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A Bhikku (Pāli), Bhikṣu (Sanskrit) (Thai: ภิกษุ) is a fully ordained male Buddhist monastic. Female monastic is called Bhikkhuni (Skt: Bhikṣuṇī). Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis keep many precepts: they live by the vinaya's framework of monastic discipline, the basic rules of which are called the patimokkha. Their lifestyle is shaped so as to support their spiritual practice, to live a simple and meditative life, and attain Nirvana.
People of the Pali Canon
Lay devotee (m., f.)
Bhiksu may be literally translated as "beggar" or more broadly as "one who lives by alms". It is philologically analysed in the Pāli commentary of Buddhaghosa as "the person who sees danger (in samsara or cycle of rebirth)" (Pāli = Bhayaṃ ikkhatīti: bhikkhu). He therefore seeks ordination in order to release from it. The Dhammapada states:
Not therefore is he a bhikkhu
Merely because he begs from others.
Not by adopting the outward form
Does one truly become a bhikkhu.
He who wholly subdues evil,
Both small and great,
Is called a monk (bhikkhu)
Because he has overcome all evil. Dhp 266, 267
A bhikkhu has taken a vow to enter the Sangha (Buddhist monastic community) and is expected to obey rules of conduct (typically around 227 for a male) as set out in the Vinaya, although there are considerable local variations in the interpretations of these rules. A novice monk or nun in the Tibetan tradition takes 36 vows of conduct. The minimum age to take bhikkhu vows is 21 years (although this varies from country to country).
In English literature prior to the mid-20th Century, Buddhist monks were often referred to by the term bonze, particularly when describing monks from East Asia and French Indochina. This term is derived via Portuguese and French from the Japanese word bonsō for a priest or monk, and has become less common in modern literature.
Vows and Ordination
Although the European concepts "monk" and "nun" are applied to Buddhism relatively unproblematically, the situation of 'ordination' is more complicated.
Becoming a Bhikkhu/Bhikkhuni
In Buddhism, monasticism is part of the system of "vows of individual liberation". These vows are taken by monks and nuns from the ordinary sangha, in order to develop personal ethical discipline. In Mahayana Buddhism, the term "sangha" is, in principle, often understood to refer particularly to the Arya Sangha (Tib. mchog kyi tshogs, pronounced chokyi tsok)) the "community of the noble ones who have reached the first bhumi. These, however, need not be monks and nuns.
The vows of individual liberation are taken in four steps. A lay person may take the five upāsaka (Pali and Sanskrit; feminine: upāsikā; Tibetan dge snyan/dge snyan ma, pronounced genyen/genyenma, "approaching virtue") vows. The next step is to enter the pabbajja (Srt: pravrajya, Tib. rab byung pronounced rabjung), or monastic way of life, which includes wearing monk's or nun's robes. After that, one can become a samanera (Pali; feminine: samaneri; Skt. śrāmaṇera/śrāmaṇeri, Tib. dge tshul/dge tshul ma, pronounced getshül/getshülma), or novice monk/nun. The last and final step is to take all the vows of a bhikkhu/bhukkhuni (Pali, Sanskrit: Bhikṣu/Bhikṣuṇīs, Tib. dge long/dge long ma>, pronounced gelong/gelongma) a "fully ordained monk/nun."
Monks and nuns take their vows for a lifetime, but they can "give them back" (up to three times in one life), a possibility which is actually used by many people. In this way, Buddhism keeps the vows "clean". It is possible to keep them or to leave this lifestyle, but it is considered extremely negative to break these vows.
In Tibet, rabjung, getshül, gelong ordinations are usually taken at ages six, fourteen and twenty-one or older, respectively.
The special dress of ordained people, the robes, comes from the idea of wearing cheap clothes just to protect the body from weather and climate. They shall not be made from one piece of cloth, but mended together from several pieces. Since dark red was the cheapest colour in Kashmir, the Tibetan tradition has red robes. In the south, yellow played the same role, though the color of saffron also had cultural associations in India; in East Asia, robes are yellow, grey or black.
The robes of getshül novices and gelong monks differ in various aspects, especially in the application of "holes" in the gelong dress. Some monks tear their robes into pieces and then mend these pieces together again. The rabjung novices shall not wear the "chö-göö", the yellow tissue worn during Buddhist teachings by both getshüls and gelongs.
In observance of the Kathina Puja, a special Kathina robe is made in 24 hours from donations by lay supporters of a temple. The robe is donated to the temple or monastery, and the resident monks then select from their own number a single monk to receive this special robe.
Additional vows in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions
In addition, in some traditions there are forms of non-vinaya ordinations, the holders of which are not considered Bhikṣus. These included ordination into the "White Sangha" lineage of Tibetan yogis (Tib. naljorpa/naljorma , <rnal hbyor pa/ma>), and all of the ordination lineages of the various Japanese traditions.
"Ordination" in Buddhism is a cluster of methods of self-discipline according to the needs, possibilities and capabilities of individuals. According to the spiritual development of his followers, the Buddha gave different levels of vows. The most advanced method is the state of a bikshu(ni), a fully ordained follower of the Buddha's teachings. The goal of the bhikku(ni) in all traditions is to achieve liberation from suffering.
- Inwood, Kristiaan. Bhikkhu, Disciple of the Buddha. Bangkok, Thailand: Thai Watana Panich, 1981. (No ISBN listed in the Library of Congress catalog.)
- Inwood, Kristiaan. Bhikkhu, Disciple of the Buddha, revised edition. Bangkok, Thailand: Orchid Press, 2005. ISBN 9789745240599.