The Monks' Rules: FAQs

By Bhikkhu Ariyesako

I. Beginner's Questions

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.

In the Lord Buddha’s time, 2,500 years ago, clothing was made without complex machinery. (Although simple ‘sewing-frames’ are mentioned in the texts, which the monks would have used at robe-making – Kathina – 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 Theravadin bhikkhu it is a privilege to be able to wear this robe, continuing the tradition and practising to be worthy of it. There are rules as to the robes’ size, colour, how they are sewn, type of cloth used, etc., and how bhikkhus can acquire them.

The colour 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 colour that one sees in Bangkok. The colour 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 monk’s 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.

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 (dhutanga or tudong) 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 Buddha’s 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.

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 candidate’s 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 travelling and giving Dharma 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 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.

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

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 Dharma practice for such nuns. (For example, Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England).

Q. 9: Instead of letting the monks go on alms-round during rainy days, can the lay people request to bring dana [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 practises. 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. 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 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.

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 one’s family’s 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, Dharma 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 one’s 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 one’s 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. 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 añjalii] when paying respect to monks/nuns and Buddha Statue, or should one bow to show more respect?

A: One should show respect from one’s 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 ageing, 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’ (kesa) 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 grey 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.)

II. Frequently Asked Questions

FAQ. 1: When a bhikkhu is sick and especially so in emergency cases, is he allowed to be attended to by female medical staff; e.g. female nurse, woman doctor, especially if the woman doctor is the only doctor/surgeon on duty? How does the Vinaya allow for this?

FAQ. 2: It has been observed that in the Burmese, Sri Lankan, Tibetan and Mahayana traditions, women are allowed to make an offering directly to the monks. Yet Thai Buddhist monks are not allowed to accept offerings directly from women. Is it because it is against the Vinaya rules or a different interpretation of the rules?

A: The Vinaya Rule specifies that if a bhikkhu touches or is touched by a woman, it is an offence — a very serious offence — only if the bhikkhu is overcome by lust, with altered mind . However, the practising bhikkhu knows that as his mind changes so quickly, he has to be extremely cautious about involving himself in doubtful situations. It is better to be safe than sorry, even if this may seem over-scrupulous. In emergency situations the bhikkhu will have to decide for himself and be sure to take care of his thoughts. In Thailand it is a tradition (not strictly a rule) that the monk uses a ‘receiving cloth’ to emphasize that there is no touching.

FAQ. 3: What is the rule if an eight-precepter unintentionally comes into [direct physical] contact with another lay person or eight-precepter or ten-precepter or monk or nun of opposite gender?

A: As with the preceding cases with bhikkhus, there is no fault if there is no wrong intention.

FAQ. 4: It is mentioned in the Vinaya rules that a monk is not allowed to reside under the same roof with a woman. How does that apply to multistoried (condominiums, flats, apartments) and multi-compartment buildings (terrace houses), where the flats, terrace houses, share one roof?

A: This has become a complex question with various interpretations because of modern conditions. The spirit of the rule is very important — avoiding possibilities of intimacy — while the interpretation will depend on the monk and the circumstances. In countries without proper monasteries there will always have to be something of a compromise.

FAQ. 5: The Vinaya rules disallow monks from touching or handling money. As such, in Buddhist countries monks must have a Kappiya [attendant] to handle money for them. However, if a monk has to travel and does not have a Kappiya, under such circumstances do the Vinaya rules allow him to handle money personally? This is a problem especially in non-Buddhist countries.

A: While it may be a problem or inconvenience, the rules are there to protect and remind the monk about dangerous, unskilful actions. If the monk becomes increasingly involved with money there is a tendency for the whole of his bhikkhu-life to be compromised — and that would be a far greater problem. Soon after the Final Passing Away of the Lord Buddha this sort of question had already become a major controversy and it is now even more complex under modern conditions. However, modern conditions also have brought their own assistance to keeping these rules. For instance, a bhikkhu can be given an air ticket and travel around the world (if need be) without having any money or attendant. He will need to be met at the airport and helped in the normal way, but that should be natural if he has been invited to come by the lay group. (He should not really be travelling otherwise.) And, of course, a monk can use postage stamps and ‘telephone-cards’ that add convenience to communicating — when it is appropriate.

FAQ. 6: Is there a Vinaya rule that states that once a person becomes a monk, he is not allowed to disrobe? If he is allowed to disrobe, is there anywhere in the Vinaya that sets the maximum number of times he is allowed to do so. If so, under what circumstances is he allowed to disrobe?

A: I know of no place in the Vinaya that states a bhikkhu cannot disrobe. If he no longer has any interest in the bhikkhu-life, the tendency will be for him to become lax and a bad example for others. His Dharma friends therefore will try to re-fire his enthusiasm. However, if that is not possible, becoming a good layman may be better than being a bad monk. (Nevertheless, in some countries there is a cultural expectation of ‘ordaining for life’ and a corresponding stigma attached to disrobing.) There is a tradition (but not a rule) about a bhikkhu not re-ordaining more than seven times.

FAQ. 7: The Vinaya states that monks are not supposed to eat once the sun has passed its zenith. Still, what happens if they are in countries such as regions of the North or South Poles, e.g. Norway, Alaska, where the sun never sets for six months and for the next six months, there is no sun.

A: I understand that the zenith here means when the sun reaches the highest point in its arc across the sky. In most habitable areas of the globe this arc may be low to the horizon but it should still be possible to follow the rule. And if bhikkhus ever reach the polar regions they will have the Great Standards to guide them.

FAQ. 8: It is stated in the Vinaya that when a lay person offers fruit to a monk, he has to make a cut on one of the fruits to make it permissible for the monk to accept. How did this rule originate? Also, lay people, when offering fruit juices to monks after midday, are not allowed to offer fruit juices from fruits larger than the size of a fist. Is this in the Vinaya and why is it so?

A: At the time of the Buddha, some lay people complained that the monks destroyed the ‘life’ in seeds. Therefore lay people can be asked by the monk if it is allowable for him to eat those fruits. In some monasteries (not all) this is done by the lay people cutting them. It is the Commentary to the Vinaya that mentions about ‘great fruits’. This practice, however, is not followed in every monastery.

FAQ. 9: In Thailand, it has been observed that Thai Buddhist monks are allowed to drink tea, cocoa, coffee (but without milk) after midday. But in some other Buddhist countries like Burma, monks are not allowed to do this. Is this part of the Vinaya rules or is this just tradition, custom, or local practice? If it is in the Vinaya, how do you explain the differences in interpretation?

A: The fourth of the Recollections of the Bhikkhu’s Requisites is:

Properly considering medicinal requisites for curing the sick, I use them: simply to ward off any pains of illness that have arisen, and for the maximum freedom from disease.

There is an allowance in the Pali texts that ‘medicinal-tonics’ can be taken in the afternoon while ‘lifetime-medicines’ may be consumed any time they are needed.

There are different interpretations and practices about how ill a bhikkhu has to be for it to be allowable to take such ‘medicines’. Some bhikkhus will not take anything other than pure water, while some will over-stretch the Rule to even drinking ‘medicinal’ food-drinks (e.g. Ovaltine) in the afternoon. Some bhikkhus will consider tea-leaves allowable (as ‘herbs’) while some will see it as food or as a ‘stimulant’ (caffeine) and therefore not appropriate. Also, the ordinary rural villagers of South East Asia (until very recently) would have had no tea or coffee to drink, so such items could be considered quite a luxury. It will depend on local conditions and interpretations, which are allowed for in the Vinaya through the Great Standards.

FAQ. 10: Can a monk retain property that he had as a lay person? Also, can a monk receive property that has been passed to him as inheritance? Is a monk also allowed to accept property donated to him by lay devotees and which has been transferred to his name? What is the Vinaya’s stance on this? Does the Vinaya also allow for monks to sell/transact property that has been donated to them in order to buy, for instance, another piece of land in an area that is more suitable for spiritual activities?

A: This is a complicated question. If there is a steward who does the arranging for the bhikkhu in the proper manner then certain things would be allowable. However, there are very strict guidelines about this. Practically speaking, bhikkhus in Thailand are not ordered to renounce all their property, etc., when they receive ordination. (As mentioned elsewhere, the majority of bhikkhus in Thailand will return to lay life within a certain period.) Bhikkhus who are serious about dedicating their life to the Holy Life will obviously take the Lord Buddha as their example and like Him renounce all that is worldly. There are specific rules, not covered in this work, about Community land and property, and the different ways they are managed.

FAQ. 11: Does the Vinaya state that monks cannot take nuns and lay people as their teachers? If this is so, what is the reason for this?

A: The taking of a Teacher (acariya) by a bhikkhu and living in dependence (nissaya) on him can only be between bhikkhus. And even according to the bhikkhunii’s own Rule, in the time of the Lord Buddha, she was not allowed to teach bhikkhus. However, this does not mean that a bhikkhu cannot learn from others.

FAQ. 12: Are monks allowed to own and/or drive vehicles? Is this allowed by the Vinaya? If it does not go against the Vinaya, would it still be socially acceptable, given the monk’s spiritual status in society?

A: There is a specific rule against bhikkhus owning vehicles. Obviously, ‘motor vehicles’ were not available in the Buddha’s time and most travel would have been on foot. However, there was the case:

…when the group-of-six bhikkhus went in a vehicle yoked with cows and bulls, they were criticized by the lay people. The Buddha then established a fault of Wrong-doing for a bhikkhu to travel in a vehicle; later illness was exempted from this guideline… Travelling in a vehicle in the Buddha’s time was an extravagance. A strict application of this training in Thailand is not allowing bhikkhus to drive or own vehicles, and (officially) not to ride on motorcycles.

Bhikkhus were allowed to use ferry boats, etc. (In Thailand, bhikkhus from riverside monasteries will go on alms round by boat.)

FAQ. 13: Does the Vinaya permit monks to practise herbal, traditional or ayurvedic medicine?

A: In Thailand, I understand that one cannot be officially registered as a herbal doctor while still a bhikkhu. While providing medicines for one’s fellow monks is very much allowable, it is definitely wrong that a monk dispenses medicine for reward.

FAQ. 14: When a monk commits a paraajika offence, do the lay people have the right to ask him to disrobe? What is the usual procedure as stated in the Vinaya? What happens when a monk has been proven to have committed a paraajika offence, yet refuses to disrobe in spite of demands from lay devotees and there is no Sangha Council to enforce the demands, as is the case in non-Buddhist countries? Under such circumstances, what do the lay people do?

A: If a bhikkhu commits a paaraajika offence he is ‘defeated’ and no longer a bhikkhu even if he is wearing robes. The Community of bhikkhus will have nothing to do with him and will expel him. However, if the accused ‘bhikkhu’ does not admit to the offence and it cannot be proved, the results of kamma must be allowed to run their own course. Buddhism has never engaged in violent witch hunts. And for how lay people dealt with stubborn monks in the Buddha’s time, see Disputes.

FAQ. 15: What questions should one ask a monk when offerings of requisites are made; and to what extent is a monk limited (and why) when making his reply; and when is it all right to ask details of preferences and specifications; and how to find out what is appropriate if the robed person finds it difficult or is unable to mention what is required?

A: Generally, the right-practising bhikkhu will be a person of few wants for he is trying to go to the ending of all desire. However, there may be certain things he may need but may not mention until he is sure that the donors are completely sincere in their invitation. If the donor makes specific suggestions, the bhikkhu may refuse, he may accept, or he may remain silent — and such silence may very well be a positive response (as it was in the Lord Buddha’s time). Therefore, as the donor gets to know the bhikkhu he or she will become more sensitive about what is needed and what is appropriate — and be able to interpret any ‘silence’ in the right way.

• Available as an eBook (PDF document) from BuddhaNet’s eBook Library.

The Bhikkhus’ Rules – A Guide for Laypeople: The Theravadin Buddhist Monk’s Rules.
Compiled and Explained by Bhikkhu Ariyesako. 1998.