Becoming a Monk

At the time of the Buddha people became monks or nuns ‘for the overcoming of suffering, for the attaining of Nirvana.’ As strange as it may seem this is probably the least common reason for entering the Theravadin Sangha today. In Burma, Thailand and to a lesser extent in Cambodia, all males are expected to ordain at least once in their life. This experience could have a positive influence on a person but in most cases it seems to leave little impression. Once I stayed in a large and well-run monastery in Mandalay. Being the only Westerner there I was often surrounded by smiling friendly monks curious to see me and to practice their English on me. In a nearby room stayed a much older monk and I noticed that every time he came to join the little group around me the others became quiet, appeared to be a little nervous and one by one drifted off leaving just the two of us together. This older monk spoke excellent English and it appeared from my conversations with him that he had a good grasp of Dhamma and an interest in meditation. At first I thought the discomfort of the others in his presence was just deference to his age, or perhaps his position in the hierarchy. Soon I found out the real reason. He was chief of the local dreaded secret police and had a well-earned reputation for brutality. Once a year he would spend a few weeks as a monk ‘practicing Buddhism.’ Thais believe that ordaining is a way to repay your parents for the sacrifices they made in bringing you up and is the main motivation for becoming a monk in that country. As a rite of passage this is an endearing and socially important one, but as a reason for joining the Sangha it is not very good at all and it does not guarantee that one will become a genuine monk. In Burma, all males become monks for a while because…well, simply because it is the tradition. In both countries the majority disrobe after a few days or weeks but others decide to stay. They do this for a variety of reasons. Some develop a genuine interest in the Dhamma, some find the sedate life of the monastery a welcome escape from work and social obligations, some don’t have what it takes to make it in the world and have no choice but to stay. A few remain for the most nefarious reasons which I will not go into here. This means that a given percentage, usually quite a high percentage, of monks have little or no real interest in the spiritual life. In a rare acknowledgment of the true situation, the Thai modernist Chatsumarn Kabilsingh says that many monks in her country are just ‘simple uneducated farmers in yellow robes.’

In Sri Lanka the situation is different. The tradition of temporary ordination does not exist there and once in the Sangha one is expected to stay. Most monks are ordained when they are very young and often because their parents are too poor to look after them. Sometimes a boy with an inauspicious astrological sign is put in the Sangha in the hope that it might change his destiny. Monasteries with valuable estates attached to them are commonly controlled by certain families for generations and one of their members will be ordained to ensure that the land stays in the family. But whatever the reason for ordaining, with good tutorage and inspiring example from his elders, a boy might go on to become genuinely religious. If such influences are absent, if he doesn’t like the monastic life or if he is not psychologically suited for it, he has no choice but to stay. Recently the social pressure to remain in the Sangha had begun to break down and now large numbers of young monks are disrobing. More and more of them are studying secular subjects so they can escape and get a job as soon as they graduate. This means that the monasteries are gradually being left to the very young, the very old, the idle and those who stay only because they have no other way to make a living. The system in Sri Lanka was never particularly good at bringing out the best in a person but now it is even worse than ever.

Just as who ordains is largely unrelated to an interest in the Dhamma, so too is the number of monks ordained. In Burma during the 17th century so many men were entering the Sangha that it was causing a serious manpower shortage in the country. King Thalun made all monks undergo an examination in basic Buddhism knowing that most would fail, thereby giving him an excuse to have them disrobed. According to Thailand’s Dept. of Religious Affairs, in 1990 there were 290,300 males in robes in the country and during the monsoon, the time when men traditionally enter monasteries, the number increased to 423,400. People like lots of monks so they can make merit from them, have someone to do blessing ceremonies and funerals for them and just to make sure the local monastery is full. Whether or not they are genuinely committed to the spiritual life seems to be only a secondary consideration, if that. In Sri Lanka, sometimes the reasons for the numbers of boys ordained are very difficult to fathom indeed. Recently I went to a ceremony where 37 boys aged between eight and 12 were ordained. It was heart breaking to see the little ones crying for their mothers. When I asked the presiding monk why that number he smiled and said: ‘Because there are 37 Factors of Enlightenment.’ Not surprisingly, monasteries are full of monks who are there for reasons entirely unconnected to the true purpose of the Sangha. These monks being the majority, they tend to set the tone of the monastic life and the atmosphere of the monastery. Dhamma-inspired monks find either little support for their aspirations, get pulled down to the level of the majority or increasingly nowadays, just disrobe.

According to the Vinaya a boy as young as eight can become a novice monk. To become a fully ordained monk one need only affirmatively and truthfully answer 12 questions and give one’s name and the name of one’s teacher. [1]

In the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE when the Vinaya was compiled these requirements were probably already insufficient to determine whether or not a candidate was suitable. Today they are woefully inadequate and are amongst the main reasons for the low level of spirituality in the Sangha. But in keeping with Theravada’s seeming inability to change, these same requirements are still all that is needed to become a monk. Virtually anyone can ordain and for almost any reason and indeed they do. The problem has been recognized for well over a thousand years. In the 10th century King Kassapa V of Sri Lanka instructed the Sangha to stop ordaining small boys. Two hundred years later King Nissankamalla pleaded with the Sangha to be a bit more discriminating in who it recruited as many ‘deceitful, crafty and evil men’ were becoming monks.

Despite such exhortations, the Sangha continues to lumber on regardless. In India today all sorts of disreputable types turn up at the few Thai and Burmese temples in the country and are given ordination as long as they go somewhere else afterwards. They amble off, without training, knowing nothing about the Dhamma, using their robes to make a living and usually giving Buddhism a bad reputation in the process. In 1975 the exiled former military dictator of Thailand Thanom Kittikchorn became a monk in Wat Palelai in Singapore and slipped back into his country. Being a monk gave him a de facto immunity from the many criminal charges against him. He plotted his return to power, disrobed and then staged a coup. In the early 1990s, a Thai monk raped and murdered a British tourist and then threw her body in a cave. After his arrest it was discovered that he was a heroin addict with a long criminal record and had just got out of jail a few weeks previously. Despite this he had no difficulty getting ordained. After this incident there were calls in the press for the system of ordination to be reformed but as usual, Thailand’s atrophied ecclesiastical council did nothing. [2]

When I first arrived in Singapore I briefly got to know a loud but rather cheerful Thai monk and in the course of conversation asked him why he had joined the Sangha. He told me he and a friend had put all their money in a nightclub in Bangkok and shortly after its opening the river flooded. There was six inches of water on the floor for several weeks and his investment, although unfortunately not the water, all went down the drain. He had ordained, he said, to try to get enough money to start up another nightclub. Each month he would come down to Singapore with a large suit case full of magic charms and lucky idols to sell to Chinese Singaporeans who have an insatiable appetite for such things. The interesting thing about this monk was that he was quite open about his reason for ordaining. He talked about it as if it was the most normal thing in the world, as indeed it is for a good number of Thai monks.

Occasionally the practice of ordaining just anyone can be beneficial, although more from good luck than good management. I once knew a particularly pleasant Thai monk. His left eye was badly injured and one day I asked him about this and he told me his story. He had been a member of a gang of bandits and once when firing a shotgun it had exploded in his face nearly blinding him. Eventually the police came to his home and told his parents that they were sick of arresting him and that next time they caught him they would just shoot him. Out of fear and so he could lie low until the heat was off, he fled to a monastery and became a monk. In Thailand criminals sometimes find the yellow robe a convenient temporary refuge from the police. In my friend’s case, his abbot happened to be a skillful and compassionate man and put him in charge of the little monks. He enjoyed being a big brother to these youngsters and this brought out his better nature. In time he grew to appreciate the monastic life and with encouragement from the abbot began to study Dhamma, got interested in meditation and 20 years later was still a monk and a good one too.

More commonly though the various misfits who end up in the Sangha usually stay that way. A more discriminating abbot will check a candidate’s background and perhaps ask him to wait for a while so he can observe him to see if he will make suitable monk. The Vinaya stipulates that this be done but this is another example of a good rule that is traditionally ignored. Anyone over 20 wanting to become a monk is usually given their novice ordination and then their full ordination immediately afterwards. As with so much else in Theravada, emphasis is on getting the procedure right, not the purpose behind the procedure. As with the locals, a Westerner can turn up at a Theravadin monastery in Asia and be ordained almost immediately. In keeping with the Vinaya, he will be asked whether he is a human, whether he is a male etc. But he will not be asked what most intelligent people would consider were more pertinent questions like: ‘Do you have a criminal record?’ ‘Have you suffered from mental illness?’ ‘Can you read and write?’ ‘Is this really what you want to do?’ Astonishingly, he won’t even be asked if he is a Buddhist! Where else in the world would it be possible to become a clergyman in a religion before knowing anything about that religion?

The original purpose of the Sangha was to provide the optimal environment for attaining Nirvana and to have a body of people capable of disseminating the Dhamma. In Theravada at least, it has long ceased to be of much value for these noble ends. In Sri Lanka it is widely believed that it is not possible to become enlightened anymore and it’s not just simple folk who believe this either. I once attended a talk by the famous Narada Thera of Vajirarama in Colombo during which he said that it is even impossible to become a sotapanna today. Richard Gombrich found this same idea to be widely held in Sri Lanka. ‘The comparative rarity of meditation is closely connected with the widespread belief in the decline of Buddhism. A village girl said that in a Buddha-less period one must keep trying, but only limited progress is possible. It is further believed by the majority of monks, at least those whose general attitudes can be described as traditional, that the sasana has already declined so far that it is no longer possible for men to attain nirvana. This opinion is very prevalent among the laity…One monk even specified that till (Metteyya) comes it is not even possible to become a sotapanna. The last arahat is commonly said to have been Maliyadeva (1st cent. BCE). Others say that there may still be human arahats, but it is unlikely and/or undiscoverable. One monk compared the sasana to a worn-out organism; very few can attain nirvana now just as a tree grows barren when its fruit is picked too often, and the seventh child is weaker than the first. The average view, perhaps, was that of the monk who said that it was not impossible to attain nirvana now, but as ‘religious practice’ is weak, it is hard to believe that there is anyone alive who has become an arahat’(italics in original). [3]

I have heard these same views expressed a thousand times in Sri Lanka. Even Buddhaghosa did not really believe that Theravada practice could lead to Nirvana. His Visuddhimagga is supposed to be a detailed, step by step guide to enlightenment. And yet in the postscript he says he hopes that the merit he has earned by writing the Visuddhimagga will allow him to be reborn in heaven, abide there until Metteyya appears, hear his teaching, and then attain enlightenment. Thus we have the extraordinary and I believe unprecedented situation where the majority of people adhering to a religion, including many of its clergy, freely admit that their religion cannot lead to its intended goal. Is it surprising that so many monks seem to be lacking in conviction? The only way one could possibly explain such a self-defeating belief is by saying that there must have been very good reasons for it developing in the first place.

The situation differs somewhat in Thailand and Cambodia but there the popular conception of what constitutes enlightenment is a very particular one. Any scruffy old laung po credited with predicting a winning lottery number or performing a miracle is hailed as an arahat. Of course more perceptive observers have a very different assessment of the general level of spirituality in the Thai Sangha. According to Paul Breiter, Ajahn Chah used to say: ‘Buddhism in Thailand is like a big old tree, it looks majestic but it can only give small sour fruit.’ Combine notions like these with the Sangha’s dysfunctional, outmoded and even counter-productive practices and structure and it is not surprising that it produces so few great masters. One encounters good scholars in the Sangha, sincere practitioners and just simple decent human beings, but of inspiring individuals, let alone arahats or even sotapannas, there are precious few.


  1. Do you have leprosy? Do you have boils? Do you have ring worm? Do you have tuberculosis? Do you have epilepsy? Are you a human being? Are you a male? Are you free from debt? Are you free from obligations to the government? Do you have your parent’s permission? Are you twenty years old? Do you have your robe and bowl? [back]
  2. For a overview of the crisis in Thai Buddhism and the monks and lay people who are attempting to reform it, see Santiduda Ekachai’s Keeping the Faith – Thai Buddhism at the Crossroads, 2001. [back]
  3. These same beliefs are common in Thailand, see Jane Bunnag’s, Buddhist Monks Buddhist Laymen, 1973, 19, ff. [back]