Monastic Life Up Close - a Personal Experience

by Venerable Fo Hai
International Buddhist College

Venerable Fo Hai, a bhikshu in the Mahayana Tradition from China, welcomes your feedback. Comments can be directed to ibcwriters@gmail.com

China has a long history, a glorious ancient culture, and the largest population in the world. Buddhism had developed rapidly and made wonderful progress during the last two thousands years in China. Though there are hundreds of thousands of people who accept Buddhist views and way of life. Many of them learn about Buddhism as one of the world religions, Buddha, Bodisattva, Arahat, monks and nun from some movies, TV programs, novels and other forms of mass media. In fact, very few people understand what Buddha's teachings are or the real daily life of Buddhist monks and nuns in monasteries.
Buddhist temples assign different jobs to monks and nuns. Some work at the reception taking care of the temple guests. They arrange the guests' accommodation at the temple, offer them foods and drinks, guide them around the temple or take them to visit some beautiful places. Some take charge of cooking meals for breakfast, lunch and supper. Some are in charge of purchasing the daily needs and provisions such as food and cooking ingredients and wares. Some take charge of sanitation works such as cleaning toilets and bathrooms and so on. In fact, the structure of most Buddhist temples looks like that of a business company or some corporations in modern time. The functions are the same but only the positions' names are different. The top leader in Buddhist monasteries is an abbot who is the same as a general manager or a chairman in a business company, for he leads a temple to do everything. The Abbot has many students and assistants who will help him do the daily life tasks int a temple. In ancient Chinese Buddhist tradition, the abbot is a father in a temple and he has all the rights to offer, punish and fire any people, including Buddhist monks and nuns.

Daily life in most monasteries starts at 5:00 a.m. with the first sound from the striking of a wooden board. This is also the first signal call for all monks and nuns to wake up. After hitting the wooden board, the monk moves on to strike a big bell and he recites some Chinese Buddhist poems as he strikes the bell. The other monks and nuns freshen themselves, wash the faces and brush their teeth, and dress up in their robes to go to the main chanting hall. One of monks will beat the drum when the bell sounds are ending. By this time, most of the monks and nuns have gathered at the main chanting hall to begin their morning chanting. This religious morning service is very important for Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns. It usually lasts forty minutes to an hour.

Monks and nuns have their breakfast at 6:30 a.m. after morning chanting. Then they will do their personal chores, like cleaning, sweeping, morning exercise or have a short rest. Most of the monks and nuns have their own duties and daily work to do. During the day, monks and nuns are on duty at various posts in their temples, like the monk in charge of the chanting hall or other religous places. They do these jobs everyday, guarding against fire and thievery, selling tickets, or conversing with visitors and performing some religious service for them.

Lunch is usually at 11:00 a.m. and the monks and nuns gather at the main dining hall. Most Buddhist temples do not allow monks and nuns to cook meal or have breakfast and lunch in their rooms unless they are sick or too old to move about easily. They will resume their routine and continue their duties after lunch. Supper or afternoon refreshment is at 4:30 p.m. and they will have evening chanting after the refreshment. After the evening chanting, monks and nuns will do their personal work until 9:30 p.m. At this time, someone will go round the temple beating a wooden board to notify everyone that it is time to turn off the lights and go to bed.

Most of the monks and nuns stay at temples and seldom go out except for shopping, going to hospital, visiting someone or going home. The life in the monasteries is quiet and peaceful like that day after day and year after year. Some people may feel this life is very boring and dull, but Buddha taught that monks and nuns should lead a very simple, noble, quiet and peaceful life and try their best to develop themselves and practice meditation.
There are laws and regulations governing the social activities or Dharma work of Buddhist monks and nuns. So Buddhist monks and nuns give Dhamma talks and do Buddhist religious activities only in the temples, and usually not in public places. Consequently the public does not get to know Buddhism well and they have misunderstanding and wrong perceptions of what monks and nuns do. Most of the people have little respect for religions, and many regard Buddhist monks and nuns as lazy people who come from very poor families and little education. There are monks and nuns of noble spirits and who are widely knowledgeable, but not many. From Song Dynasty up to now, this period of more than six hundred years, most of the people still dislike Buddhist monks and nuns and may even look down on them. We can see many examples from Chinese history. In mainland China, we do not see Buddhist monks practise meditation in forests, in most of temples and chanting halls. We also do not see Buddhist monks practise meditation in mosquito nets, on rocks, under the trees, or practise walking meditation on the beach or in the forests.

So this is the reality about monastic life for most monks and nuns in China as I learned through my own experience. There is much to be done yet to promote Buddhist spirit and values, and the education and roles of the monks and nuns in public service.

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