A bunch of schoolkids in the UK sent in some questions about being a monk and about Buddhism. Here are the Qs and As:
Do you have contact with your family?
Not really – they don’t like my choice! But within Buddhism maintaining contact and relationship with your family is considered to be very important.
Can you talk when you eat?
The idea of ‘can’ is not correct – it is not like God has given commandments about what can and cannot be done. We do have guidelines in the Vinaya (code of conduct for monks) which encourage eating silently i.e. not gossiping/chit chat while eating … or while undertaking any activity.
Do you rely on your community for your food?
Usually monk’s depend on the lay people for food. Generally via almsround, but sometimes via the temple kitchens. In my temple we have a large kitchen and canteen where there is breakfast and lunch served free of charge for anyone (ordained or laypeople) who wishes to join.
How does it feel to have made so many sacrifices?
To a renunciate’s mind, we do not make sacrifices. I see lay people have to work so hard at their jobs. I see them addicted to spending money, to buying things they don’t need, getting involved in painful relationships, worries, investments. It is an absolute privilege to be able to live as a monk. Thai people often tell me it must be so nice and carefree being a monk … so I ask them if it is so wonderful why don’t they do it too. Then they stutter something about ‘having to’ look after family etc.. The scriptures say that lay life is ‘dusty and crowded’ while the ordained life is ‘free’. I agree with this.
To be a monk do you have to sacrifice your friends?
No need to give up your friends. However, some friends will not like the fact you are a monk. Also being a meditator you will change, and so naturally some old friends will no longer be considered friends because your interests have changed.
Why do you collect food in the alms bowl?
The bowl was used by Samana (monk-like traditions) since way before the Buddha. What else would we use? There were no plastic bags or shopping carts in those days. Maybe now we could switch to a backpack??
Why do you have to keep your hair short? Is it a law?
The shaved head was a symbol of renunciation since way before the Buddha’s time. He inherited these traditions. In fact some of the renunciate sects of the time had the opposite tradition – to leave the hair long and uncut. Anyway, it is part of the acknowledgement that you are a renunciate alms mendicant. Also it is clean and quite practical.
Why do you have to wear special robes?
Robes are part of the ancient tradition since before the Buddha. But the term ‘have to’ is not really appropriate. We want to use robes as our tradition stipulates. However it is not necessary to wear robes or be ordained in order to be a Buddhist or to follow meditation.
Do you have to eat certain types of food, and if you do what types of food do you eat?
Monk’s depend on offerings from laypeople to survive. Therefore we are not choosy – we eat what we are given! Only a few foods are not allowed, since they were considered blameworthy at the time – elephant, horse, dog, snake, lion, tiger, leopard, bear, and wolf and of course human meat … Also animals killed specifically for the monk is not allowable as food.
What kind of things do you do in the monastery?
eat, sleep, clean, work, study, meditate, chant, read … each person tends to find a niche. Some meditate more, some work in the offices, some study – depending on ones disposition.
Can people come and worship with you in the monastery?
Laypeople come to the monastery and join in yes. However in Buddhism we do not really ‘worship’ as there is no supreme God to worship. But we do chanting, meditation and socially orientated rituals
Do you study or read a holy book?
Buddhism has ‘three baskets’ of scriptures. The Vinaya (mostly monk/nun’s rules of conduct); The Suttas – teachings given by the Buddha; and Abhidhamma, which is a philosophical explanation of the workings of the universe. There are also many later books that are considered to be of great benefit. These add up to much more than the Bible or Koran in length. It is not easy to read all of it.
Can your family visit you in the monastery?
Yes sure. Anyone can wonder in and out. We are very free. Much more free than many Christian monastic traditions. We can also leave the monastery to visit family, or anyone else.
How many years have you been a monk for?
I have been a monk for 14+ years.
What made you decide to become a monk?
Nothing ‘made me decide’. I just wanted to. I aspire to meditation and was not interested in worldly things.
How old were you when you became a monk?
I was 27 when I ordained.
Why are you only allowed 8 items with you in the monastery?
That’s a technicality. In actual fact we have lots of possessions. However, a meditator realises that possessions are mostly a burden, so we try to keep it simple.
Is there a routine you follow every day?
No, you can set your own routine depending on what you are drawn to – study, teaching, meditating, admin etc..
What type of entertainment do you have?
I have a computer, sometimes watch a movie or TV show. Most of the things I like to do are not what ordinary people would call entertainment – I like deep books (not fiction) and I like to work to encourage others in meditation practise. I don’t listen to music or play games as these things don’t really interest me.
Are you allowed to play games?
Well no one is stopping me, but I don’t like to waste time on games. When I was a teenager I used to like it.
Do you have a statue of buddha?
I have a Buddha statue – however it is not a ‘statue of Buddha’ as we don’t know what he looked like. The statue represents the Buddha (teacher, or your own potential) the Dhamma (the teaching, or truth) and Sangha (the Buddhist community, or love for others)
Are you allowed to keep animals?
Sure. I would like a cat, but it is not really possible in my building. I’d love a pet capybara.
If you live in the montastery, why do you have a computer?
Why shouldn’t I? A computer is necessary for my university (I am a student and a teacher there) work, and also for organising group activities.
What is lamas?
Lamas are teachers in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Do you get a holiday from the monastery?
Well, I can live where I choose. Going somewhere is a holiday ??? Generally I only leave if invited somewhere to teach Buddhism – but that’s a good enough holiday for me. Also I stay with friends sometimes in peaceful places.
Do you have electrical devices which you can use personally?
Sure. I have lights, kettle, computer, water heater, air cooler, phone, clock, hair trimmer and an electric bucking-bronco machine. Actually, I’m just joking on the last one..
Can you get married if you are a monk?
You cannot really get married as a monk. Even though in many countries there would be no legal reason why not, for monks we cannot have physical contact with the opposite sex. Some traditions of Buddhism in Tibet and Japan actually have married ‘monks’ – but I would say they are not monks, but more like vicars or parsons.
Do you have to share a bedroom with other monks?
I have my own room. Although for the first year as a monk I had to share with some other Russian monks.