Buddhist monks are part of one of the world's oldest religious traditions, and although some orders have adapted to changing social conventions, monks still follow strict rules about etiquette and behavior. This etiquette dictates everything from methods of meditation to how monks address one another. If you're visiting a temple, knowing and respecting these rules will help you show proper respect.
Poverty and Giving
Buddhist monks live a life of poverty as a sign of devotion to Buddhist ideals. This means that everything monks possess and consume must come to them as a gift. Providing gifts of food, clothing and even shelter is one of the best ways a layperson can show appreciation of the faith. This should not be considered charity on the part of the layperson, but rather an exchange, as the monk has already provided his gift in the form of Buddhist teachings. When giving a gift to a monk, it's always a good idea to do so with respect and give the gift to the whole community rather than a particular favored person. Similarly, etiquette dictates that the monk show gratitude for what he receives.
Most monks follow a rigid routine when it comes to eating. The monk can only receive and consume food between the hours of dawn and noon, though he can drink plain water at any time of day. Most orders encourage vegetarianism, as respect for all life is one of the key tenets of Buddhism. When making an offering of food to a monk, you must place the food directly into his hands, and he cannot cook or cure the food himself in ordinary circumstances. Similarly, monks cannot eat fertile seeds, so a layperson should remove the seeds from fruit and vegetables before offering them as gifts.
Clothing and Hair
Monks also have rigid customs when it comes to clothing. Some denominations such as forest monks in Thailand, make their own clothes from raw cloth they receive. Other groups simply receive the robes as gifts from laypeople. Buddhist robes are typically three-layered and made from coarse rather than refined materials, as this is another sign of devotion. Monks may also wear clothing such as sweaters, socks or T-shirts if they received these garments as gifts. Another important action taken by Buddhist converts is to shave off all of their hair in imitation of the Buddha himself.
One aspect of Buddhism that changes significantly between different Buddhist denominations is attitudes toward women. In stricter denominations such as those found in Thailand, etiquette dictates that monks may not touch women, and when receiving a gift from a female layperson, they must do so through a cloth. Other sects such as those in Japan have changed this custom, and afford monks the right to get married and even have children, encouraging the practice as a means of continuing the heredity-based succession at Japanese temples.
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