What Are Tibetan MonkS
In the eighth century, Buddhist missionaries from India founded the Samye monastery in Tibet. This was Tibet's first monastery, but Buddhism and Buddhist monasteries soon spread across the country. Monasteries have played a vital role in Tibet's history. Although the influence of the monasteries and the numbers of monks have been reduced under Chinese rule, monasteries remain a vibrant part of Tibetan culture.
- A Buddhist monk, or bhikkhu, is an individual who devotes his life to studying and preserving Buddhist teachings. Monks are also expected to provide an example to lay Buddhists, demonstrating proper behavior. Monks spend much of their time engaged in meditation, study or teaching. The precise activities vary from monastery to monastery. Each monastery is governed by rules of monastic discipline called vinaya. These are intended to help the monk lead a simple life, focusing the mind on spiritual rather than worldly matters.
Becoming a Monk
- Boys as young as 8 years old can join a monastery, although they hold only the rank of samanera, or novice, and are subject to less restrictive monastic discipline. Adults receive full ordination, usually around the age of 20, and are then expected to observe all the monastic traditions. Historically, monks came from all walks of life, typically from peasant families living in the area around the monastery. Today, Chinese authorities screen prospective monks to make sure they do not have views they consider subversive.
- There are a number of active monastic traditions in Tibet. For instance, the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism is one of four major lineages, but within it are four major and eight smaller lineages. As a result, the rules under which monks live vary somewhat. Although Mahayana Buddhism encourages vegetarianism, Tibetan monks usually eat meat because of the cold climate. Most monasteries enforce strict celibacy, but some traditions include both celibate and non-celibate members. Monks are forbidden to drink alcohol.
- Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes known as Lamaism, and Tibetan monks are sometimes referred to as "lamas." In fact, the term "lama," strictly speaking, refers only to Buddhist teachers, many of whom are believed to be reincarnations of previous lamas. A well-known example is the Dalai Lama, the head of the largest branch of Tibetan Buddhism. Although most lamas are monks, only a small number of monks are lamas. However, the term has become so widespread that it now most commonly refers simply to a Tibetan monk.
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