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A Guide for Laypeople

Beginners Questions

This section illustrates the origins of this book, for it is a selection of the unedited questions that were first sent to me. I have decided to make it an entry point for those people completely new to the Vinaya Rule rather than relegate it to an appendix (or omit it altogether). The answers often repeat or point to information contained later in the full text. Those people already familiar with the rules can skip these Beginners and Frequently Asked Questions and go to the relevant section for more details.

Q 1: "Why does a monk wear the robe? Why do some wear brown robes and others wear yellowish brown?"

A: The Lord Buddha gave this reflection about why a monk wears a robe:

"Properly considering the robe, I use it: simply to ward off cold, to ward off heat, to ward off the touch of flies, mosquitoes, simply for the purpose of covering the parts of the body which cause shame."

(OP p.46)

In the Lord Buddhas time, 2,500 years ago, clothing[1] was made without complex machinery. (Although simple sewing frames are mentioned in the texts, which the monks would have used at robe making (Ka.thina) time.) So the pattern of the robe is very simple and designed so that it can be made up out of patches of cloth, for discarded rags were often used after washing and dyeing.

This yellow robe is considered the banner of the arahant and emblem of Buddhism. For the ordinary Theravaadin bhikkhu it is a privilege to be able to wear this robe, continuing the tradition and practicing to be worthy of it. There are rules as to the robes size, color, how they are sewn, type of cloth used, etc., and how bhikkhus can acquire them. (See The Robe.)

The color of the robes depends on the dye used. Until very recently, this would have been natural vegetable dye found in the jungle from roots or trees. (In NE Thailand, for example, we used the heartwood of the jack fruit tree.) Nowadays chemical dyes are more used and sometimes give that more vivid orange color that one sees in Bangkok.

The color white is used by Buddhist devotees to show their commitment to keeping the Precepts — usually the Eight Precepts — on Observance Days. (White robes are also worn by the anagarika, or postulant before he becomes a monk.)

Q 2: "Why do monks eat from the bowl? Can lay people serve soup to monks in normal bowls? Can they serve fruits or desserts on plates instead of putting them in the monks bowl?"

A: The Lord Buddha gave this reflection about finding and eating food:

"Properly considering alms food, I use it: not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on weight, nor for beautification; but simply for the survival and continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the chaste life, (thinking) I will destroy old feelings (of hunger) and not create new feelings (from overeating). Thus I will maintain myself, be blameless, and live in comfort."

(OP p.46)

The alms bowl is another practical symbol of Buddhism, and, like the robes, another requisite of the bhikkhu. Although every bhikkhu is given an alms bowl (and a set of robes) when he becomes a monk, not all of them will actually go on an alms round and only a minority — usually they are the forest meditation bhikkhus — will eat from their bowl sitting on the floor. Therefore many monks will eat using plates and dishes, while some will eat sitting on the floor at a small table and others at a normal western style table. One should not feel shy about asking a monk as to his normal way of eating and then fit in with that.

Those forest bhikkhus who keep the austere practices (dhuta"nga or tudong) [2] will be stricter about only using one eating vessel. This can simplify life and remind the bhikkhu that although food is necessary for bodily health he does not have to indulge in an obsession with taste. (It also saves washing up time.)

Q 3: "Why do monks live in the forest?"

A: In India during the Lord Buddhas time much of the land was covered in forests and groves and this was where the wandering mendicants of the different orders would pursue their religious practices. The Lord Buddha spoke of the foot of a tree as the basic shelter for bhikkhus, and this is usually still affirmed to every newly ordained bhikkhu. Later, monasteries were established and well endowed, and the focus shifted to a more settled life. Mostly only the forest monks now live in the forest where it is quiet and conducive to meditation. Many more monks will live in the village monastery or go to a monastery in the town to study the scriptures.

The Lord Buddha said this about the basics of shelter, whether in the forest or city:

"Properly considering the lodging, I use it: simply to ward off cold, to ward off heat, to ward off the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun and reptiles; simply for protection from the inclemencies of weather and for the enjoyment of seclusion."

(OP p.46)

Q 4: "How does one who wants to become a monk find out how to go about getting the robe and bowl, etc.?"
Q 5: "What is the procedure for a lay man to ordain?"
Q 6: "How does one who wants to sponsor any newly ordained monk/nun with the necessities go about doing so?"
Q 7: "How does a teacher assess and decide if one is suitable for ordination?"

A: In fact getting the robes and bowl is not so much a problem for once the candidate is accepted by a preceptor, the preceptor will know where suitable requisites may be found. The question should be more about the qualities necessary to become a monk and I have explained some of these in the section on Becoming a Bhikkhu.

If the candidates intention is right and he is not disqualified by other factors, he should find a senior monk who can advise him on the places where he might ordain and perhaps recommend him to a preceptor. If the candidate lives in a non Buddhist country, he can write for details to the country where he is interested in staying. Bhikkhus are often traveling and giving Dhamma talks around the world and they would generally be very happy to make suggestions about this.

In certain communities there is a postulancy period when the candidate first wears white robes as an anagarika[3] and after a year (or two) may then be given either novice (saama."nera) or full bhikkhu ordination. Once he is accepted for this, all the requisites should be provided. (In some monasteries the candidate is provided with the cloth but has to learn to sew his own robes.)

Similarly for the lay person wanting to help supply requisites to the new monk, the best way is to ask details from a senior monk who will explain and help. In some Buddhist countries there are even special shops to supply these requisites but whether this is suitable will depend on the monastery of ordination.

Also, see the book Ordination Procedure and the Preliminary Duties of a New Bhikkhu.

Q 8: "How does a lay woman ordain? Does she become ordained only by bhikkhunii?"

A: The Theravadin lineage no longer has an officially recognized bhikkhunii ordination. There are other forms for lay women that still involve leaving the home life and keeping Eight or Ten Precepts as a dasasiila mata nun. Finding a suitable place is quite difficult but several groups are trying to develop places conducive to Dhamma practice for such nuns. (For example, Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England; see also Buddhist Nuns.)

Q 9: "Instead of letting the monks go on alms round during rainy days, can the lay people request to bring daana [the food offering] to the monks?"

A: Some bhikkhus take a daily alms round as a special practice (dhuta"nga or tudong) and will normally always want to go. Many other monks will be happy to receive food brought to them. Please ask or observe how the monk practices. There is no harm in offering to bring the food, for if the monk prefers to walk on an alms round he can explain about that.

Q 10: "Is there a minimum and maximum number of layers [of clothing] a monk can wear? Does the rule alter with the weather?"

A: There is a minimum in that the bhikkhu must be properly and modestly dressed, especially in public. (See Socializing and Wrong Resort and End Notes 70 and 71.) During the cold season in India, the Buddha allowed a double layered outer robe (sa"nghaati) to be used and so — using the Great Standards[4] as a guide — in even colder climates extra layers may be allowable. In countries where hypothermia may be a danger, the use of extra layers seems sensible — especially if this cuts down on heating and medical expenses. (That a bhikkhu lives as frugally as possible is a major aspect of the Vinaya.) However, it is generally felt very important that the traditional robes remain the basic dress and extra layers should not obscure this.

Q 11: "Is it [acceptable] that the ordained one requests some basic necessities such as food, drink, medicine, shelter, blankets, reasonable form of transport due to weakness (health reason)? How should one approach a monk or nun if one wants to offer necessities to them?"

A: There are definite conditions that allow a bhikkhu to ask for help. These would be when he is ill, or in danger, or when he has been formally offered help. See How to Help a Bhikkhu — Invitation for a fuller explanation.

Q 12: "Is it [acceptable] for one to offer basic necessities to monks or nuns without first asking them?"

A: Yes, generosity is a virtue highly praised by the Buddha and was often the first virtue he mentioned. It goes against the general modern selfish attitude of getting is better than giving and leads on to contentment and the calm that can lead to deep meditation and wisdom. So, if it makes one happy to make an offering then one can do so without asking first. However, the offering should also be endowed with wisdom so that one gives something that is useful and not beyond ones familys means.

Q 13: "Why do we bow to monks/nuns and the Buddha Statue?"

A: The yellow robe worn by monks is an emblem and reminder of the Triple Gem, as is the Buddha Statue. Therefore one is really bowing to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, not to some person or statue. There are two aspects to bowing — the bodily action and the mind. If one bows because it gives one the opportunity to demonstrate ones faith in the Triple Gem, because it seems the right thing to do, and because it leads the mind to calm, then it will be beneficial. If one bows without reason or because one feels that one must do so for appearances sake, then it is a rather empty gesture. (Even so ones appreciation can grow.)

When I bow three times to the Buddha Statue or to senior monks, I mentally recollect Buddho, then Dhammo and then Sa"ngho and also have mindfulness of the bodily posture as it bends forward and the head touches the floor. (See Etiquette and End Note 120) However, in Western countries this is often misunderstood and can be the source of quite a lot of embarrassment. It is up to the persons themselves to decide what is appropriate under the different circumstances.

Q 14: "Is it [acceptable] to put two hands together [in anjalii] when paying respect to monks/nuns and Buddha Statue, or should one bow to show more respect?"

A: One should show respect from ones heart in the way that seems best to oneself, recollecting the Triple Gem and doing it mindfully. No good monk (or Buddha statue) is going to take offence if one does not bow.

Q 15: "Why do monks shave their heads?"

A: When the prince who was to become the Buddha left his palace to seek a way beyond aging, sickness and death, it is said that one of the first things that he did was to "shave off his hair and beard and put on the yellow cloth." Buddhist monks always completely shave their head and beard, showing their commitment to the Holy Life (Brahmacariya) of one gone forth into the homeless life. (In India some ascetics tear out their hair, while others never touch it so that it becomes a tangled mass.)

A rule states that a bhikkhu should not allow his hair to grow beyond a certain length or time, so he will shave usually at least once a fortnight or month, sometimes more frequently. To do this he uses his razor, which is also one of his requisites.

Hair of the head (kesaa) is one of the five parts of the body mentioned in the ordination ceremony and is used to recollect the true nature of the body. The bhikkhu is also not allowed to dye or pluck out any gray hairs, for they are useful reminders of old age and impermanence. (Just consider how much time and money is wasted by people trying to make their hair remain beautiful and young looking.)

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Footnotes and references:


"In the Buddhas time, the style of clothing of one gone forth and that of a householder were very similar — a cloth around the waist and one across the shoulders... The only difference would be in the color, that is, ochre for one gone forth." (HS ch.8)


See Glossary.


He keeps the Eight Precepts, shaves his head and wears white robes.


These are the Guidelines that determine how a rule is applied under changed circumstances. See Modernization? The Great Standards.

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