Buddhist monasteries have certain social conventions and body language meant to convey a sense of composure, grace, and respect. For people visiting the monastery and unfamiliar with the etiquette, it can often feel intimidating: “I think there is a way I am supposed to behave, but I don’t know what it is!”
As suggested in the visiting page, no good monk will be offended by the absence of proper etiquette on your behalf. Much more important is a well-intentioned attitude. Courtesy and respect go a long way and are the basis for many of the forms of etiquette we use in the monastery.
As well as promoting harmony and grace within the community, the forms of etiquette we use are also a means of training oneself in mindfulness and circumspection in everyday social interactions.
The most commonly used expression of body language in the monastery is the añjali. The hands are held palm-to-palm in front of the heart and are sometimes raised to the lowered forehead. It is a gesture of respect that can be used as a greeting, a goodbye, a thank-you or when speaking with one of the monastics.
The traditional way of paying respect to a shrine or to a senior monk is to bow. This is done kneeling and sitting firmly on the heels (toes curled in or out). Bow forward, putting the hands six inches apart and the elbows directly in front of the knees. Touch the forehead to the floor between the hands. Bow three times. In the monastery we pay respect to the shrine when entering or leaving the meditation hall and to the senior monk at the end of the morning and evening meditation sessions.
In Buddhist cultures it is traditionally considered impolite to point one’s feet at either the shrine or at the monks. Also, lying down or stretching out is also considered inappropriate in the meditation hall. During meditation or a Dhamma talk, care should be taken to move and shift positions quietly.
Relating to the Monastic Community
Monks have many rules in their monastic code of discipline that affect the way they relate to people. In particular, it is a serious offense for an ordained monastic to have sensual physical contact with a person of the opposite sex. The protection also stipulates that there must be another conscientious male present whenever a monk is spending time with a woman. This is to prevent unfortunate situations from occurring, as well as to prevent harmful gossip and misunderstanding. Partly for this reason, monks will greet people with an añjali rather than shaking hands or embracing.
As alms-mendicants, monks are prohibited from engaging in activities that could provide for their own material livelihood. This includes handling money, cultivating crops, and working the land or storing food. As a result, everything that accrues to the monastic community is the result of an offering from a generous person. Anything a monk consumes, except water, must be offered to them directly. They cannot help themselves to food unless it has been given to them.
In addressing a monk, it is considered impolite to refer to them directly by name without an appropriate form of address. The abbot or any monastic of more than ten years standing is usually addressed as “Ajahn” (e.g. Ajahn Pasanno). “Ajahn” is a Thai word from the Pāli “Ācariya” meaing “teacher.” Monks with less than ten years in the order can be addressed as “Tahn”’ (e.g. Tan Cāganando), which is also Thai and means “venerable.” To make things easier, any monk can be addressed as “venerable” or as “bhante” (pronounced BUN-tay) which is from Pāli, the original language of the Buddhist scriptures and means “‘dear sir.”
Relating to the Monastery
Sangha life is a life of community. Everything in the monastery belongs to the sangha- the ordained disciples of the Buddha, both present and future. The individual members of the sangha and its guests are the caretakers charged with the responsibility of safeguarding, protecting, and maintaining the monastery for the use of the Buddha’s disciples today and tomorrow.
One should remove one’s shoes before entering any monastery building. For dwellings, the standard is to try to leave it cleaner than when you arrived. An overall attitude of care and respect for monastery property is the rule.
Items in the storerooms are also property of the sangha. Even the monastics may not help themselves to things without permission. If you need something, please ask permission from the guest monk. Food in storage is looked after by the lay stewards of the monastery and is available only at the designated meal times. An important aspect of monastery etiquette is to practice contentment with whatever is offered and when it is offered; special diets are not generally supported. If you need something outside of mealtimes or beyond what is offered, please speak with the kitchen manager.