Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

What is a monk and how are Buddhist monasteries organized?

In its wider sense, “monk” refers to any male Buddhist who enters a monastic institution, whether permanently or for a short time, receiving at least the lower ordination to the status of novice (shramanera). Strictly speaking, a monk is a male at least twenty years old who has been in the monastery at least five years and received the higher ordination to the status of bhikshu (“mendicant”). Monasteries are generally independent and autonomous foundations. Rather like Benedictine monasteries in Roman Catholicism (a very loose analogy), Buddhist monasteries of the same lineage or “order” are administered separately. Each monastery’s internal structure combines offices—positions assigned by a monastic council or other governing body—and ranks—distinctions often based on seniority or spiritual acumen. Offices in a Japanese Zen monastery include, for example, chief abbot (in a complex with many sub-monasteries and temples), abbot (kancho), Zen master (roshi), meditation leader and disciplinarian (jikijitsu) in the Zendo or meditation hall, administrator of the Zendo (jisha), and head cook. An important rank is that of head monk (jushoku), who might also hold the office of abbot in a sub-temple. Similarily, in Thai Theravada monasteries offices include abbots and meditation masters, and recognize various ranks, such as those of elder (thera, ten years’ seniority), and great elder (mahathera, with twenty years’ seniority).


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