We are very happy to hear that you are interested in becoming a Buddhist monk or nun. This is truly a meaningful and worthwhile way to spend your life, and to be of benefit to others. We are very fortunate that the monastic tradition started by the Buddha is still alive today, thanks to the devotion, dedication and efforts of many thousands of monks and nuns in Asia over the last two and half thousand years. In recent years a number of westerners have also taken monastic vows and have found the experience deeply rewarding, but at the same time very challenging.
Perhaps first we should mention that Kopan Monastery does not accept foreigners into the monastery or into its study program. Kopan Monastery is for the Himalayan sangha, to serve their needs. There are several places in Europe and USA where you can become ordained and live as a sangha member, one of them being Nalanda Monastery in France.
Please find below some helpful pointers on ordination that were put together by the FPMT Sangha organization called IMI. They will be happy to help you with any information you might require. There is a lot of helpful information also on their website: www.imisangha.org
Dear aspiring member of the sangha community,
To begin with, in case you are not familiar with the Buddhist monastic tradition, it might be helpful to let you know a few things about this tradition that you need to be aware of:
1) A LIFELONG COMMITMENT. The vows of a Buddhist monk or nun are taken for life, therefore it is important to not rush into taking them, but to spend time and take great care in reflecting on the various advantages and disadvantages before making a decision. Some monasteries in Asia (e.g. in Thailand) offer part-time ordination programs, usually for men, which allow one the possibility to live as a monastic for a few days, weeks, months, or years. However, this is rare in the Tibetan tradition.
And although there are cases of people who take vows and later gives themback, returning to lay life, this is not recommended. The vows should be taken with the determination to keep them for the rest of one’s life.
2) KNOWING THE BUDDHIST TEACHINGS. Before making the decision to take ordination, one should have a thorough understanding of the fundamental teachings of the Buddha, such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam Rim) and so forth.
This normally requires several years of study and practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher. Therefore, you need to have a teacher who is teaching and guiding you, and who can give you permission to be ordained, and you need to be following one of the Buddhist traditions (e.g. Theravada, Tibetan, etc).
3) GO STEP BY STEP. What that means is that you first need to take refuge and the 5 lay precepts, and to spend some time living your life in accordance with Buddhist teachings and practices. If possible, spend some time—e.g. a year—living in a monastic community to get a feel for this lifestyle, and that way you can better know whether or not it is suitable for you.
4) BEING PART OF A COMMUNITY. Becoming a Buddhist monastic means that you are joining a community—the Sangha—the purpose of which is to study and practice the Buddha’s teachings in order to keep them alive, and whenever possible, to share them with others. Traditionally, one stays in a monastic community for at least 5 years after becoming ordained. If this is not possible, one should at least stay near one’s teacher and follow his/her guidance for this period of time.
5) SUPPORTING YOURSELF. In some countries—e.g. Thailand, Burma, Taiwan, when someone joins a monastic community, all one’s needs such as food, clothing, accommodation, etc. are provided for.
However, in the west, the number of lay Buddhist supporters is quite small, and there is no central organization that looks after the needs of western monastics. For this reason, if you wish to become a monastic in the west, you will need enough funds to support yourself for at least the first 2-3 years.
After that you may be able to receive some sponsorship. It is contrary to the Vinaya and generally not recommended that monks and nuns work at ordinary jobs to support themselves. However, there are a few cases of monastics who are given permission by their teachers to work due to unavoidable circumstances.
These points should give you a better idea of the realities and challenges of living as a Buddhist monastic.
There is also an excellent booklet edited by Ven. Thubten Chodron, Preparing for Ordination: Reflections for Westerners Considering Monastic Ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, which will give you more information, and probably answer some of your questions. You can order a copy from:
Dharma Friendship Foundation
P.O. Box 30011
Seattle, Washington 98103
Alternatively you can download this booklet from the following website: http://www2.hawaii.edu/~tsomo/ordination/ord_content.html
Please let us know if you have further questions or if you would like to know what the next steps are you need to take to become ordained.
IMI Sangha organization