Tibet is a land of Buddhism, and the religion and culture have a profound interaction that results in Buddhism being a major part of everyday life in Tibet. And this is more so for the Tibetan monks, as they are significant members of society in Tibetan culture and religion. And while they may lead a simple and peaceful life, they play a major role in the lives of the Tibetan people.
What is a Tibetan Monk Called?
In Tibetan, “monk” generally translates to “trapa”, which means student or scholar. Traditionally, the only people that studied any writings or education in Tibet were the monks. And while this has changed greatly over the centuries, the title has remained the same.
A Tibetan monk is generally called "Lama".
Lama, or Bla-ma in Tibetan, is the title originally given to Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leaders, the “guru” or “venerable one” as they were traditionally known. This title was only given to the heads of the great monasteries, or the great teachers of Tibetan Buddhism. These days, however, the title is now extended to say respected monk or priest, out of courtesy.
What Do Tibetan Monks Believe?
Tibetan monks believe in Tibetan Buddhism, which is a tolerant religion that places a significant emphasis on practical methods for cultivating spiritual awareness and the importance of discovering one's own truth. It generally treasures qualities such as kindness, compassion, equanimity, clarity of mind, and wisdom.
The core beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism include the Three Universal Truths, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Three Universal Truths state that nothing in the universe is ever truly lost, everything undergoes constant change from one moment to the next, and all living things experience suffering.
Tibetan monks believe in Tibetan Buddhism.
The Four Noble Truths encompass the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. These truths provide the foundation for all Buddhist thought.
The Noble Eightfold Path, which includes Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration, teaches how to be ethical and moral, how to be good, kind, and positive, and how to eliminate negativity from life.
What Do Tibetan Monks Do in Daily Life?
As well as the chores that the monastic life requires, a monk must also study and pray, meditate, and debate on the scriptures. This peaceful and scholastic life is what they believe will lead them to enlightenment.
Their normal day begins at daybreak, where the morning call beings them to the assembly hall for Morning Prayer. After the Morning Prayer, which lasts for 2-3 hours, a simple breakfast of porridge and tea is served.
Tibetan monks are doing morning prayer in Jokhang Temple.
The morning is reserved for their studies, and monks will study the Buddhist scriptures and debate the points with their mentors and masters as a way of learning. Others will offer prayers to families of the deceased to find rest and peace from their suffering.
In the afternoon, after more study or meditation, the afternoon prayers will be called, and the monks will again spend a couple of hours in prayer and reflection, before retiring to reflect and meditate in private.
How Do Tibetan Monks Meditate?
Meditation is an ancient practice that uses mental training to induce intensive states of concentration. In Tibetan Buddhism, there are several methods that are used to meditate. In the Nyingma School, Dzogchen, or “the great perfection” is a form of meditation that allows the practitioner to remove all unnecessary mental activity and calm the mind to a degree where they can realize the true nature of things.
A Tibetan monk is meditating on the mountain.
The use of Mantras is another form of meditation used by monks in Tibet. A form of meditation that can be performed anywhere; the recitation of these mantras is a way of warding off negative energy and attracting positivity. The mantras are traditionally dedicated to all forms of life everywhere, including yourself.
Visualization is an advanced form of mediation that generally involves the monk to visualize a deity of Buddha and focus on that image and the qualities that Buddha possesses. This form can lead to a heightened meditative state and complete calmness, and is usually performed by very experienced monks and lamas.
Another form is breathing meditation. Sitting or lying down, the monk will close his eyes and focus on only his breathing, the breaths in and out, unforced, which then helps to increase awareness of their own bodily sensations and increase their attention spans.
Are Tibetan Monks Vegetarian?
Generally, vegetarianism is not fully practiced by many Tibetan monks, and their daily diet consists of much the same things as most ordinary Tibetans, from tsampa and butter tea to mutton and vegetables.
Monastic dishes are simple and as nutritious as possible. They often consist of beans, noodle soups, stir-fried or steamed vegetables, porridge, and any dairy products that are available.
The food offered in Tibetan monasteries are simple and as nutritious as possible.
There is no definitive answer to the question of vegetarianism, though, as there are different branches of Buddhism in Tibet. Some will retain the vegetarian requirement brought on by the belief that they should not kill any living thing. Others believe that the Tantric idealism that “clean” meat is acceptable will eat it, as it is not slaughtered by them or inside the monastery grounds and the monks never see the animal they will eat.
One of the main dietary restrictions in Tibet is fish. Tibetans don’t eat fish as they regard the fish as incarnations of the water deity, as the fish is one of the eight auspicious animals and an emblem of happiness.
Can Tibetan Monks Marry?
In general, Tibetan monks tend not to get married, in part because most schools forbid it, as the Buddha preached celibacy and restraint, but also in part because they have no need for marriage. The path to true enlightenment is one of personal growth and marriage may obstruct that in many ways.
Previously, it was normal for senior monks and lamas to marry noble women, but this practice has mostly died out in Tibet now, and few actually marry. The exception to this is the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism, which has continued the traditional line of married monk-teachers that began in the 11th century.
Generally, monks who decide to marry and have children must leave the monastic life to do so.
Where Do Tibetan Monks Live?
Most monks in Tibet live their daily lives in the monasteries that can be found across the plateau region. This is mostly the case for the major monasteries, such as Drepung and Sera, where hundreds of monks live together. But even in the far-flung and distant monasteries, there are usually a few local monks that run the monastery, care for its statues and altars, and maintain the faith in the region.
Tibetan Monks in Drepung Monastery
However, you can also find monks in some of the many hermitage sites in Tibet, though they generally only spend a certain period of time there, before returning to their monastery. The same goes for the many spiritual retreats, where the monks can go and spend weeks in intense meditation to better their understanding of the scriptures.
What Do Tibetan Monks Wear?
The traditional robes of the Tibetan monks vary slightly from school to school in Tibet, but are similar in shape and form. The regular dress consists of a form of vest, where the front and back are decorated with yellow cloth, a skirt, and a shawl draped across their body that is normally around 2.5 times their height.
This varies slightly in color, but is generally used by all schools in Tibet. The main difference comes with the ceremonial garb, which is more decorative, and includes the use of a cap or hat, often yellow or red, and in differing styles.
How to Be a Tibetan Monk?
Becoming a Tibetan monk is not like joining a club. There are certain requirements, and some people will not be considered “clean” enough to join. Most people join when they are children, and once a child reaches 7 or 8 years old, they can qualify for being a monk.
Most people plan to become a Tibetan monk when they are children.
A child planning on being a monk will need two teachers, usually family members, to teach him social skills and classic Tibetan Buddhism. The child then presents the hada and tea, and other gifts to his teachers, who will shave his head leaving only a small piece of hair in the middle of his head.
After he interviews with the Abbot, and the Abbot approves him for becoming a monk, that hair will be cut by the Abbot and he will be given his Dharma name.
Tips on Meeting Tibetan Monks when Touring Tibet
Respecting the monks and the monastic traditions in Tibet is important, not just for them but for you too, so that you can better understand their lives and their devotion. A common way to greet a monk or lama is to raise your hands together in front of your chest, palms together, while bowing slightly. The higher your hands, the greater the respect shown.
There are other do’s and don'ts when interacting with monks in Tibet as well. One must never touch their heads, and one should never take photos without their permission. When sitting with a monk or lama, you should not be higher than he is, and your feet should be underneath you, as a mark of respect.
Generally, monastic life in Tibet is unlike that in any other place in the world. A life dedicated to the study of scriptures and the path to enlightenment, Tibetan monks are among the most devoted in the world, giving their lives to their beliefs and ancient Buddhist monastic traditions. If you are interested in learning more about Tibetan monks, you can join our Tibet tours to meet them firsthand. For more questions, please feel free to contact us.