I’d like to answer some of the questions I get in emails from friends about what it’s like living in a monastery.
Do they let you leave?
Yes, of course we can., we enjoy a lot of freedom. I think when westerners picture a Buddhist monastery they think it’s like a catholic monastery where monks pray and live in silence and devotion. This would be the equivalent to a Buddhist hermitage or retreat house. But Tibetan Monasteries are more similar to western universities. There are rules to follow like any school, but these rules are more about reminding us that we’re monk and need to behave dignified with proper manners. If we don’t have study or work obligations we can go to town, have lunch at local restaurants or go and watch the local soccer team play. Tibetans believe being happy is a very important part of being a monk. And following ridged rules doesn’t lead to calm, happy and peaceful monks. We can go on holidays, study at other monasteries and decide to quit the monastery anytime we like.
What do you do at a Monastery?
Monasteries are a place of study and practice. A place to work on yourself and to improve yourself. The days are filled with classes, debate, study and the occasional puja. And of course we always find time to make and enjoy some sweet milk tea with friends.
What time do you wake up?
Our morning gong rings at 6:00 but most monks wake up before that to get a head start on their studies.
How’s the food at a monastery?
Well I’m fortunate for they say Sera has the best food of all the monasteries. But monastery meals are mostly the same each day. Some may find that the hardest part.
What’s your daily schedule?
6:00: Monks wake up and do morning prayers until breakfast
6:30: Breakfast – Breakfast is “Pa-le” (Tibetan bread), and Tibetan butter tea.
I usually have ‘Tsam-pa’ (Roasted barley flour) in my room for breakfast.
After Breakfast: Monks study, have classes and prepare for morning debate last two hours or until lunch.
11:30: Lunch is always Dal (lentils in broth) and rice or bread with fresh water and a banana. Monastery food is always vegetarian though monks are permitted to cook their own food in their rooms if they wish, including cooking meat, or to eat at a local restaurant many of which serve meat. Remember vegetarianism is not a tenent of Buddhism. Many monks from different tradition eat meat.
After Lunch: The whole monastery sleeps for an hour…very nice habit.
1:30: Monks have afternoon classes and study throughout the afternoon.
4:30 Dinner: dinner meals vary, usually some kind of mixed vegetable with fresh Tibetan bread or rice. Also chow mein, fried rice. or noodle soup are served. Strictly speaking monks are not supposed to eat dinner, Most Tibetan monks eat diner because their studies require high amounts of effort. in fact many monks will eat a second dinner of Tibetan noodle soup at 9:00 made themselves in their rooms.
After Diner: Monks prepare for evening debate.
6:30 Debate: Evening debate is a vigorous examination of the days lessons and will usually last for two hours.
After debate: Monks will study until 11:00 or 12:00 in the evening
Bedtime: bedtime is usually around 11:00 for most monks. ‘Shas’ or rooms are usually shared. most rooms are small but clean.
Tuesday is the Monasteries day off everyone is free to do whatever they want.
Most days I spend very little money, but costs do arise occasionally for: medicine, toiletries, and travel expenses when needing to renewing my visa.
Well, that’s a typical day. But there are so many holidays and special prayer gatherings that add a nice change to the schedule and very often during the week I am surprised with a whole day off when I can study, go to town, or do laundry. Besides cold showers, no privacy, and squat outside toilets, overall living at a monastery is fun, with a great sense of friendship and family.