Addressing Monks

Since the topic arises frequently, this post is skipping its way to the top… (especially as someone called me ‘Vulnerable’ recently)

Addressing Monks:

a quick guide to speaking to, about and calling monks:

This is a question that arises frequently so it is worth writing up in full. People are afraid of being impolite or doing things the wrong way. Of course, if you are trying to be polite that is enough to be polite – and Thais especially are good at picking these things up. On the other hand, they are not so good at telling you what you have done wrong.

As usual in Thai culture it is somewhat blunt to call someone just by their name. You would normally put ‘Khun’ or ‘Dr’ or ‘Ajahn’ etc before the name to be polite. Same with monks – you generally don’t use the name without an honourific first. But you can’t use the usual ‘Khun’ as with regular people. Here are the main choices :

The easiest word is ‘Bhante’. It just means something like ‘Vernerable sir’ and it is a term that monks use with each other a lot in all Buddhist countries. For some reason Thai monks don’t use it so much, but it is still polite. Most Thai monks who can speak English or who have been abroad will use the term with each other. You can call any monk Bhante – no matter their position, rank, age or nationality. You would not usually put their name after it – just ‘Bhante’ is correct already. Which is handy when monks have Pali names you can’t remember even seconds later. So this one is recommended, as it is so easy. Unless there are several monks in the room of course….

‘Venerable’ can be used in the same way, and is again is fine for laypeople to use, and for monks to address other monks. You can add the name afterwards or not – up to you. But best not to use ‘venerable’  with very senior monks such as abbots.

You would not use ‘khun’ before a monk’s name as you would with Thais commonly. You can use the word ‘phra’ (meaning monk) or ‘tahn’ – both equally valid and usable. ‘Tahn’ is rather like ‘khun’ but higher status, and is sometimes used with high ranking officials or important people.

Thais will often use ‘luang pii’ which means ‘venerable brother’ or ‘luang phor’ which is ‘venerable father’. The latter is properly used with people older than yourself . ‘Luang Ta’ is also used, and means ‘venerable grandfather’. Children might use ‘luang naa’ which means venerable uncle.

‘Ajahn’ means teacher, and comes from the Pali/Sanskrit word Achariya. These days it is used with just about anyone who does, or has, or even looks like they might, teach something. You can use with monks both on its own, or followed by the monks name.

‘Bhikkhu’ is also used sometimes, either before or after the monks name, but best not to use this one unless the monk is commonly referred to in that way, such as the eminent Bhikkhu Bodhi.

 The Wai

The Wai (or anjali) is another story. It is common to wai monks. It does not have to be excessive, it is just a way of saying hello, and is something akin to a simple handshake. Monks will wai each other all the time, but in Thailand a monk cannot wai a layperson – so don’t think they are being impolite, they just are not culturally supposed to wai to lay people, even the King. Bowing is similar. Monks bow all the time and it is no big deal to them. We bow to other monks who have been ordained longer, but not to those who have been ordained for a shorter period, regardless of rank or age. bowing is sometimes a bit of a jolt to start with, either to monks or to Buddha Statues, but it quickly becomes perfunctory. After a while it feels like a really nice thing to do – to respect something.

When bowing to monks, it is important to know that it is the Sangha you are bowing to, not the individual monk. Monks know this too – that when people pay respect it is to the robes, and the office of the Bhikkhu, and not to the person wearing the robes. So while laypeople respect the office of the monkhood by bowing, the monk has an even greater obligation to respect the robes by means of proper behaviour and renunciation. Thai people have a knack of separating the office from the person – they can respect someone’s rank, while not liking the person. They see the two as separate. Thus a parent might bow to a newly ordained son, to pay respect to the office, and then lecture the son on behaviour. They respect the rank, and lecture the son!

Use without name Bhante
Use with or without name VenerableLuang PiiLuang PhorAjahn
Use with name PhraTahnBhikkhu (before or after name)

 If all this is confusing, use Bhante to call someone (like a polite ‘hey you’) but use ‘phra +name’ when speaking about them.


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11 Responses to Addressing Monks

  1. Dhanya says:

    Thanks for this.
    I’ve recently started attending meditation classes at a Thai Buddhist monastery and I found what you’ve written to be very handy. Thanks a lot.

  2. Jen says:

    Sadhu on this issue.

    Another title which I came across. I’m sure you may have heard of it

    Kruba. Does it signify anything?

    With Metta.

  3. Cittasamvaro says:

    Kru Pa

    Kru is ‘teacher’ – comes from the root ‘guru’

    Usually it is used with special monks, generally in the North. Not many moks get to be called this. It is not a given title, but a special respect given to monks considered to be particularly gifted in meditation attainment.

  4. David Greason says:

    Phra Pandit,

    Having lived for many years in Thailand, I still find I need to reminded that I can best show my respect for Thailand, its people and the gift of Dhamma by following traditions even when they contradictory to my own cultural and ego conditioning. As a Westerner in the East, it’s sometimes too easy to judge without recognizing that many of my judgements are based in Ignorance rather than Compassionate Understanding.

    An honorific title here, a bow there…Thanks for this post as a gentle reminder that giving Respect need not be require the recipient to earn the gift; rather, Respect can be given freely as a sign of humility, helping me to grow in the Dhamma by more fully living the Dhamma.

    With Respect,

  5. Chris says:

    With respect to the conventions regarding use of the honorifics ‘Ajahn’ and ‘Venerable’ in addressing ordained monastics, Luang Por Chah’s Thai Forest Tradition will use ‘Ajahn’ for monastics practicing the Dhamma for ten Vassa or more, and ‘Venerable’ for monastics having completed less than ten ‘Rains Retreats’. ‘Samanera’ is employed in addressing ordained (10 precept) novices, and ‘Anagarika’ for wannabees following 8 precepts.

    For female Dhamma practitioners of the Forest Tradition, ‘Ajahn’ is used in addressing those who have completed 10 or more Vassa, while ‘Sister’ is used for those who have completed less than ten ‘Rains Retreats’.

  6. samsarainladakh says:

    At the recent Dhamma talk, the Venerable Jayasaro returned everyone’s wai, to my astonishment … and delight! Such humility from a great teacher… the venerable did not allow his status or robes to let him show that he appreciated and respected us mere lay people. What a wonderful thing … I was truly touched! The more he commands my respect.

  7. Cittasamvaro says:

    Yes, the Western Ajahn Chah group (not the Thai temples of the group) call monks over 10 Pansa ‘Ajahn’. But it is a bit confusing in Thailand where you are often called ‘Ajahn’ even if a layman, if you have ever or even look like you have ever, taught something. The nuns in that lineage also sometimes use the term ‘Ayya’ instead of ‘Ajahn’. I think they discussed it for a long time but in the end the nuns felt they should have the same title as the monks, rather than making a distinction.
    The term ‘Ajahn’ comes from the Pali ‘Achariya’ which referred specifically to a well respected Bhikkhu/Bhikkhuni of long standing. It can also be transcribed ‘Ajaan’ or ‘Ajarn’.
    I am not sure A. Jayasaro was not wai-ing the Monks rather than the laypeople. Normally the two groups wai separately for this reason. It is nice when the Dalai Lama wais the people, but in Thailand it is not the custom. When Mahayana monks come here and wai the Thai monks they are always very confused if they should return the wai or not. Of course, there are other ways Thai monks can and do return respect to the lay community.

    • Chris says:

      All this hair-spitting and nit-picking over correct honorifics seems, to me, to be just a tad ego-centric. Skillful?

      Reminds me of the time I first met Yantra near Wat Rachatiwat (in the years before he was summarily disrobed by the Supreme Sangha Council) and I was instructed (by two of Yantra’s robed attendants) to kneel as Yantra wished to speak with me. I quickly left, leaving Yantra with whatever thoughts he wanted to share with me.

      Humility is very subjective and in all cases, a commodity very difficult for one person to impart to another. It must originate with the subject, in the subjects own time and manner. But, I could be wrong.

      • samsarainladakh says:

        Indeed, nit-picking over the proper honorifics IS ego-centric, and needless to say the desire to be addressed in a certain way is of course ego-driven. Deep down inside, at the very core of our being, this is inconsequential. But alas, we live in a human world and come with personal psychological and cultural baggage. Most of the time, we just do not want to offend and we try to abide by the norms. The real challenge is of course to the one being honored… Does it really matter if one was addressed the wrong way? Will it hurt if we kneel or bow, or give an extra wai, etc.? These are but external manifestations of our INTENTIONS… and for as long as we have the right (proper) intentions, then mistakes can be forgiven.

        Addendum: I am reminded of a ‘gem’ that was shared to me by a much respected Venerable. He said to me, “Heirarchy will always exist… in nature, in society. It is a given. What we may feel sometimes is aversion towards heirarchy that is CONTRIVED rather than those that come naturally. In most cases, practice of discernment would be well advised.” Ah…Saddhu!

  8. Terasi says:

    Bhante, if monk comes into a room with a lot of other monks (or nuns) that he doesn’t know, how do they know who to bow to and not? Everyone is wearing the same robes.

    It’s interesting how actually should we use “Bhante”, because in my home country (Indonesia), many people put names behind it, like Bhante Uttamo, Bhante Pannavaro, etc, probably because it sounds endearing. I just call you Bhante, because of habit… just not used to use other honorifics.

    I have to learn though, actually I NEVER once talked to a real-life bhikkhu, mostly I just watch from afar 😮 , only one time a monk talked to me, but just to tell me where to put the plate I was carrying during dana.

  9. Cittasamvaro says:

    Monks soon sort out who has been ordained longer than who…. but its no big deal between them.
    “Bhante” is fine to use alone without a name. Just that if there are a bunch of monks they won’t know which one you are addressing.

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