Just as most other religions -- from those in tribal societies to those in developed nations -- Buddhism has specific rites of passage for its devotees. Despite slight differences depending on the sect of Buddhism, these rites are a way for people to commit themselves to the path of the Buddha's teachings. Buddhist rites of passage occur in stages throughout the one's life and development spiritual journey.
Rites of Passage in the Time of the Buddha
When the Buddha first began teaching the principles of enlightenment and the path to this venerated state, he allowed anyone into his monastic order. The only requirement was to take a vow of the five precepts: do not kill, steal, be unchaste, consume intoxicants or lie. Though he originally only established a monastic order for male monks (bhikkus), he eventually also allowed women into the monastic (bhikkunis). Because the requirements to becoming a disciple of the Buddha were so small, it is estimated that the number of monks and nuns reached over 1,000 people in less than seven months after the Buddha began giving his teachings. After he taught his disciples exhaustively of the dharma and the path to enlightenment, he sent them into the world on a never-ending journey to teach others of the path.
The First Step to Becoming a Buddhist
In order to truly commit yourself to the teachings of the Buddha, the first step is taking refuge. In Buddhist beliefs there are three main sources in which followers can find peace and sanctity, called the Triple Gem: the Buddha himself, the dharma (his teachings) and the sangha (the worldwide group of Buddhists). In taking refuge, one proclaims a commitment to all three and a desire to attain enlightenment. This basic step is a part of both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism; however Theravada focuses on individual enlightenment, while Mahayana focuses on enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. This commitment is not a simple declaration but a formal ceremony that consists of vows in the five precepts, along with the giving of a Tibetan name for those outside of the Eastern world.
Monastic Rites of Passage for Men
For men, there are two levels of ordination, lower and higher, delineated by age and experience. One must be in good health and not have any transmittable diseases, which is determined through a series of specific questions. For lower ordination the requirement is simply the renunciation of secular life. This involves giving up most material possessions, shaving the head, learning basics of the Buddha's teachings and acceptance of the monastic lifestyle. Because the goal of becoming a bhikkhu is worldly detachment and attainment of perfect knowledge, or enlightenment, monks may possess only eight things: three robes, a bowl for begging, a water filter, a belt and a sewing needle. Higher ordination must be originally sanctioned by at least two monks and agreed upon by all members of the monastery's sangha. Male ordination in general involves the taking of vows for 277 precepts, complete renunciation of a householder's life and the total devotion according to Vinaya, or monastic, law to the Buddhist path.
Monastic Rites of Passage for Women
Though there was originally no separation in Buddhist practice, different styles and forms of Buddhism have arisen since the time of the Buddha and continue to flourish. Women were always allowed into the Mahayana monastic order. In the Theraveda tradition, women were not allowed to be ordained for nearly 800 years; this, however, changed in the late 20th century. Women must go through three stages of ordination: renunciation of secular life, training and preparation for ordination, and full ordination. Buddhist nuns are distinguished by their level of learning (novice or experienced), whom they were ordained by and when their ordination occurred. Nuns must also take 34 vows in addition to the original 277 for men, making a total of 311 precepts for full female ordination.
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