Despite what you might expect, when attending an event at Dhammasala you don't have to bow or do other unfamiliar things. The atmosphere is very relaxed. There are a few things you should know concerning the polite behavior of laypeople (non-monks) toward monks, and about the rules that monks follow in Theravada Buddhism.
Etiquette and Discipline Concerning Ordinates in Theravada Buddhism
Over 2,500 years ago the Lord Buddha formulated rules governing the behavior of his monks in order to protect his teaching (Dhamma) and in order to help the monks lead the holy life. It was also meant to protect the lay followers from unscrupulous monks. The discipline and etiquette are under Sila (virtue) of the Eightfold Path. The monk's discipline, like the lay person's discipline, is the basis for concentration, which is the basis for wisdom. To ignore this training is to ignore an important part of the path. The lay person's discipline is based on the five precepts; a monk's discipline is based on the very same five precepts but expanded and refined to 227 rules and hundreds of minor rules.
Sila (virtue) by definition means: nature, character, habits, customs, practice, conduct, piety and morality. It is the first obligation of one ordained.
"Having gone forth and possessing the bhikkhu's training when the Tathagata receives a person to be trained he first disciplines them thus: 'come bhikkhu, be virtuous, restrained, with the restraint of the training rules, be perfect in conduct and resort and seeing fear in the slightest fault, train by undertaking the training rules'."
"Monks, for the evil who lack virtue, right concentration is destroyed. When right concentration is not, true knowledge and insight are therefore destroyed in one who lacks concentration."
For smooth and good relations between monk and lay follower and for the increase and growth in Dhamma, the following relevant rules of discipline and etiquette are presented. They are divided by rules based on the Buddha's training rules for monks and traditional etiquette surrounding monks in society.
In this day and age of "new Buddhism" and "new age" ideas being incorporated into what was once straight forward Dhamma of the Buddha it is all the more important to retain and preserve the original teachings. There are those who do not know what the Buddha taught and may be confused and misguided by "new" teachings being offered, many of which have little to do with the word of the Buddha. Dhammasala tries to remain faithful to the original word of the Buddha and the monks reflect this traditional spirit of the Dhamma/Vinaya.
"Gotami, the qualities of which you may know, 'These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered and not to being fettered; to self-effacement and not to self-aggrandizement; to modesty and not to ambition; to contentment and not to discontentment; to seclusion and not to entanglement; to energy and not o idleness; to being unburdensome and not to being burdensome'; You may definitely hold , 'This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, his is the Teacher's instruction."
"Discipline is for the sake of restraint, restraint for the sake of freedom from remorse, freedom from remorse is for the sake of joy, joy is for the sake of rapture, rapture is for the sake of tranquility, tranquility is for the sake of pleasure, pleasure is for the sake of concentration, concentration for the sake of knowledge and vision of things as they are, knowledge and vision of things as they are for the sake of disenchantment, disenchantment for the sake of dispassion, dispassion for the sake of release, release for the sake of knowledge and vision of release, knowledge and vision of release for the sake of total unbinding without clinging."
The Buddha: "So it is, Bhaddali. When beings have begun to deteriorate, and true Dhamma has begun to disappear, there are more training rules and fewer monks established in the knowledge of Awakening. The Teacher does not lay down a training rule for this disciples as long as there are no cases where the conditions that offer a foothold for the effluents have arisen in the Community. But when there are cases where the conditions that offer for the effluents have arisen in the Community, the the Teacher lays down a training rule for his disciples so as to counteract those very conditions."
"There are no cases where the conditions that offer a foothold for the effluents have arisen in the Community as long as the Community has not become large. But when the Community has become large, then there are cases where the conditions that offer a foothold for the effluents arise in the Community, and the Teacher then lays down a training rule for his disciples so as to counteract those very conditions...When the Community possesses great material gains...great status...a large body of learning...when the Community is long-standing, then there are cases where the conditions that offer a foothold for the effluents in the Community, and the Teacher then lays down a training rule for his disciples so as to counteract those very conditions."
"In that case, monks, I will formulate a training rule for the monks with ten aims in mind: the excellence of the Community, the peace of the Community, the curbing of the shameless, the comfort of the well-behaved monks, the restraint of effluents related to the present life, the prevention of effluents related to the next life, the arousing of faith in the faithless, the increase in faith in the faithful, the establishment of the true Dhamma, and fostering of discipline."
The Buddha: "There is the case where a monk says this: 'In the Blessed One's presence have I received this: This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher's instruction.' His statement is neither to be approved nor scorned. Without approval or scorn, take careful note of his words and make them stand against the Suttas and tally them against the Vinaya. If, on making them stand against the Suttas and tallying them against the Vinaya, you find that they don't stand with the Suttas or tally with the Vinaya, you may conclude: 'This is not the word of the Blessed One; this monk has misunderstood it' - and you should reject it. Bit if...they stand with the Suttas and tally with the Vinaya, you may conclude: 'This is the word of the Blessed One; this monk has understood it rightly."
Monks and nuns do not shake hands. If you wish, the traditional greeting consists of hands held together in an attitude of prayer, the traditional Indian greeting. A monk does not return a salute; you will just get a smile in return.
A monk can be addressed by calling him "Venerable" (in English) or "Bhante" (in Pali). In Thailand they are commonly called "Ahjahn" from the Pali word "Acariya" meaning teacher. Ajahn is the usual used here at Dhammasala (pronouced Ah-John).
There is no direct physical contact with a woman. In the Thai tradition monks do not accept things directly from a woman (of any age) nor do women nuns accept directly from a man. When offering or handing over some object it should be given to a man to hand on or laid down first so that the monk may pick it up. In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia the monk will have a "receiving cloth" which he will lay down for the person to place offerings on. The actual rules from which this tradition arises states, "Should any monk, lustful, with perverted thoughts, engage with a woman in bodily contact or holding of hands or holding of tresses of hair or touching some part of her body, this entails initial and subsequent meeting of the order (Sangha)." From this and from the story behind the ruling it can be see that it is the monks (and nuns) who are being restrained from perhaps bad behavior and not the women. And who has the power to know if a monk's heart is in a state of desire? The Thai custom therefore anticipates any doubts or accusations and prevents them from arising. (Nuns have the same ruling towards men.)
Following upon the above, and for the same reasons, are some related customs. If a woman visits a monk a man must accompany her and if a man visits a nun he must be accompanied. A monk may not sit on the same seat as a woman nor a nun with a man. A monk does not sit next to a woman even in separate seats unless they are some distance apart, this applies to nuns and men. The rule and custom are again to protect the monk's and nun's reputation as well as the reputation of the visitor..
In the forest tradition monks and nuns eat but once a day and out of their alms-bowls. This is something to consider if inviting an ordinate to have a meal at one's house.
In Asia the head is considered 'high' and the feet 'low'. An ordinate's head should never be touched. The feet should never be pointed or directed at them. This also means that in meditation classes so, out of politeness, one should not stretch their feet towards the teacher nor towards the Buddha shrine. For the above reasons, when speaking to s monk or nun one should not do so while standing over them.
When visiting a temple one should be properly and modestly dressed. Practically speaking, for meditation sessions, one's clothing should be loose and give freedom of movement.
One will see Asians prostrating to ordinates or the Buddha images. This is a personal choice and a common custom in Buddhist countries. Southern Asian countries have the custom of prostrating to teachers, parents and elders as well. It is not necessarily a religious custom. It is certainly not necessary if you feel uncomfortable doing this.
Monks and nuns should not be invited to weddings, birthday parties nor any function where the purpose is for lay person's enjoyment. Ordinates are traditionally asked to bless the married couple after the wedding has taken place and in ceremonies specifically for that purpose. This is true with births, birthdays, funerals and death anniversaries as well as house blessing ceremonies.
TRAINING RULES (for Ordinates)
- A monk or nun may not take the life of any living being. In Buddhism life is counted from the time of conception. A monk or nun therefore may not advise anyone positively in matters concerning abortion and pro-euthanasia.
- All food offerings to a monk must be formally offered into his hands or placed (in the case of a woman) on the receiving cloth. The food once offered should not be touched again by a lay person. Only water need not be offered so.
- If food is offered in the form of canned or storable goods, then it should not be offered but given merely verbally and then set aside.
- Monks and nuns do not eat with lay people. Lay people may eat at the same time if in a separate area. Ordinates should not be talked to while eating.
- A monk or nun may not eat food after 12:00 noon. They may consume drinks like sodas, tea and coffee.
- Monks and nuns may not listen to music nor watch entertainment shows. It would be rude to invite a monk or nun to the home or other places and have music playing.
- Monks and nuns may not consume any alcohol or drinks or food mixed with any alcohol. Alcohol should not be served at a function where monks or nuns are present.
- A monk may not be alone with a woman or women nor a nun alone with a man.
- For the above reason a monk cannot travel alone with a woman nor a nun travel alone with a man.
- Monks may not cook food for themselves. They are normally dependent on alms-offerings. If pre-cooked food is offered a monk may reheat that offering (convenient in an era of frozen pre-cooked foods).
- Monks and nuns cannot touch weapons, traps, toys nor play games.
- Monks and nuns cannot act as a go-between in flirtations between couple or advise someone to marry or divorce.