no interest in the meditation and moral practices. Therefore, they may come across as somewhat unskillful.

One more example. Monks in many Buddhist countries go for alms round in the morning, which is not practiced in the West or in Muslim countries, such as Malaysia.

It's clear that Buddhism in the East and West are really different.

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What Can You Learn From Ordaining?

Monks and nuns are highly respected in Buddhist society. In the Southeast Asian traditions, the monks enjoy much higher status than the nuns. This is the way it was during the time of the Buddha, over 2500 years ago. While the monks and nuns are more or less equal in the Tibetan and Japanese traditions.

Whoever ordains will be treated with great respect, which is likely to inflate your ego. You may think that you are purer and more important than lay people. This is an obstacle on the spiritual path which is about cultivating mindfulness and selflessness, or phrased differently, it's about exploring truth and reality.

You will soon discover that most monastics are not great meditators, peaceful and happy. I have to point out though, that I have lived with many helpful and kind monks and nuns, particularly round Southeast Asia.

Furthermore, monasteries house personal conflicts not unlike any other human community. Every monastery has its oddballs that are unwilling to let go of their personal preferences and unskillful behavior.

Ordaining means you will lead a religious life. That includes chanting, which is a form of prayer, and attending religious ceremonies like funerals.

It's not any easier to meditate for a monastic than what it is for a layman, ordination doesn't automatically empower you. You will also realize that it's the mind that meditates, not your religious name, your tradition or your exotic robe.

In truth, there is nothing mystical about being a Buddhist monk or nun. The magic is in the mind. Practice well and you will see for yourself.

As a short-term monk or nun you will learn a lot about monastic life. You will attend the community meetings and partake in the everyday activities.

In Thailand, I've seen monks that ordained for less than a day. Buddhists believe that ordaining is a highly meritorious deed, since it ultimately could lead to enlightenment.

Further, they believe that the merit can be shared with others such as their parents and deceased relatives, which would benefit from it in future lives. Please note that these are religious beliefs.

During a meditation retreat in Malaysia, I ordained as a junior monk which follows a set of 10 rules, called precepts, as opposed to the 227 rules the fully-ordained monks live by.

In my experience, it's mostly a disadvantage to ordain for a retreat. One of the main reasons being that it takes time to get used to your robe, which is like an awkward long skirt. It can be tricky at first to sit down on the floor and to get back up on your feet, without messing up the robe.

In the short term, the robe becomes a rather big distraction. Further, monks draw plenty of attention which is bound to make you self-conscientious. People are likely to want to talk to you, while it's easier for a lay meditator to avoid conversation.

You are also expected to behave appropriately round your seniors. It's a real challenge to be mindful and to focus on your meditation practice when there are many new things to get used to.

Consequently, my retreat as a junior monk didn't result in a lot of progress. It's better to ordain in a community that is not in ongoing retreat.

What is more, as a monk or nun you normally get access to a wider variety of food and drinks. You may be offered nicer facilities as well. That could be an air-conditioned room and a hot water shower. However, these added comforts may hamper spiritual progress.

In conclusion, it's a great experience to ordain temporarily as a Buddhist monk or nun, but as far as the spiritual practice goes, there is no advantage over being a dedicated lay meditator.

Best of luck!

Related:   Monk In Thailand   Buddhist Non-Attachment   I'm Spiritual

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