A series of articles published as Preparing for Ordination, a booklet prepared by Venerable Thubten Chodron and available for free distribution.
The ceremony of ordination as a sramanera or sramanerika (novice) is conducted on the basis of having taken the lay precepts of an upasaka/upasika, and rabjung (renunciation, leaving the householder’s life). Then one takes the novice vow of a sramanera/sramanerika. The ceremony consists of preparation, actual practice, and conclusion.
Being free from obstacles
To take ordination, a person must be free from obstacles preventing ordination. If one is free from the obstacles, he or she may receive the vow. If not, the vow will not be generated in his or her mind, or if generated, it will not abide in the mind. Questions regarding a person’s suitability for ordination are asked in the presence of the ordaining bhikshu. One listens and replies with an undistracted mind. The questions regard the following:
- One is not a heretic or schismatic.
- One is not under 15 years of age.
- If one is under 15 years of age, one is able to scare away crows (i.e. one is big enough to scare away a gathering of big birds).
- If able to scare away crows, one is not under seven years old.
- One is not a slave.
- One is not in financial debt.
- One has permission from one’s parents.
- If one does not have one’s parents’ permission, one is in distant country (i.e. it takes more than seven days to contact them).
- One is not ill (with a physical or mental disability that would interfere with monastic life, study and meditation).
- One has not violated a bhikshuni.
- One is not living as a thief or spy.
- One is not of different views (doubting whether to follow Dharma or not to follow it).
- One is not abiding in wrong views (non-Buddhist views).
- One is not a hermaphrodite.
- One is not a eunuch.
- One is not a spirit.
- One is not an animal.
- One is not involved with a heretic or schismatic.
- One has not killed one’s mother.
- One has not killed one’s father.
- One has not killed an arhat.
- One has not caused a schism in the sangha.
- One has not maliciously drawn blood from the body of a Buddha.
- One has not committed one of the four defeats (parajika).
- One is not someone who does not accept the law of cause and effect.
- One is not crippled.
- One is not an albino.
- One is not missing any limbs.
- One is not a royal servant or favorite of the king.
- One has permission of the king.
- If one does not have the permission of the king, one is in a distant country.
- One is not renowned as a violent robber.
- One is not a degraded wrongdoer.
- One is not of the cobbler caste.
- One is not of the lowest caste (blacksmith, fisherman).
- One is not of the lowest caste of worker.
- One is not a being other than a human being.
- One is not a person from the Northern Continent.
- One is not someone who has changed sex three times.
- One is not a woman posing as a man or a man posing as a woman.
- One is not a tyrant.
- One does not resemble a person born from another continent or world.
If a person is able to reply to each of the questions, “I am not,” he or she is suitable to be ordained.
Taking the upasaka/upasika vow
This is done in conjunction with taking refuge. Having prostrated to a representation of the Buddha, regarding it as the actual Buddha, and then to the preceptor, one kneels with one’s hands in prostration mudra at the heart. The preceptor explains the proper mental attitude for taking refuge (i.e. caution regarding the dangers of cyclic existence and faith/confidence in the Triple Gem). One recites the refuge after the preceptor, saying that one takes refuge in the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha for as long as one lives. At that time, one also receives the five lay precepts of an upasaka/upasika. Most important is one’s mental attitude, thinking with joy, “I have now received the lay precepts, and this is my preceptor.”
Rabjung (leaving the lay life of a householder)
This is a prerequisite for novice ordination. First one requests the ordination and a bhikshu (who has been ordained at least ten years) to be one’s abbot. A bhikshu other than the abbot asks one to prostrate to all the sangha present and to remove the white clothing of a lay person. He requests the abbot on one’s behalf to be one’s abbot and to ordain one. From then on, one refers to that person as one’s abbot. (One removes the white clothing of a lay person either by changing from white clothes into monastic robes, or symbolically by wearing and then removing a white kata.). One takes up the name, dress, signs, and way of thinking of an ordained one. One should now have a zen (upper robe; the chogu is not yet needed), shamtab (lower robe), dingwa (seating cloth), bowl (with a few seeds or other food in it so it is not empty), and water filter (The bowl and water filter may be borrowed. The robes must be one’s own.). These are all determined by the abbot and oneself. Both hold their left hands below each article and right hands above it, and do a recitation to determine the article as being one’s object of use. It is explained that the robes are to distinguish one from lay people and members of other sects and to protect one from insects and the elements. One should consider them as being only for these purposes (not for beautifying oneself). The purpose of the other articles is explained, i.e. the bowl for eating food, the dingwa to distinguish one as a Buddhist monastic and to protect the community’s property when sitting, the water filter to prevent killing insects when using water. One is aware that now one is shaving the head and leaving the householder’s life. One’s hair is cut (prior to coming to the ceremony, one’s head is shaved, leaving a small tuft at the crown, which is cut now), after which flowers or rice are thrown to rejoice at one’s leaving the householder’s life.
One prostrates to the Buddha and the abbot, and then kneels. The abbot advises: “It is excellent to be ordained. There is a great difference between lay and ordained people. All the Buddhas of the three times become enlightened only on the basis of ordination. There are none who do so from the basis of a lay person. One accumulates infinitely more positive potential (merit) by taking one step towards the monastery with the thought of ordaining than do the sentient beings of the three worlds by making offerings, even of their spouses and children, for eons. Due to the distractions of lay life, lay people are unable to accomplish very meaningful or helpful things for the future. From this, only future suffering can arise. Through abandoning these activities and having few possessions, ordained people can cultivate hearing, thinking and meditating. From this, both temporary happiness and ultimate nirvana can be reached. One is following in the footsteps of the Buddha himself.” While listening to this advice, have a mind of faith and belief in the abbot, seeing him as a wise parent and oneself as the son or daughter.
Upon taking rabjung, one abandons the signs (dress, hair, etc.) and name of lay life. One takes the name given by the abbot.
The actual recitation involves first taking refuge. Then, one recites “Following the matchless lion of the Shakyas, from now until I die, I take up the signs and clothes of an ordained one and abandon those of a lay person.” Most important is to feel strongly in one’s mind that one has received the rabjung ordination.
From now on, one should keep the discipline, wear only the monastic robes, abandon lay clothes, respect the abbot, not wear white or black clothes, fringes, sleeves, ornaments, or jewels, and not have long hair. One should eat at correct times and see the abbot as a parent (and the abbot should regard one as if one were his own child, i.e. the abbot helps to raise the disciple to become strong and healthy in the Dharma and as a member of the sangha.)
Taking the sramanera/sramanerika vow
Here one requires a chogu (yellow patched robe). One should be free from the four obstacles:
- Incorrect place, i.e. the Three Jewels should be there.
- Incorrect lineage, i.e. one should not have wrong views such as not believing in karma, etc.
- Incorrect marks, i.e. one should wear ordained clothing.
- Incorrect thought, i.e. abandon thinking:
- I will take the vow only for a few months or years, but not for my life;
- I will keep the precepts only in one place, but not in another;
- I will keep the precepts in conducive circumstances, but not in bad circumstances;
- I will keep some precepts, but not all of them;
- I will keep them when I am with certain people, but not with others.
The abbot explains the proper motivation, which is the determination to become free from cyclic existence: “Cyclic existence is completely unsatisfactory. Any realm one is born into, any companions one has, any possessions one obtains are unsatisfactory and do not bring lasting happiness. Therefore, develop the determination to become free from cyclic existence and to attain liberation. The method to do this is to take refuge in the Triple Gem and to take and keep the precepts.” It is very important to have this attitude; otherwise, it is difficult for the vow to arise.
The vow is then taken by repeating verses after the abbot. At the end, one thinks strongly that one has received the vow in one’s mind and rejoices.
A bhikshu, who acts as the lopon (acharya), checks and announces the exact time of ordination. From this, one will know where to sit in groups of sangha. One should prostrate and show respect to those who are older in ordination. One does not prostrate to those younger or to lay people. There is much benefit from keeping this practice of order and respect.
Having received the vow, one should now try to live according to it. As the Buddha said:
For some ethical discipline is joy,
For some ethical discipline is misery.
Possessing the ethical discipline is joy,
Transgressing the ethical discipline is misery.
Then repeat some words after the abbot promising to keep the discipline of the ten precepts (the four root and six secondary precepts) just as the arhats of the past have done. The sangha present then say prayers of auspiciousness and throw flowers or rice. Finish by prostrating to the abbot and all the bhikshus present.
Bhikshu Tenzin Josh
From England, Tenzin Josh ordained several years ago in the Tibetan tradition. He has spent some time living in Theravada monasteries in Thailand. He currently studies at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India.
Bhikshu Tenzin Josh
School of Buddhist Dialectics
McLeod Ganj, Upper Dharamsala
Dist. Kangra, H.P. 176219, India