How to become a Buddhist Monk
June 3, 2009 9:44 PM   Subscribe

I want to become a Buddhist monk at some point in my life and live out my days in a authentic monastery, preferably in a traditionally Buddhist country. Please advise.

I have studied Buddhism academically and know the essential premises common to all the Buddhist tradition from a lay person perspective. I know Buddhism teaches, in a nut shell, that we are all living in Samsara and destined to eternal rebirth in suffering and delusion. The origin of this suffering is attachment and craving, but through giving up our attachment and the 8 fold path we can attain liberation. I know there are roughly 3 basic branches Theravada (crudely "lesser vehicle"), Mahayana ("Great Vehicle", including zen), and Vajrayana (Tibetan etc).

The more I live and experience the more a path of renunciation and abandoning the home life seems the correct path (even if I may be too frail and inculcated in materialism to ultimately follow that path). The Buddhist Dharma appears from my (admittedly limited) understanding to be ultimately true and I want to deepen my understanding of that truth.

I know this will be a years / decades long journey simply to find the correct teacher, let alone be accepted, let alone travel to another country/learn another language and become a monk etc.

And I also know that more than likely this amorphous dream will remain just that. But even still I would like to have a plan in place that can move me closer to that ultimate goal in a reasonable way. Perhaps I will not abandon my life such as it is now, but perhaps I will and I want to be prepared so that I can make that jump. And even if I don't, perhaps I can find an authentic Buddhist Sangha here that can deepen my insights and perhaps put me on the path to liberation despite the material culture we are surrounded by.


What I don't know is how to decide which tradition to join, and how to become a part of a legitimate lineage in the Buddhist Tradition. All of the so called Buddhist "temples" I have seen in the US (admittedly not that many due to a scarcity of options) seem at best watered down "New Agey" and at worst borderline cult of personality or profit motivated. Not the places where the essence of the Buddhist texts I have read is taught, practiced and nourished, at least not in a very effective way.

So I guess my immediate question is where can I find a Buddhist temple linked to a legitimate traditional lineage, preferably one that would be open to admitting a Mid 20's Anglo like myself and be within driving distance of Raleigh NC, but not be watered down and "Americanized"?

Barring that, where can I find a temple, even without any strong native cultural roots, near said location that will deepen my understanding Buddhism and not lead to new-agey tangents or dead ends, or worse, some sort of cult?

More broadly, which branch should I follow? I see aspects of all 3 that are appealing and seem like effective paths to enlightenment. Theravada is of course the oldest and most venerated, but the Mahayana idea of attaining the selfless bodhisattva ideal, enlightenment for all, seems a much nobler goal and less secluded. Finally, the esoteric teachings and metaphysics of Vajrayana fascinate me, and the expedited path to enlightenment is a plus; as well (as superficial a consideration as this is) I feel a strong pull to Nepal, the foot of the Himalayas (it is silly I know, but motivates me none the less).

I should note, I strongly believe that all three Buddhist traditions, properly practiced, are true teachings and effective paths to enlightenment. But I know the Buddha said "Follow that path that you will get the most out of" (or something to that effect), so that is what I am pondering over.

The real tie breaker is which tradition is likely to accept me, and also which one I can start building inroads to now in my "normal" American life. A final consideration is the political situation. Some of these countries, like Burma and Sri Lanka etc do not have the most stable and western friendly regimes.

But it is not a race or a competition, I lay those out merely as unfortunately practical considerations. I welcome and appreciate any other thoughts or considerations you might be able to add.
posted by DetonatedManiac to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
It's not easy to become a monk. You have to find a temple or a monastery that is willing to ordain you, and you have to find a place or country or tradition that agrees with you.

Hosshinji, a small Soto Zen monastery in Obama, in Japan, offers regular sesshin six times a year for lay folk, including foreigners. If you have the money, you could try out staying at the monastery for one of these week-long sessions. Hosshinji is also home at any time to 2 or 3 foreign monks. One of the monks, David Daigaku Rumme, is a friend of mine (see the Kyoto Journal article in the Google search), and he lived at the monastery for 30 years.

I believe he resides at the San Francisco Zen Centre at the moment, and works for Soto Zen in the US. You may wish to contact him because he can answer many if not all of your questions. I have his contact info so you can MeMail me for them if you like.

I'm going to have to reiterate that it will be tough to be accepted into a foreign monastery. In many ways, Buddhism is an intellectual choice for those of us in the West, whereas in Buddhist countries Buddhism is core to the culture. There is no choice involved, and they often find our desire to "convert" to Buddhism literally incomprehensible.

There are a few people who genuinely understand the need for us to learn more about Buddhist practice, so hopefully you can find what you're looking for out there. But, as I said, why not contact Daigaku...
posted by KokuRyu at 10:02 PM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of places in the US you could visit for a time and sit for a while. In my understanding, that is what zen is about.
Perhaps the Bodhi Manda Zen Center.
posted by pointilist at 10:25 PM on June 3, 2009

IANAB(uddhist), but the way this is handled in Thailand is that young men spend at least one period (usually a few months during the rainy season) in a monastery. One benefit of this (besides the spiritual education and labor/money for the temple) is that if he decides to become a monk, he knows what he's getting into.

Going off this tradition, it would probably be a good idea for you to spend a few months in a monastery that offers retreats to westerners as a sort of "test run." This will also help you suss out whether or not a particular type of Buddhism is right for you.

I feel a strong pull to Nepal, the foot of the Himalayas

Have you been to Nepal? It really is spiritually magnetic place, and I'm not a religious person (more interested in the cultural aspects). I'm sure you know, however, that it is a majority Hindu country. For me, the mix of Hinduism and Buddhism made the Kathmandu Valley really rich and invigorating, but it's something to be aware of. Nepal's also got some serious ongoing political turmoil - it's better than it was a couple of years ago when buses were regularly getting blown up, but right now it's hard to know which way things will go.

There are, however, several monasteries in Nepal that welcome serious foreign students. Thailand also has several such monasteries.

In fact, if you haven't traveled in Asia, I would definitely suggest you do so. You can learn a lot about how the different sects actually work in their societies. Incidentally, you might want to also look into visiting Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas. I've heard that Ladakh actually has the strongest Tibetan Buddhist population in the world, more so than Tibet itself, since they are able to practice freely.
posted by lunasol at 10:52 PM on June 3, 2009

Another thing to consider: in Thailand, at least, it's customary for the families of Monks to support them by contributing to the monastary. I'm sure it's not a lot of money, since you're sleeping on the floor and eating two meals a day, but you will want to consider how you're going to cover your costs.
posted by lunasol at 10:54 PM on June 3, 2009

I would not work towards this goal. I would work towards enlightenment for all sentient beings and yourself. There is no other goal worth working for.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:59 PM on June 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

From a Thai forum:
I would recommend you to make a retreat as a layman first. The Wat Pha Nanachat in Ubon Ratchathani province is a forest temple created by Ajaan Sumedo (disciple of famous Ajaan Chah), especially for foreigner who want to practice buddhism and mediation or to enter the monkhood. The Abbot and vice-abbot as all monks are foreigner, so it is easier to communicate if you don't speak thai. At Wat Pha Nanachat you can register (in advance) and stay there as a layman for different lenghts period. You live and you have the same schedules as the monks, but you are dressed in white.
Spending 2-3 weeks there will give you a good idea of what is the life as a monk and to feel if you are ready for that life, even if it is for 3 month.

More details and other places:
More comments here.
posted by furtive at 11:05 PM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a fellow 20-something white guy who has read about Buddhism and had similar (but generally more positive) experiences with Buddhist communities: what attracts you to monastic life specifically?

Finding a sangha is an admirable goal, but my own (very limited) thinking about monastic life has always been motivated by escapism. I know others who have become wrapped up in the idea of authenticity.

Is isolation able provide opportunities for growth that couldn't be achieved otherwise? Perhaps, I couldn't say from personal experience, but many people I respect seem to think so. Keeping that in mind, I'm inclined to think the answer for most practitioners is somewhere on closer to the center of the broad spectrum between sitting on the mat a few minutes every day and full time monastic life, not at either extreme. Practicing while remaining more engaged with the lay world may offer greater opportunities for compassion towards your fellow sentient beings, particularly the people with whom you have relationships now (I know my parents would be crushed if I moved to the other side of the world to sit).

In either case, I think what you want to do short term (and really, why conceptualize your future further?) is start going on successively longer retreats. Start with a weekend. Try a few different traditions, take longer periods off. Maybe you'll settle in to a routine where you spend a substantial portion of each year in retreat... maybe all of it. In any case, I don't think there is any productive way to approach this other than easing in to it. In cultures with a longer tradition of Buddhism the monastic system (and the corresponding notions of renouncing everything and committing for life, usually at young age) exists in a wider cultural milieu in which this makes sense. Don't cause undue angst by emulating a tradition that was not developed with your situation in mind.

So with that in mind...

The SF Zen Center, while a long way from Raleigh, seems to be the largest and most active community of that tradition in this country.

Here in DC we have a therevadin vihara from the Sri Lankan tradition. In West Virginia there is the Bhavana Society, which offers multi-day meditation retreats.

A fellow named Dae Gak (of a Korean Zen tradition) and I have some mutual friends, and he seems to be an interesting fellow. He teaches in a few locations near the east coast, and may be worth contacting. One of the locations his group runs retreats at is in central Kentucky.
posted by phrontist at 11:25 PM on June 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

Seconding phrontist, I'd recommend that you bracket many of these questions for now and begin by developing a regular meditative practice. It will help you to integrate the Buddhist intellectual framework into lived experience, which is a key prerequisite for moving forward.

For me, the 10-day Vipassana course described here (rooted in Theravada; offered all over the world) was a fantastic environment to kick-start such a practice. It's structured to minimize dogma and to be accessible for people from all backgrounds, but is not wishy-washy or watered down. (MeMail me if you're interested in hearing more detail about my experiences with it.)

One other thought: I totally relate to your suspicion of new agey stuff and desire to engage with traditions, but at the same time, be wary about constructing too firm of an "authenticity vs the west" dichotomy. There are a lot of cultural and linguistic discontinuities between you and traditional lineages, and while those barriers are not necessarily insurmountable, you might find you can also benefit from exploring some more Westernized Buddhist communities.
posted by introcosm at 11:55 PM on June 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

What I don't know is how to decide which tradition to join, and how to become a part of a legitimate lineage in the Buddhist Tradition. All of the so called Buddhist "temples" I have seen in the US (admittedly not that many due to a scarcity of options) seem at best watered down "New Agey" and at worst borderline cult of personality or profit motivated. Not the places where the essence of the Buddhist texts I have read is taught, practiced and nourished, at least not in a very effective way.

What do you mean by legitimate? Not a cult? There are plenty, and you'll figure out which aren't cults through common sense (here are some guidelines). If anyone tells you they have access to special knowledge, or are enlightened, or otherwise elevates themselves, I'd run. If you mean one that has a lineage stretching back a long time, ask yourself why you care. Don't get caught up in symbolism, in being "hardcore" by adopting these foreign symbols as an expression of piety - an inclination I've certainly had at times.

Those caveats aside, I think your inclination to traditionalism is a good rule of thumb. But judge a group by your understanding of the sutras, your own critical faculties - there is no other metric of legitimacy, something the Buddha hammered home.

More broadly, which branch should I follow? I see aspects of all 3 that are appealing and seem like effective paths to enlightenment. Theravada is of course the oldest and most venerated, but the Mahayana idea of attaining the selfless bodhisattva ideal, enlightenment for all, seems a much nobler goal and less secluded. Finally, the esoteric teachings and metaphysics of Vajrayana fascinate me, and the expedited path to enlightenment is a plus; as well (as superficial a consideration as this is) I feel a strong pull to Nepal, the foot of the Himalayas (it is silly I know, but motivates me none the less).

Imagine me hitting you with a stick in response to that question! In short: I think what is called Zen in american today is most likely to get things right.

A sangha should assemble first and foremost around sitting. Beyond that, they should make the lives of those around them better by working together. If you wish to discuss things, there should be no dogma or doctrine, but a willingness to entertain and question whatever is on one another's mind.

What supports the claim that Vajrayana is an "expedited path" other than dogmatic insistence? Expedience implies an end goal and a striving to attain something, a notion that strikes me as out of sync with what the Buddha was advocating (see the Diamond Sutra).

In my humble opinion, some traditions place a counterproductive emphasis the kind of superfluous metaphysical rumination the Buddha cautioned against. Is the rebirth talked about in Buddhism really Lama Bob dying and being born as Sven a few minutes later? How would we know if that were true, and why does it matter? How does all that jibe with the notion of nonself? Should we think of karma like a cosmic balance sheet of good and bad, or is that reification? Are Bodhisattvas really like angelic beings that can intercede on our behalf? What is a Pure Land? Do miracles happen? Does anything happen supernaturally? Wouldn't that just mean we had an impoverished view of the natural? What does any of this have to do with suffering or sitting?

On a closing note, you might enjoy this ask question of mine.
posted by phrontist at 12:01 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

At the age of 21 I set out to live a monastic life in Japan. I had about a year of sitting intensively under my belt but nothing quite prepared my for the rigors of zen monastic life in Japan. We worked from 330 to 4 AM till 9 PM. Fortunately the master was very kind to foreigners and bent all sorts of rules though i couldn't see that at the time. Still, after three months i had had enough and began daily sitting outside of the temple with frequent sesshin.
I look back on that three months with great appreciation now. I would do it again in a flash if other considerations were not an obstacle.
posted by dougiedd at 12:46 AM on June 4, 2009

And I also know that more than likely this amorphous dream will remain just that.

Maybe you would be better served by devoting time to dealing with that thought? You said you welcome all perspectives, and considering that you are a "bipolar mid-youngish twenties guy", based on your previous questions, chances are this is just a temporary, distant dream and it will never actually happen.

I am sorry if I sound cynical--I'm all for pursuing your dreams; my life would have never been as lovely as it is nowadays if I hadn't taken huge chances--but the mere fact that you are asking strangers about this shows that you are not ready.
posted by halogen at 1:43 AM on June 4, 2009

Every tradition is going to have its proponents and its detractors. I personally get a little tired of the debate, and agree that each path is capable of leading to enlightenment in its own way. I should point out that the idea of 'lineage' is more important in some traditions than others. Zen is particularly fascinated with it, and for obvious reasons so is Tibetan Buddhism. but I don't think that traditions that don't put much emphasis on it (such as the tradition I will detail below) are any less legitimate. But in a world where there are many dodgy people looking to part the vulnerable from their money, I can understand your need for authenticity.


A couple of previous comments have touched upon it, but the Thai Forest Tradition might be your cup of tea. It sounds like you are after a traditional, back-to-basics Buddhism that eschews fancy 'New Agey' rhetoric in favour of simple practice and mindfulness.

Many of its prominent teachers (Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Amaro) are Westerners, who all left to practice in remote monasteries in Thailand with the tradition's 'founder' Ajahn Chah. Maybe read a couple of books by Ajahn Chah and see if its a fit for you. Food for the Heart is my favourite.

One thing I should point out is that this tradition doesn't really delve into the metaphysical esoterics of the Vajrayana - as this would seem incompatible with the idea of 'simple' Buddhism. That said, there is a heavy emphasis on the Vinaya (monastic living) and meditation, especially on attaining the different jhanas. Ajahn Brahm wrote an excellent book on meditational jhanas. I guess it depends on what you think is more important.

Thai Forest Buddhism does have various stages of commitment. Most monks might have moved from being lay practitions to taking increasingly longer retreats, maybe over Vesak. They then might become an 'Anagarika' a sort of apprentice monk who would follow the 8 precepts and live and help out in the monastery- before taking the robes.

Anyway I am rambling. Just realise that its a process that takes time (as indeed, you have indicated) and just keep exploring until you find a tradition thats a good fit. It took me about 7-8 years of learning about Buddhism before I settled in a tradition. You have all of Samasaric eternity to find it ;)
posted by TheOtherGuy at 2:30 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had a very similar concern when I began practice, and took the question to a few teachers, all of whom who said "take it slow," "try a few different branches," and told me to be honest with myself. Which, of course, was great advice, but wasn't what I initially wanted to hear.

I've stayed at New York's Zen Mountain Monastery and WV's Bhavana Society, and both encourage long visits and long-term practice before the monastic decision. ZMM often allows interested parties to live with them from 1-3 month periods, which participants have told me is a tremendous experience. A stay like this gives you an understanding of the regimented schedule, tons of time with devoted teachers, and a handful of new questions to ask yourself, all of which will help you clarify what you want and where to look for it.

re: Americanized/watered down, ZMM is one of the more conservative Zen centers in the states, and models its schedule and practice tightly around that of a Japanase monastery. The Bhavana Society is run by Sri Lanka's Bhante G and Bhante Rahula (ordained in Sri Lanka after an American youth), so the center has an good mix of traditions and experience. I can't speak for other centers, but I know there are more on the East Coast with traditionally-ordained teachers and a focus on authentic tradition (Dai Bosatsu, in New York, is another).

Regarding branches, I'll pass on a mix of advice I've heard from a few teachers: The best branch is the one that resonates with you, and that compels you to wholesome practice.

For months, I thought my preferred style was Zen, due to its inspirational-yet-strict nature (which I assumed a slacker like me needed), and I only read Zen books, listened to Zen teachings, etc. However, a single day in a Theravada monastery changed my perspective on what worked and how to find it. This is just to say that it's hard to find your tradition through academic study: All Buddhist practice emphasizes direct experience over knowledge, and I think most teachers would tell you that the decision of choosing a tradition should absolutely depend on direct experience.

Best of luck in your adventure!
posted by dougunderscorenelso at 4:29 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do look into Wat Pah Nanachat (Thailand) as previously mentioned. I never stayed there but visited and there was just something about it that I couldn't put my finger on. I mean that in a positive way.
Wat Pah Nanachat
The International Forest Monastery

"Wat Pah Nanachat is a Buddhist monastery in Northeast Thailand, in the Theravada Forest Tradition. It was established by Venerable Ajahn Chah to provide English-speaking people the opportunity to train and practice in the way the Buddha taught his monks in the forests 2600 years ago."

There are links on the website to international associated wats as well.
posted by Chrysalis at 4:36 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I met a number of foreigners (male and female) living as monks and nuns in Myanmar. I won't get into the political problems or logistics with Myanmar, but they told me it was very simple to do so there. This was 2005 though, before the capitol moved and the horrible hurricane. I was told local men are expected to become monks three times in their life. One taxi driver in Thailand told me that he joined to quit smoking. I also met a 20-something Swiss guy on a German train (who spoke about 5 languages) who was returning from Japan after being rejected by monasteries there.

Of course, this is anecdotal but it seemed that in SE Asia it might be a bit easier than Eastern Asia. Perhaps it might be worth it to spend a month or so at a monastery just to see if its really what you want. I studied Buddhism a bit in college and have traveled a lot. It amazed me how different it is practiced (lots of times local folk religion is weaved in) across countries and regions as well as how different it was in practice to what I learned in school. I would never have thought that money would be thrown at a giant Buddha statue or special statues erected to pray to win the lottery.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:42 AM on June 4, 2009

I sat with a group that was affiliated with the zen mountain monastery dougunderscorenelso mentioned above and was very impressed with them. They are people who take their practice very seriously, and are very welcoming to new faces. (I stopped going only because I'm physically unable to handle long meditation sessions due to an old injury and thought my constant shifting about was distracting and unfair to others) The founder John Daido Loori has written a number of books you might want to check out before looking into a short retreat there. They also have brief weekend trips for a quick flavor of what monastic life is like.

Any chance this was the new agey cultish group? Please do not judge all American Buddhist groups, or even all of the Nichiren tradition, on their actions. They are the exception, not the rule.
posted by Kellydamnit at 10:59 PM on June 4, 2009

Response by poster: re: Kellydamnit - YES! I have the basic meditation book from Gshe Kelsang Gyatso in my hand. I got it because the town where I was living at the time (about 4 years ago) only had this one Buddhist center and it was a New Kadampa Center. I went there for a few months but was uneasy about it so I stopped going. I never liked that they had a book store in the entrance hall, and this was before I really knew anything academically about the different traditions of Buddhism and their teachings.

In general, thank you all for the comments so far. The International Forest Monastery is exactly the type of thing I was looking for. And I am going to try and contact the Southeast Vipassana Center for some more local 10 day retreats.

I would be interested in any other reputable centers in or near Raleigh NC, even if they are smaller or more western oriented (but as I said NOT watered down).
posted by DetonatedManiac at 3:58 PM on June 6, 2009

Have you found the information about becoming a monk yet?

There are many Theravadan Temples in the USA that belong to the Thai Bhikkus. These temples must meet the traditions as carried out in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

I know several "Anglos" that have taken the monks vows and live in these temples. I have been offered ordination both in the US and at a temple in Thailand.

Let me know if you have further questions.
posted by Handyman321 at 10:31 AM on March 18, 2010

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