Timeline of Buddhist History
Recognizing How Your Mind Shapes Your Experience
Realizing the Four Stages on the Path to Nirvana

Surveying the Role of Monasteries in Buddhism

Buddhist monks and nuns have traditionally relinquished their worldly attachments in favor of a simple life devoted to the three trainings of Buddhism:

  • Precepts: Ethical conduct
  • Concentration: Meditation practice
  • Wisdom: Dharma study and direct spiritual insight

To support these endeavors, monasteries are generally set apart from the usual commotion of ordinary life. Some monasteries are located in relatively secluded natural settings like forests and mountains; others are situated near or even in villages, towns, and large cities where they manage to thrive by serving the needs of their inhabitants for quiet contemplation and the needs of lay supporters for spiritual enrichment.

Wherever they're located, monasteries have traditionally maintained an interdependent relationship with the surrounding lay community. For example, in the Theravada tradition, monks and nuns rely exclusively on lay supporters for their food and financial support. The tradition prohibits monastics (a catch-all term for monks and nuns) from growing or buying food or earning or even carrying money. So monks and nuns often make regular alms rounds to local villages and towns (during which they receive food from their supporters) and open their doors to the laity to receive contributions of money, food, and work.

Likewise, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are often situated near towns or villages. The monasteries draw their members as well as their material support from these nearby communities. The exchange works both ways. The laity in both Tibet and Southeast Asia traditionally benefits from the dharma teachings and wise counsel offered by the monks and nuns.

In China, the monastic rules changed to permit monks and nuns to grow their own food and manage their own financial affairs, which allowed them to become more independent of lay supporters. As a result, many monasteries in China, Japan, and Korea became worlds unto themselves where hundreds or even thousands of monks gathered to study with prominent teachers. Here the eccentric behavior, mysterious teaching stories, and unique lingo of Zen flourished.

Despite their doctrinal, architectural, and cultural differences, Buddhist monasteries are remarkably alike in the daily practice they foster. Generally, monks and nuns rise early for a day of meditation, chanting, ritual, study, teaching, and work.

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