The Following are some of the many selected questions that are posed to monks. The Monk tries to answer them all based on his understanding and experience.
1. Why have you become a monk?
This is a question that every monk, even once in life, would be asked. Once he dons that monk robe, he got to get ready an answer for this if he hasn’t yet. The Monk came to realize that this question is most likely to be posed to young monks by people who find the life of a monk strange enough for men with blooming youths. With every possible temptation laid out by the 21st century modernity, serious commitment to religious vows and practice just seem odd for young men who ought to be amusing themselves with numerous girlfriends and gadgets out there. To the Monk’s knowledge, it is only in Buddhism (Tibetan and Mahayana) one can find young monks as little as four years old, an age hardly enough to stay away from mother’s breast milk. In the Theravada Buddhist Sect, however, the minimum age limit to ordain a little boy is seven, an age dictated by the ancient Buddhist Scriptures as ‘just enough to scare away crows with the throw of a stone’. But what is common for every Buddhist sect is not ordaining a boy or a man into the Buddhist Monastic Sangha (Sangha is a word used to refer to the ordained members of Buddhism but in a broader sense, sangha can be used to refer to a ‘community’ i.e. the Buddhist followers) without the prior permission of the parents or guardians concerned.
The question of ‘why’ become a monk varies individually. Even the fundamental reason why boys and men become monks in traditional Buddhist societies varies drastically from that of people taking the robes in modern America and Europe. But generally, the following reasons, thoroughly researched out and listed by the Monk are the main ‘whys’ of becoming a monk:
1. In search of enlightenment: Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is said to be only twenty nine years old when he, as a youthful prince, stole away from his family and kingdom one mid night. Years later He told His disciples that He left his family and kingdom ‘in search of enlightenment’. Nearly hundred percent of His immediate monk disciples is a typical example of this nature. But the Monk would like to emphasize here that in the 21st century, ‘in search of enlightenment’ is certainly not the main reason why many monks became what they are. As a matter of fact, ‘in search of enlightenment’ has very little value, if at all, for majority modern monks. This hypothesis does, of course, leave out some exceptions. Take the example of the monk you know most – the Dalai Lama. Do you honestly think he became a monk ‘in search of enlightenment’? Of course not! That would be ridiculous to think so. At least that was not his original plan. He was simply MADE a monk under the pretext of being an incarnated Lama. Nobody is a born monk, anyway. But if you talk of Dalai Lama as an enlightened being now with wisdom and compassion; well, don’t you think ‘you’ would have been a Dalai Lama as well, having got the best possible training and care from childhood just the way he did? The point the Monk is trying to note here is that it is not common now, as you might think, to meet a monk who absolutely took up the robe ‘in search of enlightenment’ as his original purpose. If you ever meet a monk who claims to have become a monk for that very purpose, then he, for that very reason, is uncommon. But the Monk is aware of the fact that many monks would simply claim to be so when they actually are not, simply to preserve self-esteem because that was the original purpose of becoming a monk as strictly maintained and endorsed by the Buddha himself.
2. Broken heart, betrayal or the lose of a beloved person: This is something that a monk in question would never admit, not at least so easily. It is a strong tendency in Southeast Buddhist countries to believe that a girl or woman becoming a Buddhist nun means she got sacked by her boyfriend, got divorced or nobody would marry her. The Monk of course does not hold this pervert view. In times of extreme and desperate disasters, it is the nature of man to find solace in religion which offers psychological solace. In Buddhist society, such a man is most likely to take up the robe to try to escape such humiliation and sadness if he somehow manages to cross over the option of committing suicide. A monk of this nature is most likely to disrobe soon after he recovers.
3. Enough enjoyment with life, bored with partying and hassles of lay life and the fear of loneliness at old age: Monks of this category are at least 30+ who have had enough in lay life which includes sex, even married life (things a young monk tends to over fantasize), career and so on. If you ever meet a young monk under the age of 30 who turned out to be a monk since childhood, never assume him to be of this category. In fact, that monk is most likely to disrobe once he finds a proper opportunity and settle down with the kind of girl he has been meditating on since the moment he started smelling the temptation of feminity. The Monk considers the monks who became monks in their old age just to get proper care after spending all their energetic days running after money and women as ‘worn out carts deposited to the garage waiting for the right time to be disposed of’. Never approach such old monks (don’t think old is gold) if you are serious of meditation and Buddhist doctrines.
4. Temporary Monkhood: Temporary monkhood is widespread and popular in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, in parts of Buddhist dominated regions of India, Bangladesh, the Malay Peninsula and it is also seen in Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist societies, albeit not that common. The case of Sri Lanka is a bit different. The concept of temporary monkhood is not a practice in there. It is in fact disapproved of by Sri Lankan Buddhists. But nevertheless, temporary monkhood is sought mainly for three reasons: to mark the entry to adulthood (i.e. becoming a monk before marriage), to commemorate the Vesak (the Buddhist Xmas) and/or to accumulate so-called ‘merits’ which are then dedicated to one’s living or deceased parents or relatives. The duration of temporary monkhood may extend from three days up to three months; the standard being one week. The reason why Sri Lankan Buddhists disapprove of temporary monkhood is because, to them, it makes no sense to stay a monk for three days! After all, monkhood is for enlightenment and who on earth can attain enlightenment within three days! On the other hand, the non-Sri Lankan Buddhists argue citing one of Buddha’s statements that ‘a single day of diligent living with contemplation and kindness is better than living a hundred years without mindfulness and kindness’. However much appealing this argument may seem to be, the Monk wants to note here that temporary monks are in fact useless which is just a show off, because such monks either fail to receive an intensive mind and moral training within such a short time or simply choose to live their temporary monk life as the way they lived as lay – smoking, talking to girlfriends with mobiles (even seeing their girlfriends at night – something which the Monk witnessed), carrying iPods and the rest. The Monk was very surprised to observe such phenomena when he was studying in Thailand. The Monk also had the opportunity to observe another kind of temporary monkhood practiced in the remote parts of Bangladesh where after the death of a parent, it is a religious custom for a male child to become a monk for seven days to help the parent reborn in heaven. In Buddhist societies, the male child is believed to be the key to the door of heaven for the mother.
Usually such temporary monks are not allowed to go about in the public except for collecting alms; so most probably you may not be able to meet such monks unless you yourself go to meet them in the temples.
5. Economic Reason: This reason alone counts for the 70% + of the monks you meet or see today. It is an open claim in South and Southeast Asian Buddhist countries and societies that ‘monkhood is for the poor’. Indeed, no millionaires or their children would ever (not even by mistake) become monks. The case of every Thai king entering temporary monkhood is not out of will; it is a custom. Monks of this category mostly leave the robe once they are able to stand up financially. Enlightenment is far, far away from them. Majority of monks would never admit their humble roots for fear of losing their self esteem. If you ask a monk ‘why have you become a monk? ’, the most likely answer you would hear is ‘I want to study Buddhism and practice meditation and help other people from sufferings. This is why I became a monk’. This is ridiculous by the way. How many of them do really practice what they say is something that you got to experiment by yourself by living closely with them. The Monk finds it ridiculous even to comment on this point.
So the question of why somebody became a monk is anyone’s guess.
2. Can a monk disrobe?
Yes, he can disrobe whenever he wishes to do so. In fact, the percentage of monks disrobing is surprisingly very high. Let the Monk explain it a bit more. In the first question, it has been pointed out that Sri Lankan Buddhists do disapprove of temporary monkhood, which means that in their society anyone taking up the robe is for life. Disrobed persons are looked down upon with disgust and humiliation. Despite this cultural disapproval, a very high number of Sri Lankan monks do disrobe for various reasons, main one of which is worldly temptations (statistically, Sri Lankan monks population is never higher than 40,000 in contrast to countries like Thailand and Burma where the monk population is over 300,000). In contrast, it is very, very common in Thailand for monks to disrobe without any social or cultural hassles. Most interesting thing is that disrobed boys and men in Thai society are favored for marriage and civil services. The reason was explained to the Monk by a Thai ex-monk like this: ‘in modern Thai society, an average Thai male is violent, can be a drug addict, a gambler and so on. Someone spending long years in the monkhood cannot be and cannot certainly turn into a violent drug addict and the like. This is why a disrobed man is favored’. Interestingly, the Monk was also told by a group of young Thai girls that ‘a married life with a disrobed man would be tough because such a man, having spent years in monkhood with no contact with women, is simply non-caring, insensitive and inactive to women’s feelings’. The Monk thinks that the girls’ concern is indeed worrying because, in Buddhism, a monk is constantly trained to consider a woman as an obstacle to a man’s progress. A disrobed man is most likely to continue this trend against women including his wife/wives. The situation in Burma, Cambodia and Laos is not much different from Thailand. The case of the Chinese Mahayana monks is pretty pathetic because they become monks with a vow to be monks, not only for this life, but for lives to come! This is quite a long way off. To make things worse, Chinese Mahayana monks burn their shaven heads and bodies to make dotted spots – kind of visible symbols to say that he is a monk as long as the universe persists. Now these burnt dotted spots all over the visible bodily parts (mostly on top of the head and on the forearm) make it technically impossible for a monk to disrobe even if he regretted it at a later time of his life, because with such visible objects, he would be the easy target of ridicule and disgust. Nevertheless, such monks do still disrobe. In the Tibetan tradition, though the so-called incarnated enlightened lamas are considered to be born monks, the rate of disrobing among the ordinary Tibetan monks is not surprisingly low (history shows that even born monks i.e. incarnated lamas tend to disrobe). The Monk would like to end this note by emphasizing that there is no any religious crime if a monk decides to disrobe. In fact, it is recommended to disrobe rather than spoiling the monastic order if one were dissatisfied or unable to lead such a noble life. Buddha called disrobing as ‘going back to the lower life’ (family life is lower than a monastic life).
3. Why does a monk shave his head?
The Monk finds this question particularly interesting. Apparently, there is no religious injunction for Islamic Imams and Christian priests to shave their heads, whereas every Buddhist monk is required to shave his head either every fortnight or once a month. Buddhist monks in different Buddhist countries may wear different kinds of robes in different ways but what makes them common is that they all have to shave their heads. The Buddha is said to have used an oft-quoted phrase ‘having shaven the head and beard’ to indicate that a person has been baptized as a monk. His own entrance into monkhood is also marked by his ‘shaving head and beard’. But there is no any sort of official explanation of why a monk has to shave his head and beard. Perhaps, monks forgot or didn’t care at all to ask this question to the Buddha. However, the reasons are not that complicated to figure out why a monk shaves his head and beard (the beauty of Buddhism is that individual explanation can matter a lot in the absence of official explanation). The first assumption is that it was a common practice at the time. Hindu Brahmin priests shaved their heads at the time of their initiation into Brahmin priesthood. Likewise, many other different religious groups at the time shaved their heads to indicate that they have renounced the everyday world. Having been influenced by some common religious designations of the time, the Buddha must have simply followed the same. There was also an exception of hard-line religious people who practiced extreme asceticism which includes not shaving heads and beard for years (it is recorded that Buddha, when not yet enlightened, also practiced such asceticism but soon gave up realizing that that was not the way to enlightenment). But what’s interesting to note here is that during Buddha’s very lifetime, other religious people often ridiculed and verbally abused his monk disciples by calling them ‘bald-headed ascetics’ (used in an offensive way). Does it indicate that only Buddhist monks were bald-headed?
The second explanation is: a monk shaves his head to look ‘not nice’ because he is trying to be detached from attachment. The Monk derived this explanation from a story involving Buddha’s personal (monk) attendant named Ananda and a young girl. Ananda is recorded to have been a very handsome monk who was a heartthrob for many women whenever he went out for public alms collection. This particular young girl apparently fell in love with him and was on a hunger strike telling her mother that Ananda should be brought to her. To cut the story short, one night the mother managed to bring Ananda to their house but when he became aware of the purpose, he quickly escaped to the Buddha. The young girl soon followed him right up to the Buddha where Ananda was trembling for fear of being charged. When Buddha was informed of the happening, He is recorded to have said to the young girl, ‘why do you love my monk! He has no hair…’. By ‘he has no hair’ the Monk understands Buddha as saying Ananda was looking ugly because he was shaven headed. But anyhow, the question remains as to whether one really looks ugly shaven headed. As a matter of fact, the Monk is often told by young girls that monks look more cute with their shining shaven heads! And to add credence to this, nowadays shaving heads also has become a fashion especially because some football stars shave their heads like monks! But more or less, one of the original purposes of shaving the head was to lose beauty.
The Monk derived the third explanation from the point of view of Freudian psychology: monks shave their heads because it makes them look like babies, which then generates maternal instincts for devotees to support the monks thinking that ‘monks are like our children!’
The fourth explanation is when a monk shaves his head, it reminds him of his ‘defilements’ which are like his ‘hairs’ to be got rid of. Indeed, it is a practice not to shave one’s own head but to let another fellow monk shave it so that the monk being shaved can use this occasion to contemplate on the eradication of his defilements and visualize his fellow monk as his spiritual partner.
The fifth explanation is more practical. Why spend so much money and time designing your hairstyle when there are so many other useful businesses left to be done?
Perhaps it is all of the above five explanations why a monk shaves his head. In modern time, you might have met Tibetan and Chinese monks who have long hairs and beard. The reason was explained to the Monk by a Tibetan as ‘these monks are so busy meditating that they have no time to shave their heads and beard’. The Monk personally does not find this explanation appealing. In Thailand, monks are often called ‘calendar’ because monks there shave their heads once a month and when they do, people know it is full moon.
4. What does a monk wear under that long hanging robe?
The Monk is surprised at just how many people are curious to know what exactly a monk wears under his long hanging robe. An American lady who went to Thailand to tutor a group of young monks was surprised to see, for the first time, a monk taking his ringing mobile from inside his hanging robe! Ridiculous enough, sometimes a monk can be mistaken as an Indian lady just by the fact that the robe seems like a sari! The region where Buddhism originated is a tropical region which does not require much clothing. Moreover, in Indian philosophy, it is stated that one needs to discard belongings in order to be in a state of desireless. Hence, religious people tried to disown as many personal belongings as possible, to the extent that some extremist religious people like the Jainist ascetics wore nothing at all. Nakedness was never an option for the Buddha, however. The earliest prescription of clothing for a Buddhist monk was just a sarong-like under robe and the main robe to cover up the entire body which was needed to escape from the bites of mosquitoes, cold and heat, three factors which were common in a forest, a monk’s original home. Monks in tropical countries are still retaining this ancient set of clothing with the addition of an inner shirt covering the left shoulder but revealing the right and a waist belt to tighten up the under robe (underwear is not allowable, rather not prescribed for monks, though wearing underwear is a common practice for modern monks).The robe set of a Tibetan monk is very similar to that of the Theravada monk. What differs is the Tibetan monk’s main robe is shorter and smaller and the shirt covers both the shoulders. A Tibetan monk practically needed to cover both the shoulders because Tibet is the land of snow. Chinese, Korean and Japanese monks also adopted unique sets of robes suiting their respective climatic environments. Their dresses often contain elaborate designs and often a high ranking monk can be recognized by simply looking at his dress code. It is like the star ranking of the military. Generally and holistically, every modern monk wears an inner shirt which contains small pockets. Therefore, you should not wonder if you see a modern monk taking a mobile, an iPod or money from inside his robe.
5. How does a monk resist sexual feelings?
Neither every monk would be asked this question nor would many people ask it. Yet, there are people curious enough to ask this question. Sexuality is strictly forbidden for a monk. Any monk doing so is no more a monk. Not many people can resist sexual temptations and that’s why not many people become monks, so to speak. Someone once told the Monk that when he was twelve years old he became a novice monk but soon disrobed because he couldn’t resist the smell of dinner coming out of the neighboring households (Theravada monks cannot take dinner) and again at the age of twenty he became a monk for the second time but was soon forced to disrobe because he couldn’t resist the sexual feelings he got from seeing beautiful girls. Sex is a biological instinct of a man. Not even a monk of long ascetic practice can honestly deny his urge of sexual feelings. Sexuality is said to be one of the three destructive desires that almost overcame the Buddha at the eve of his final enlightenment. And from his own experience, Buddha did not fail to recognize sexuality as the greatest of all temptations. There are a number of prescribed ways for a monk to resist sexual feelings. The Monk would list only two of them here. The first is a kind of mental meditation called ‘vedana-bhavana’ (meditation on feelings). This requires a monk to carefully watch out one’s feelings (the sexual feelings in this case) that are arising in him; being mindful of them and just allow them to be without giving them any reckless force. It so happens that because of the lack of mindfulness and insight into his feelings, a man becomes slave to them. Hence, a monk is advised to understand and be aware as his feelings give rise. Mindful observation of feelings subdues any negative feelings because feelings are, just any other, in a state of flux: arising and ceasing. Their very nature of arising and ceasing means any feeling can be overcome. What it needs is mindful observation. The second method is also a mental meditation called ‘meditation on impurity’. In case of aroused sexual feelings, a monk meditates on the impurity of a woman’s physical body. This requires the visualization of the woman’s bodily parts according to their original natures. For example, if her eyes turn him on, he would meditate on her eyes and visualize every possible dirty stuff connected to her eyes like tears and dirty stuff that come out from eyes. To take the extreme example would be her private parts. A monk, in case of intensity, would meditate on her private parts and visualize every impurities connected to them like urine and monthlies and so on. This visualization would be well disgusting enough to turn him off.
Masturbation is not allowed for monks. In fact, masturbation is a serious offence a monk can perform which entails congregational confession and probation. Yet, the option of masturbation to release intense sexual feelings is not ruled out by ordinary monks, though this would be denied to outsiders by them for obvious reasons. Medically, off time masturbation is a healthy practice, which is why, when, in the absence of intentional masturbation, one has wet dream it is not an offence for monks.
In the absence of these methods, overpowered by such feelings, a deranged monk can commit sexual misconduct or even rapes – incidents that are not alien to media news.
6. Do hot girls turn a monk on?
The answer to this question is not much different from the answer given above. When Ajahn Brahm, an Australian Theravada monk, went to give a lecture to a girls’ school, in the middle of the lecture, he was apparently asked by a school girl whether hot girls turn him on! Though Ajahn Brahm supposedly avoided answering the question, a simple answer of ‘no’ would not have been appropriate. Why? – simply because Ajahn Brahm is not an arahant (a Buddhist saint who is considered to be devoid of sexual feelings). HH the Dalai Lama, regarded to be a living Buddha, himself admitted in one of his private interviews that beautiful girls do sometimes appear in his dream! Interesting enough, in the later second part of the early Buddhist era, there was a debate suggesting that even such a saint can be tormented by sexual darts (the Monk would not go into this debate here because it is a separate topic). The point here is, yes, hot girls do turn a monk on but how an individual monk would respond to that ‘turn on’ is a complex answer.
7. How does a monk regulate himself under strict disciplinary rules such-as ‘no sex’ and ‘no entertainment’?
Answer not available
8. Can a monk fall in love?
Even during the very lifetime of the Buddha, monks fell in love (even with prostitutes) and through out its history, monks have fallen in love, disrobed and returned to family lives. With modern multifaceted techno-temptations of fashion shows, movies, live concerts and beauty shows, mobiles, TVs, internet and so on ever on the rise, the rate of monks falling in love with girls and women is unimaginably higher than it was in the past. Before monks lived in forests and caves with no potential contacts with the outside world but now monks live in apartments and temples in towns and cities where life is all about temptations and enjoyments. An average modern monk is most likely to have a secret girlfriend in case he decides to disrobe someday. In traditional Buddhist countries, the disrobing rate among highly educated young monks is so alarming that it has been a headache for the senior Buddhist clergy to retain educated, competent and energetic young monks as its members to meet modern demands of competency and efficiency with the fast changing world. In Thailand, in the very recent time, legislative laws were approved by national parliament to punish women more seriously (the guilty monks could get out with light punishment!) if they are caught having affairs with monks. This unfair law, which was of course abated after intense criticism, was an attempt to discourage girls and women from luring monks. In all the Buddhist departments of Sri Lankan universities, 90% of lay professors and lecturers found are disrobed monks. This means it is rare to meet highly educated Sri Lankan monks.
9. What is the thing a monk misses most?
Whatever the answer you may hear from monks, probably ‘sex’ is the thing a monk misses most, though many monks would shy away from telling this truth. This is particularly true among long standing monks. Missing sex of course should not be taken as being slave to sex. This is just a ‘thing’ a monk misses and admitted in response to curious questions posed to monks. Monks don’t miss listening to music, watching TVs, movies and matches because they have them all in their private quarters, albeit it is officially forbidden by the Buddhist Book of Discipline.
10. What is the ambition of a monk?
Theoretically, you should not ask a monk his ambition because ‘ambitionless’ (=enlightenment > a state of no ambitions) is the ambition of a monk! Yet this is probably the most comfortable question a monk is willing to answer. Once, a Korean lay Buddhist was very shocked to know from the Monk that ‘enlightenment’ is not the ‘ambition’ of majority of the modern monks. Historically, it was the decision of the monks who wrote down the Buddhist Scriptures (ca. 1st century before Christ) for the first time in Sri Lanka that scholarship over actual practice should and must be the aim of a monk. Given that historical trend (though many monks are not even aware of this historical decision), you may hear a monk saying that his ambition is ‘to study the Dharma and propagate it for the benefit of many sentient beings’. ‘Practice the Dharma and get enlightened’ is not the ambition of a monk that you would very much like to hear from them. Statistically, becoming a teacher, a professor, a preacher is the only ambition a monk can have. Becoming a soldier, a pilot, a doctor, a politician cannot be ambitions of a monk because they are forbidden. Yet, surprising it may seem, some Sri Lankan monks do sometimes wish to be soldiers (it was in the media?) and in fact, now there is a political party in the Sri Lankan National Parliament consisting only of monks! Hence, theoretically, it is possible for a monk to aim at becoming a President in that country. As a matter of fact, Ven. Soma Thero, a highly influential monk apparently had the agenda of running for the presidential post, one of the main reasons why, it is believed, he was false played and died in Russia, apparently killed by Christians, the so-called enemies of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Such incidents of monks trying to be heads of state are not uncommon in history. In Japan, by the end of the Nara Period (710 – 793 AD), a powerful Hosso School monk also tried to become an Emperor himself.
It is only in the very recent time that actual practice (i.e. meditation) over academic scholarship is being emphasized particularly in the Southeast Asian countries like Burma and Thailand (Sri Lanka still remains as the hub of academic studies). Hence, now you would meet many monks whose ambition is ‘meditation and becoming a meditation master’. The case of Tibet, China, Korea and Japan is static. The ambition of monks in these countries, to put it simply, is ‘to help sentient beings’ – a parroting echo.
Got any question? write to the Monk at email@example.com