Ordination in Theravada Buddhism by Piyadassi Thera
The followers of the Buddha are four-fold: monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen (bhikkhu, bhikkhuni, upasaka, upasika). The Bhikkluni Sasana or the Order of the Nuns has ceased to exist, and in the absence of a Buddha and the bhikkhunis the Order cannot be resuscitated. Today, however, we are left with the Bhikkhu Order and the laity.
To know the origin of the Bhikkhu Order we should go back twenty five centuries when at the Deer Park, at Isipatana (modern Sarnath), near Varanasi in India, the Buddha Gotama on a full moon day of July, addressed the five ascetics, his former friends, and revealed unto them the Right Way, the Noble Eightfold Path, which leads to calm, realization, enlightenment and Nibbana. This is known as setting in motion the matchless Wheel of Truth (Dhamma-cakka).
The five ascetics were convinced and became followers of the Buddha. With the proclamation of the Dhamma, for the first time, and with the conversion of the five ascetics, the Deer Park became the birth place of the Buddha's dispensation ( Buddha-sasana) and of the Sangha, the community of monks, the ordained disciples.
Before long fifty five others headed by Yasa, a young man of wealth, joined the Order of the Sangha. Now there were sixty disciples altogether. Their novice ordination and higher ordination were granted by the Buddha in these words: 'Come monks, well proclaimed is the Dhamma. Live the noble life (brahmacariyam) for the complete ending of suffering (dukkha).' When the vassa, the rainy season of three months, July-October ended, the Master addressed his sixty disciples, the Accomplished Ones (Arahats), and said:
'Released am I, monks, from, all ties whether human or divine. You also are delivered from fetters whether human or divine. Go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of gods and men. Let not two of you proceed in the same direction. Proclaim the Dahmma that is excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, excellent in the end, possessed of meaning and the letter and utterly perfect. Proclaim the life of purity the holy life consummate and pure. There are beings who will understand the Dhamma. I shall go to Uruvela, to Senanigama, to teach the Dhamma.'
Men and women from different walks of life who listened to the message of the Master manifested their willingness to follow the Buddha and his teaching. Among them there were those who wished to enter the Order of the Sangha, The monks brought these followers to the Master for ordination from various districts. The long journeys, however, fatigued both the monks and the seekers for ordination. To avoid this hardship and inconvenience, the Buddha allowed the monks to ordain the followers in any district. The manner of ordination was explained to the monks by the Buddha himself in this wise:
'The hair and beard must be shaved first, and then the saffron robe put on. Adjusting his robe on one shoulder (the left), the seeker for ordination should pay homage to the monks, and squatting (if this is inconvenient one can kneel) before them with hands raised and palms together, he should say:
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
Dutiyampi Buddham saranam gacchami
Dutiyampi Dhammam saranam gacchami
Dutiyampi Sangham saranam gacchami
Tatiyampi Buddham saranam gacchami
Tatiyampi Dhammam saranam gacchami
Tatiyampi Sangham saranam gacchami
I go for refuge to the Buddha (the Teacher)
I go for refuge to the Dhamma (the Teaching)
I go for refuge to the Sangha (the Tauhgt)
For the second time I go for refuge to the Buddha
For the second time I go refuge to the Dhamma
For the second time I go for refuge to the Sangha
For the third time I go for refuge to the Buddha
For the third time I go for refuge to the Dhamma
For the third time I go for refuge to the Sangha.
This was the manner in which a follower gained ordination in those early days. But with the passage of time this short formula had to be expanded as various unsuitable and undesirable men sought admission into the order. As it stands now, in the Novice Ordination, the follower has to recite the ten precepts in addition to the three refuges. In the case of a Higher Ordination, Upasampada, the novice who is to be ordained is examined and questioned by senior monks. It may be noted that these additions were made by the Buddha himself, and they are not later arbitrary inclusions. Hence in the conducting of a novice or bhikkhu ordination every detail has to be observed.
In the Order of the Sangha a noviee is expected to observe the ten precepts, study the Dhamma and Vinaya (doctrine and discipline) from his elders, attend upon the senior monks, prepare himself and become eligible for the Higher Ordination. Samanera (samana + nera) literally means son (nera) of the samana or the monk, in the sense that a novice should be taught, disciplined and taken care of by a competent and an understanding monk. A novice need not observe the vassa, the rainy season, which a bhikku is expected to observe. He is given bhikkhu - or Higher Ordination when he has reached the age of twenty and not before, But age alone would not do, for it is not a sufficient qualification; if he lacks in intelligence, has not studied necessary Dhamma and Vinaya for leading the bhikkhu life, he is not a fit candidate eligible for the Higher Ordination.
A bhikkhu is expected to observe the essential (patimokkha) precepts which are 220 (227) in number. It is difficult to adequately translate the word bhikkhu. Monk may be considered as the best rendering. The words, Thera and Maha Thera are only titles. A bhikkhu who has counted ten or more years of vassa may be called a Thera (literally elder or senior), and a bhikkhu who has spent twenty or more years of vassa is eligible to be called a Maha Thera. Still he is a bhikkhu, and as the Dhammapada (260, 261) says:
'One is not a Thera merely because his head is grey. Ripe he is in age; and "a man grown old in vain" is he called.'
The word priest cannot, however, be used as a substitute of bhikkhu; for Buddhist monks are not priests who perform rites or sacrifices. They do not administer sacraments and pronounce absolution. An ideal Buddhist monk cannot, and does not, stand as an intermediary between man and 'supernatural' powers; for Buddhism teaches that each individual is solely responsible for his own liberation- Hence there is no need to win the favour of a mediating priest. 'You yourselves should strive on: the Buddhas show the path.' (Dhammapada, 276)
The purpose of 'going forth' (pabbajja) is to turn away from thoughts of sensuality (kilesa-kama) and objects of sense (vatthu-kama). It is, therefore, really a self-sacrifice, and the urge to do so should be a genuine one if it is to bear pleasant fruit. This is certanily not a path that all can follow: for to leave behind the world's attractive and sensuous life is no easy task. It is not possible for all to cut themselves off from the world with all its attraction. And the Buddha does not expect all his followers to become monks or ascetics. Again the Dhammapada (302) says:
In the Buddha's Dispensation, full liberty is granted to the disciples to leave the Order if they find it difficult to live the monk's life any more. There is no coercion or compulsion; whatsoever, and the person reverting to the lay life is not stigmatized.
Genuine renunciation, it may be borne in mind, is not escapism. Those who do not understand the real significance of renunciation, and those who judge it from bogus 'recluses' who lead an indolent, worthless and parasitical life, hastily conclude that 'going forth' is a sort of escapism, a selfish way of life. Nothing could be more untrue. The ideal monk, the bhikkhu, however, is an altruist of the highest type who takes least from, and gives much to society.'As a bee without harming the flower, its colour and fragrance, takes away the honey (pollen) even so should the sage move in the village.' (Dhammapada, 49).
It is true with the passage of time, many changes have take place, yet the genuine Buddhist monk who has given up worldly pleasures, endeavours to lead a life of voluntary poverty and complete celibacy with the high aim of serving others selflessly within the bounds of his bhikkhu life, and attain the deliverance of mind.
There are two ways of leading the life of a bhikkhu: one entails continuous meditation (vipassand-dhura) and the other part-time meditation, studying and teaching of the Dhamma (gantha-dhura). It is obligatory on every bhikkhu to take up one or other of these ways according to temperament, age and environment.'