Monastic Life

Monastic Duties to Laypersons

According to Koe, monks historically have had two main activities: One is to study the Tipitaka (Buddhist scripture) and the other is to practice meditation.  However, as time went on, monks began to serve as teachers to laypersons, holding dhamma talks and meditations.  Ashin Ariyadhamma, a visiting monk from an associated Burmese monastery in Austin, Texas, described monks as having five duties in modern times.  The first is to prevent people from doing evil, and the second is to guide them towards doing good.  They are also to teach new ideas, along with repeating and reinforcing old teachings.  Finally, they are to love people with real love and to not expect anything in return.  Tikkha and Aniruddha keep in close contact with the community using smartphones and Apple computers.  Tikkha even has a Facebook page which he updates regularly.

The Vinaya

When monks are ordained, they are to live according to the vinaya, or guidelines for conduct directed by Buddha.  The rules are numerous and dictate the monks behavior in regards to every aspect of their lives.  For example, monks are not to handle money, drive, prepare their own meals, eat solid food after noon or before dawn, or marry. 1 Koe made a joke about the vinaya, saying that “Even when you go to the toilet, there are rules!”

Traditionally, a kapiya or a helper to the monks lives at the monastery and serves several important functions such as cooking for the monks or driving them when they need to attend ceremonies or classes outside of the monastery. 2  However, because Sitagu Dhamma Vihara is small and has no paid employees, they do not have such a helper; the monks depend on members for support.  A weekly schedule in the kitchen details who is to prepare food for the monks, and the monks have their own car to drive even though it contradicts the rules of the vinaya.  One important reason for the monks to have the mobility offered by having a car is house calls.  When a family member is nearing death, relatives can call the monks to have them come to their own home and perform a special khatina ceremony.  The reason for this ceremony is so the person's last deed is a good one – a donation of a robe to a monk – so that their rebirth can be under favorable circumstances.  Lin, a doctor who attends ceremonies at the monastery, says it is also important for them to have a cars “Because they’re here by themselves.” Such accommodations have also happened in other Burmese monasteries in the United States. 3 

Another adaptation lies in regards to the vinaya rule which dictates that monks are also not allowed to touch money.  However, during ceremonies laypersons often donate cash to the monastery by handing the monks money.  When they do, it is in envelopes so that the monks do not handle the money directly.

Adaptations are made to Buddhist traditions as well as the vinaya.  For example, one of the biggest ceremonies in Burma is Thingyut, or the New Year’s Festival.  In Burma, it is held in April when it is very hot and one important part of the ceremony is drenching each other with water in order to symbolically purify and cleanse oneself for the coming year.  In Minnesota, where it often snows in April, the monastery moved the ceremony to a later and warmer date in August so that they could still douse each other with water.

In his studies of Burmese Theravada Buddhist sites in California, Joseph Cheah found that “Burmese immigrants realize that they can be active shapers of their own lives rather than passive victims of the forces of assimilation."4  I found the same conclusion at Sitagu Dhamma Vihara – that although certain concessions like driving cars are to be made in order to accommodate American lifestyles, monks and the people of the monastery still work hard to preserve traditional Burmese practices and the Burmese language.  The Thingyut festival is another example, in that instead of canceling the festival due to Minnesotan weather, they moved the date in order to celebrate the festival in the traditional Burmese way.

  1. Wendy Cadge, Heartwood: the First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), 59.

  2. Joseph Cheah, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 111.

  3. Joseph Cheah, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 111.

  4. Joseph Cheah, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 112.