Sometimes a person may feel so strongly dedicated to the Three Jewels and so averse to samsara, that he or she would like to devote his or her life to Buddhist practice. One does not have to become a monk or nun to do that, since there is "room" in Buddhism for practitioners of several types with various levels or types of commitment.
Preparation for Taking Vows of Aspiration
Having experienced the veracity of the Four Noble Truths and through contemplating the Four Thoughts (that turn the mind to Buddha Dharma,) some yearn to renounce cyclic existence (Skt. sangsara, samsara) entirely. The situation most conducive to this is found in retreat or in a monastic order, where we can practice uninterruptedly.
To prepare for this, a person needs to withdraw from social commitments and clear up outstanding personal business including financial debts. This is the first step in abandoning worldly activities entirely.
Why Join a Monastic Community?
In the Mahayana, the quest for Awakening is not for oneself alone, but out of a sincere wish to benefit all sentient beings without exception. Thus, after taking Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the Three Jewels,) the bodhisattva vows are the first ones we take. A logical next step may be to seek to join a monastic community where one can dedicate one's time and energy to dharma study and practice in a situation where we are free from the distractions of daily life. Through this practice, we can better help others.
In a monastery, one is more likely to have regular access to teachers with
expertise than as a "householder." Also, there the
circumstances are more favourable to one's receiving individual guidance from a
mentor and to receiving Vajrayana transmissions on a regular basis. Ever
since the Buddha's day, the sanghas of monks and nuns have been the primary holders of the Dharma because
this. And the presence of Buddhist monastics in a community serves as
inspiration and motivation for others to learn about, to study and to practice
While a man can take temporary (getsul) monastic vows of renunciation several times in his life, the rule is that a woman can only do so once. Therefore, it is important to talk over the idea with a knowledgeable spiritual mentor.
If a fully-ordained person changes his or her mind, it is not enough to take off one's robes in order to be released from the commitment. The vows must be formally given back to another monastic, who is still holding his or her vows. To break these root vows is considered to cause serious consequences in terms of karma, and overcoming them is rarely possible in just one lifetime. Therefore, for men, a preliminary stage that can be temporary, that of getsul, was introduced. For women, see below.
How to Become a Monk
Sometimes a prospective postulant is asked to wait a few years to ensure that he is not "running away" from some problematic situation. Some people may find it beneficial to follow some of the main principles, such as rising early, limiting eating habits and keeping celibate, to see whether they are actually suited to a life of monastic discipline.
It is not absolutely necessary to receive the vows in the denomination or lineage to which one is devoted. This is especially true in the West, where we do not often have the opportunity of having access to our root lamas. All Buddhists are considered members of the sangha of Shakyamuni; he is our ultimate Refuge.
The Distinctive Case of Women
For ordination, the woman's situation is different, deriving as it does from ancient Indian cultural tradition: Her body is a door to the continuity of samsara and rebirth in this realm, and she does not have absolute control over conception.
In Tibetan, they say "If you want a teacher, you should make your son a monk. If you want a servant, you should make your daughter a nun.'' You should know that, like their male counterparts, Buddhist nuns observe over 200 precepts, but they must observe several more than the monks, and are always considered subordinate to them.
Traditional nuns and monks are members of a community, and there is good reason for that.
In the Americas and in Europe, there is not much financial and social support yet for Buddhist nuns. Also, as some other spiritual traditions, there are lengthy periods of being a postulant and then, a novice (Skt. shramanera.) Until 1981, for various historical reasons full ordination* (Skt. bhikshuni, Tib. gelongma) in the Tibetan tradition was not possible, so you will need to find out about that, too.
*ordination is not a Buddhist concept. The term has been frequently used because it is familiar to people who know about monasticism within the Christian (Catholic or Anglican) context. In Buddhism, one renounces the activities of "family life" by beginning with the observation of some fundamental precepts and then later, if one chooses and is able to do so, vowing to keep all the commitments of renunciation.
Life as a Buddhist Nun
Supporting the Aspiration of Someone Else
If you cannot go into retreat yourself, why not consider helping someone else? Retreatants usually require financial sponsorship before being accepted. There are several good reasons for this, not the least of which is that it keeps alive the tradition upon which the Buddhist monastic community was based. That is, it fosters generosity and support for the dharma in the wider community. This support gives one an opportunity to practice generosity and to share in the merit of the person doing the retreat.
For example, in spring 2003, Pema (Kate White) needed help completing the 3-year, 3-month retreat at Karme Ling in Delhi, NY, USA under the direction of Ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche (Abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra). It costs about $575 each month to defray the expenses of food and lodging.
If you are able to help any retreatant in need, please consider:
Supporting a person in retreat is considered as meritorious as if you yourself are doing the retreat.
One Tibetan Nun's Story
Finally, in spring 2003, Ani Ngawang Sangdrol was released from Drapchi Prison where the PRC had sentenced her to an ever-extending term. An extract from her statement:
On March 31, 2003, in a Tibetan language interview,
Ngawang Sangdrol described the intense official surveillance that followed her early release from prison
in 2002 -- nine years before her sentence was due to end. "After I was given medical parole from prison,
there were still guards watching me all the time, even
at home." She said guards beat her on many occasions, once smashing mugs and plumbing
pipe on her head
until it bled heavily. She had to agree not to engage in "anti-Chinese" activities overseas.