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Discipline and Conventions
Theravada Buddhist Renunciate Communities

A Guide for the Western Sangha

NOTE 1: This guide refers to the code of discipline of both monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (siladharas) of the Theravada school of Buddhism. Where there are differences in the rules between monks and nuns, this will be pointed out. In the text, the term "samana" is used for both monks and nuns.

NOTE 2: This guide refers to the style of training as applied in the branch monasteries of the Thai Theravada Forest Tradition in the UK, Switzerland, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.A. While most Theravada monastics would not object to these standards, there may be minor differences in interpretation and application of rules in some cases.


This guide is aimed at providing an introduction to some aspects of monastic discipline for those lay people who are interested in understanding something of the background to the rules and conventions which structure the way of life of the monks and nuns of this tradition. It is hoped that these notes will be helpful in furthering the relationship of support between members of the Sangha and lay practitioners.

Generally, in the Indian spiritual tradition, there is difference made between those whose lifestyle is that of a householder and those who have ‘gone forth’ from the home life to follow a path of renunciation. For the Buddhist renunciate, this spiritual life is guided by the principles of Dhamma-Vinaya.

The Buddhist monastic discipline, called Vinaya, is a refined training of body, speech and mind. This discipline is not an end in itself, but a tool which, when applied in conjunction with the spiritual teachings (Dhamma), can help foster maturity and spiritual development.

Apart from the direct training that the Vinaya affords, it also serves to establish a supportive relationship between lay people and renunciates, which is an essential aspect of the Theravada tradition. Within the context of this relationship Buddhist monastics give up many ordinary freedoms and undertake the discipline and conventions of Vinaya in order to focus on the cultivation of the heart. They are able to live as mendicants because lay people respect their training and are prepared to help to support them. This gives rise to a sense of mutual respect and co-operation in which both lay person and samana are called upon to practice their particular lifestyles and responsibilities with sensitivity and sincerity.

Many of the Vinaya rules were created specifically to avoid offending lay people or giving cause for misunderstanding or suspicion. As naturally no samana wishes to offend by being fussy and difficult to look after, and no lay Buddhist wishes to accidentally cause samanas to transgress their discipline, this pamphlet attempts to clarify the major aspects of the Vinaya as it relates to lay people. There are some generally accepted activities in which it would be seen as inappropriate for members of the Theravada Buddhist renunciate community to involve themselves, although these may be quite usual activities for both Buddhist monastics of other traditions and also for householders. These include driving cars, growing their own food and officiating at marriage ceremonies. If there is any doubt about what is appropriate, it is always possible to ask for clarification.

While samanas benefit from the companionship of dedicated lay practitioners and from being relieved from the necessity to support themselves materially, lay people benefit from the presence of committed renunciates, their teaching and their friendship. The relationship has a ritual aspect, laid out in the conventions of Vinaya, and when approached with wisdom and compassion, this becomes the space in which a greater awareness can arise.


 The Vinaya as laid down by the Buddha defines, in its many practical rules, the status of a monastic as being one of mendicancy. Having no personal means of support is a very practical means of understanding the instinct to seek security; furthermore, the need to seek alms gives the monastic a source of contemplation on what fundamental things are actually necessary -- namely, the four requisites.

These four requisites -- food, clothing, shelter and medicines -- are what lay people can offer as a practical instance of expressing generosity, appreciation or their faith in belonging to the Buddhist Community. Members of the Sangha respond in various ways by helping spread goodwill and by making available the teachings of the Buddha to those who wish to hear.


(i) Food

In Buddhist countries, where samanas make a daily alms-round through the streets, people make their intentions clear by standing by the side of the road with bowls of food, or even verbally invite the samanas to come and receive alms. In the West where the principles of mendicancy are not so well cultivated, there is less emphasis on the daily almsround. Instead supporters often bring food to the monasteries which can be offered for the meal that day or it can be stored in the larder. This stored food can then be prepared by lay guests or anagarikas (postulants) and offered as the meal for the day at a later date. Lay donors often offer food for a special occasion, e.g. on a memorial day for a deceased relative, or on a birthday.

Samanas should not directly request food unless they are sick. This principle should be borne in mind when offering food -- rather than asking about particular preferences, it is better simply to invite the samanas to receive the food you wish to offer. Considering that the meal will be the main meal of the day, offer what seems the right amount, recognizing that the samanas will take what they need and leave the rest. One way to offer is to bring bowls of food to the samanas and let them choose what they need from each bowl; or the food may be set on a table, and each dish offered so that the samanas can then help themselves. Members of the Sangha generally prefer to eat in silence.

In considering the relationship between monastics and laity, there are certain specific rules concerning food and medicine, which are slightly different for bhikkhus and for siladharas.

 Offering of Food and Medicines

As with all of the conventions dealt with in this booklet, it is always possible to request guidance and clarification from samanas about how to proceed with anything concerning food and offering whenever there is any doubt.

 [Footnote -- One extra small refinement of the food offering etiquette usually observed in the monasteries is worth mentioning:

Making Fruit Allowable

In accordance with the discipline a bhikkhu must take care when offered fruit or vegetables containing fertile seeds. It is best, if possible, for the seeds to be removed before offering. Another way is for the lay person to ‘make the fruit allowable’ by slightly damaging it with a knife. So when offering these foods, this is done by piercing the fruit and saying at the same time ‘kappiyam bhante’, (meaning "I am making this allowable, sir."). This rule does not apply to siladharas.]

 (ii) Clothing

The traditional robes plus other items all need to be of the appropriate color, and not of a luxurious or opulent standard.

 (iii) Shelter

So, in providing a temporary lodging for the night, a lay person need not go to a lot of trouble to provide anything special -- a simple spare room is adequate -- but there should be suitably private sleeping and bathing arrangements.

 (iv) Medicines and Tonics

In the Vinaya, medicines can be considered as those things consumed by eating or drinking which are not normally considered as food and:

In contrast to food, monastics may store these medicines overnight. For bhikkhus, there are different limitations regarding the amount of time that such ‘medicines’ can be stored:

For siladharas, all medicines are considered lifetime allowances.

Medicines which are not consumed orally, e.g. creams, massage oils, ear or eye drops, etc. may also be useful. These do not need to be formally offered into the hands in the way food or consumable medicines do.

 Other Requisites

The Buddha also allowed monastics to make use of other small requisites, such as needles, a razor, etc. In modern times, such things might include a pen, a clock, a torch, etc. All of these were to be plain and simple, costly or luxurious items being expressly forbidden. Requisites may be communally owned by the monastic community, especially larger items, e.g. furniture, electronic equipment, etc.



 (a) Luxurious Belongings

 (b) Money

The Vinaya specifies a prohibition for monks to receive money (‘gold and silver’), to instruct others to receive it or to consent to money being kept on one’s behalf. Thus the use of and control over personal funds, whether these are in the form of coins, bank notes or credit cards, is forbidden to samanas. Financial donations made to the Sangha are looked after by trusted lay supporters:

The following is an outline of the suitable way to make offerings of financial support to samanas:


 (Bhikkhus with women, siladharas with men)

The rules around relationships between samanas and members of the opposite sex can often lead to misunderstanding and so it is worth detailing some of the conventions that govern this.

Much of this standard of behavior was laid down in the Buddha’s time to prevent scandalous gossip or misunderstanding occurring. In the stories that explain the origination of a rule, there are examples of bhikkhus being accused of being a woman’s lover, of a woman misunderstanding a bhikkhu’s reason for being with her, and even of a bhikkhu being thrashed by a jealous husband!


Also, when inviting samanas, for instance, for the meal or a teaching engagement, it is usual for the person making the invitation to also make the travel arrangements. 


Vinaya also extends into the realm of convention and custom. These observances are not ‘rules’ but can be seen as skilful means of manifesting beautiful behavior. In monasteries, there is some emphasis on such matters as a means of establishing harmony, order and pleasant relationships within a community. Lay people may be interested in applying such conventions for their own training in sensitivity, but it is important for visitors to note that these are not to be considered as an imposed or obligatory standard. Such practices should only be entered into reflectively, when the individual is ready to do so.

 Addressing Members of the Renunciate Community

In the Western monasteries of the Thai Theravada Forest Tradition, there are different titles used in addressing monastics:

 Gestures of Respect

Body language is something that is well-understood in Asian countries. Some of these customs are maintained as a training in bringing attention into the body and for the benefit of bringing into awareness the importance of physical gestures of respect.

 Appropriate Dress

When visiting or staying as a guest at monasteries, it is suitable for both men and women always to be modestly dressed.


 These conventions have evolved as an aid to liberation. Sincere effort is required both to undertake the discipline oneself, and to support others in that undertaking, as well as to learn how to make it effective in leading to the goal. In bringing us into relationship based on our aspiration to cultivate the spiritual path, it is this sincere effort which renunciates and householders alike can respect and honor. This short guide has sought to introduce some of the main aspects of the discipline, in order to ease the way for those who are interested in entering into this relationship, and exploring how this influences our mutual well-being.

This is not an exhaustive account of the Vinaya, and so individuals are whole-heartedly encouraged to ask for more information if there is anything that is not clear.



Each monastery is supported by a Charitable Trust. If lay people want to make financial contributions to any of these monasteries, donations should be directed to the appropriate Trust body, as outlined below:

Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery

The Sanghapala Foundation - U.S.A

Amaravati Buddhist Monastery

The English Sangha Trust - U.K.

Aruna Ratanagiri: Harnham Buddhist Monastery

The Magga Bhavaka Trust - U.K.

Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery

Buddhist Society of Western Australia - Australia

Bodhinyanarama Buddhist Monastery

Wellington Theravada Buddhist Association - New Zealand

Cittaviveka: Chithurst Buddhist Monastery

The English Sangha Trust - U.K.

Dhammaloka Buddhist Centre

Buddhist Society of Western Australia - Australia

Dhammapala Buddhist Monastery

Dhammapala Verein – Switzerland

Dhammasara Nuns' Monastery

Buddhist Society of Western Australia - Australia

Hartridge Buddhist Monastery

The Devon Vihara Trust - U.K.

Santacittarama Buddhist Monastery

Associazione Santacittarama - Italy

Sponsored for Free Distribution by contributions from:
English Sangha Trust, Magga Bhavaka Trust, Devon Vihara Trust, Dhammapala Verein, Sanghapala Foundation.

 Print Edition produced by River Publications,
2 Harnbam Hall Cottages, Belsay, Northumberland, NE20 OHF. U.K.

Electronic/Online Edition produced by DharmaNet International,
PO Box 4951, Berkeley, CA 94704-4951. U.S.A.


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