Unfamiliar Cultures: A Day in the Life of a Buddhist Monk

“The Buddhist philosophy is hard to adopt, but life-changing when you do.” A sentence you would hear from many people who have visited and spent some time at Buddhist Monasteries. 

But whatever “Buddhism” means for people today: traditional religion, salvation, philosophy, psychology, meditation system, mysticism, awareness training, science, ethics, anthropology, epistemology, relaxation technique, the art of living – all these attributions can be seen as a part of Buddhism. 

What sets Buddhist Monks apart 

There isn’t THE one stereotypical Buddhist monk – in fact, there are various sects of Buddhist monks whose lifestyles and rules differ. And even monks from within the same religious group are likely to take slightly different paths because each region often has different habits, and monks who have different ranks or titles have different responsibilities.

The most distinguishing feature that all monks share, however, is their bald shaven head. The shaved head – similar to the tonsure of the Christian monk – is a sign that someone has renounced the laity and has taken on Buddhist commandments (which also applies to Buddhist nuns by the way). The monks usually wear a wine-colored or orange tunic coat and carry a lacquer bowl for alms, own a razor to cut hair, a piece of soap, and a pair of flip-flops. Those five items are the only possessions they’re allowed to have, however, since a monk has to live a life of renunciation. 

Most of the monks are orphans or have been sent to the monastery by parents who are so poor that they cannot provide a daily meal and an education. Another ritual that is still practiced rigorously today is the adoption of a new first name. Japanese monk names, for example, almost always consist of two characters, in which at least one of these characters has a special Buddhist meaning.

But what all Buddhist monks have in common is them striving to do good deeds. The merit that arises from good deeds should lead to a happy life and, subsequently, a good rebirth.

The (strict) schedule of a Buddhist monk

5.00 am: Wake-up call. The monks gather in the temple to recite mantras and pray for the peace of the day. 

6.00 am: Time to clean the house and altar rooms, as well as taking care of personal hygiene.

7.00 am: Breakfast! Monks usually eat what they’ve collected as alms in the village, an integral part of the monastic life. In some sects in is forbidden to eat green onions, garlic, Chinese chives, scallions, and hajikami (ginger and some pepper), since they act as aphrodisiacs and contradict the philosophy of a calm state of mind. 

8.00 am: Debate Class (debating is how the monks learn Buddhist Philosophy and Analytical Meditation)

11.00 am: Gathering, prayers, and lunch

12.00 noon: Monks now have an opportunity to go and see their teachers for more Buddhist philosophical studieUnfamiliar Cultures: A Day in the Life of a Buddhist Monks

5.00 pm: Gathering, prayers, and dinner

6.00 pm: Debating Class

9.00 pm: Memorization and recitation (whatever prayers and texts they have memorized) 

The Importance of Meditation and Generosity (“Dana”)

The practice of meditation is essential in Buddhism. Traditionally, the practice of meditation is reserved for monks and nuns who spend their whole lives on it. The members of the order study the Buddhist scriptures, devote themselves to meditation, and give instruction. In the meantime, lower-ranking members take care of food, clothing, and shelter. 

The goal is to consider all beings and things completely value-free and to see yourself only as part of the universe. This state is said to lead to enlightenment and to break the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Hindus and Buddhists call this state “samadhi.” There are many ways to meditate. Some monks mumble a specific mantra to themselves countless times while sitting. Others focus on a meditative dance or try to switch off their thoughts while walking, playing music, gardening, or martial arts. 

“Dana” (giving or generosity) is one of the essential Buddhist virtues. It forms the basis for further moral and spiritual development because it is an expression of non-attachment and renunciation. The practice of generosity brings great merit and helps to overcome selfishness and attachment (“attachment” stands for something to which one attaches one’s heart). Generosity not only means giving something personally, but it also means being happy with others when something is given to them.

And what’s the deal with Karma?

“Karma” means action, whereby Buddhism distinguishes three actions: that of the body, that of speech, and that of the mind. All forms of human action create imprints, which in turn are the basis of future action and experience. The concept of Karma is closely linked to the idea of rebirth. Our actions can create good or bad Karma or be karmically neutral. The decisive factor here is the motivation with which an action is carried out. Good Karma leads to a “reward” either in the current life or rebirth in pleasant human circumstances, or the sphere of the gods. Bad Karma, on the other hand, leads to rebirth under unfavorable conditions, such as an animal or demon. Good deeds fill the mind with good impressions, so one should do as many good deeds as possible. As long as we see the world dualistically with our ego, every action’s effect remains limited.

Rebirth means that the human soul is reborn as a sentient being on earth or other areas of existence after death. The Buddhists believe in a spirit continuum that goes through many lives. That is why Karma works not only in the current life but also in the next. Conversely, in the present, we ​​are exposed to conditions created by our Karma in previous lives.

What can each and every one of us learn from Buddhism?

  1. Think true happiness is possible! No matter how miserable someone is, there is always a way out.
  2. Follow your inner wisdom! Nobody can relieve you of the search for an individual path. Buddha recommended that you believe less in what others say and rather trust your own experiences.
  3. Be a friend of the world. Resentment and hate harm above all those who feel these feelings. Peaceful coexistence is sufficient to thrive together with others. And: Only those who are friends of themselves can love others.
  4. Improve the world by improving or changing yourself. Things are what they are. We may like them or not. And if we reject them, we tend to want to change them. This keeps us getting involved in unnecessary battles. We rarely consider changing ourselves. But in this way, we could become the change we hope for from others and the world.
  5. And last but not least: Stay calm, no matter what. The world is not perfect. There is no point in demanding that – everything changes. Neither misfortune nor luck is constant. Those who replace greed with serenity and hatred with tolerance reduce stress considerably. 

In this sense: Peace out! ✌️