Customs and Rituals

What is a day in the life of a Buddhist monastery like?

Daily monastic rituals vary somewhat according to place and denomination. Theravada monasteries revolve around the chanting of scriptures from the first two “baskets,” the Vinaya and Sutra Pitakas. After waking at around three a.m., members lie prostrate together in the oratory to recite the Three Refuges and chant sutras. They spend several hours in study and meditation before heading out to beg. Breakfast precedes more communal chanting and a class on the rules of discipline. Supper is scheduled before noon, after which members spend the afternoon studying scripture and resting. More chanting, study, and prayer, along with a chance to once again examine the conscience and confess faults, bring the day to a close by ten. Theravada monks in many areas engage in considerable social service activity, assisting villagers in various kinds of practical projects and in community organization. In places like Japan, monks leave the monastery on a quest for alms that is more a symbolic reminder of their dependence than a substantial necessity.

Daily order is strictly regulated with relatively little time for individual activities. Certain days are designated for shaving and bathing. Zen monks engage in periods of manual labor around the monastery, such as gardening, gathering fuel, and general maintenance, and place greater emphasis on silent meditation than on recitation of scriptural texts. Each month a whole week is dedicated to virtually round-the-clock zazen, or sitting meditation, together in the same hall where the monks sleep. Monastic life generally allows sufficient sleep and nutritious food to maintain good health, but nothing superfluous in either case. It is a physically and psychologically demanding life. In most cases, individuals can join a monastery for a time, with the understanding that they do not intend to make a lifelong commitment to it.


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