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Protocol for sangha in the Tibetan tradition

Protocol for sangha in the Tibetan tradition

Cover of the book Preparing for Ordination.

A series of articles published as Preparing for Ordination, a booklet prepared by Venerable Thubten Chodron and available for free distribution.

The question of protocol for sangha members in the Tibetan tradition raises many delicate yet important issues. An ordained sangha member is expected to be a model of polite and refined behavior, but what does that model look like? On the one hand, Western culture has its own standards of courtesy and its own etiquette which may be quite different from customs in Asia. On the other hand, once one takes ordination and wears the robes of a Buddhist renunciant, it is important to respect the Buddhist tradition and to behave in a way consistent with one’s role as an exemplar of that tradition.

Being an exemplar is a tough assignment, one which we work into gradually as our Dharma practice deepens. Sangha members are expected to be calm, courteous, and respectful, particularly in public and in the presence of monks, nuns, and teachers, which is not always easy. This is not to say that all monks and nuns behave this way or that when we wear Tibetan robes we should try to become Tibetans. The customs of one culture are not necessarily better than those of another. The fundamental issue is practical: by understanding and observing polite behavior, we express respect for the tradition and feel comfortable and happy in it. If we do not know or care about the culture, we feel awkward and unhappy. We offend people, disappoint our teachers, and feel inadequate as a monk or nun.

Western people receive little or no training in protocol when they are ordained, and learning by trial and error can be a very discouraging process. Due to cultural and gender differences, it is difficult for Western nuns and monks to train intensively with qualified masters of the Tibetan tradition on an everyday basis. Therefore, some of us who have learned by making mistakes thought it would be helpful to share what we have learned over the years. The standards of behavior described here are optimum, not necessarily mandatory. They are applicable to Tibetan social and religious situations, whether in Asia or the West. Familiarity with these norms will help sangha members understand the cultural landscape they now inhabit. The good news is that many of these suggestions will help navigate social and monastic situations in other cultures, too.

Many of the suggestions included here concern proper dress, hair length, and deportment. One may think, “Why be so concerned about outer appearances? The important thing is the purity of the mind.” It is true that mental purification is at the heart of Buddhist practice. At the same time, the Buddha and his early followers recognized the value of disciplining one’s body, speech, and mind. Although certain Vinaya rules and monastic customs may appear unrelated to spiritual practice, they provide guidelines for training in mindfulness and awareness with every action. Proper deportment is important in relation to the lay community also. Monastics who are refined, gentle, calm, and collected inspire others to practice. Monastics who behave poorly may cause them to lose faith or to criticize the tradition. Standards of behavior vary according to place and time, but monastics are wise to adopt a high standard and practice until it becomes natural. As Zopa Rinpoche says, “What is the point of being a bad monk?”

Monastic dress

The Buddhist robes are a distinctive sign of a Buddhist monastic. The simple, patchwork design symbolizes renunciation. Robes for monastics vary in color and styling from culture to culture, reflecting adaptations to climate and social conditions over the centuries. In the Tibetan tradition, the robes for nuns and monks include a maroon lower robe called shamtab, a maroon shawl called zen, a maroon vest called donka, and a yellow robe called chogu which is worn on special occasions. A underskirt called meyog and an shirt called ngullen are worn underneath these. Yellow, orange, red, or maroon are the most common colors for the underskirt and shirt. A yellow belt called kerag cinches the shamtab around the waist. It is generally a plain strip of cloth, but there are variations. Monks and nuns who are fully ordained wear a shamtab with five strip of patches sewn in a particular pattern and have a second yellow robe with 25 strips of patches called namcha which is worn on special occasions. Underwear is advised, including a sports top or similar undergarment for nuns. Special care is taken when sitting cross-legged to avoid any embarrassing display.

The shamtab, zen, and donka are worn from the moment one wakes up in the morning until going to bed at night, even when going to the toilet. Robes should be worn properly, clean and neat, at all times. Although not specified in the Vinaya texts, an extra set of these three items, the shirt, and underskirt is generally kept to wear during laundering. In very hot weather, the shirt is sometimes worn without the donka. In the Tibetan tradition, sleeves, hats, scarves, and trousers are not appropriate. Special care is paid to proper dress when going for teachings, ceremonies, and when meeting one’s teachers. If, due to cold weather, a sweater is worn in an informal situation, it should be simple, without decoration, and of a solid, acceptable color, such as yellow or maroon. Shoes are worn outside the monastery and are generally removed when entering temples. Sandals may be worn inside the monastery. Leather shoes are not worn by monastics in China, Korea, Taiwan, or Vietnam, but there is no such prohibition in the Tibetan tradition. Unlike Theravadin countries, closed shoes are considered preferable to sandals in a formal situation. Shoes should be brown in color (never black or white) and conservative in design.

Shaving the head

A shaved head is the other distinctive sign of a Buddhist monastic. Like robes, the shaved head also symbolizes renunciation. According to the Vinaya texts, the hair may reach a length of two fingerbreadths, but normally it is shaved or sheared at least once a month. It is not appropriate to have someone of the opposite sex shave one’s head, since it involves bodily contact which is not permitted. Learning to shave one’s own head with electric clippers or a razor is a good solution.

Sitting, standing, and walking

Physical behavior is a reflection of one’s mental attitude. Therefore monastics cultivate refined behavior and are mindful of body language while sitting, walking, and standing. While sitting on a chair or sofa, one does not cross the legs or ankles. Hands are placed quietly in one’s lap. To lie down, stretch, look here and there, run, or gesture wildly in public is considered impolite. When a teacher or someone senior enters the room, one stands and remains standing quietly and respectfully until directed to sit or until others sit.

When walking, the body and mind are subdued and under control. It is not appropriate to glance here and there; the eyes are kept focused on a spot about one yard ahead. When passing teachers or acquaintances, a brief greeting or subtle acknowledgment is sufficient. In Asian cultures, it is not appropriate for monastics to stop and talk on the street, especially with someone of the opposite sex. If there is some information to be conveyed, find an appropriate location—not concealed but away from public view—to speak briefly.

Nuns and monks carry as little as possible when walking along the street. They are supposed to have a minimum of possessions, so carrying one shoulder bag is considered sufficient. Especially when attending teachings, monastics carry their chogu, the text, a cup, a cushion, and little else. It is considered a bit pretentious to carry a mala and recite mantras aloud while walking on the street; secret mantra should be secret. The same applies to doing prayers, rituals, or meditation ostentatiously in public.

In Asian cultures, it is not considered appropriate for monastics to sit and talk for a long time in tea shops and restaurants. This is considered laypeople’s behavior. If invited out for lunch, eat a reasonable amount politely in a reasonable length of time and return to the monastery. It is not appropriate to go for lunch alone with a member of the opposite sex. Before going out of the monastery even for a short time, the discipline master should be informed and permission received. It is best to go with a companion. Monastics should be safely in the monastery before nightfall and should not go out after that.

When traveling on pilgrimage or from place to place, it is best for monastics to travel together and to stay in temples or monasteries. It is not allowable for monks or nuns to stay overnight in the same room with someone of the opposite sex. It is especially important to maintain good discipline when staying in a home, hotel, or a guest house. One should avoid movies and party situations. When staying in a monastery, one should follow the rules and timetable of the monastery, eating whatever is served, if invited.

In teachings or ceremonial situations, monks and nuns are seated in front as a mark of respect, not out of pride. It is appropriate for monks and nuns to quietly and humbly take an appropriate seat in order of seniority, keeping some space between monks and nuns, if possible. Being seated in front entails a responsibility to sit quietly and pay attention to the teachings, setting a good example for others. When receiving a blessing from the lama or presenting a kata, monks and nuns are generally asked to go first, in order of seniority. In Buddhist cultures, monks go before nuns.


Like physical behavior, speech is also a reflection of one’s mental attitude. Therefore monastics should speak in an appropriate way, at an appropriate time, and not too much. Appropriate speech includes topics related to Dharma; worldly topics should be avoided. One’s tone of voice should be gentle, neither too soft nor too loud. Talking or laughing loudly is considered inappropriate, especially in public areas, around teachers or those who are senior.

Polite terms of address are important in human relations. A recognized reincarnate lama is Rinpoche, a teacher is Genla, an ordinary monk is Gushola, and an ordinary nun is Chola. Genla and Ajala are usually safe, polite ways of addressing adult men and women in Tibetan society; Pala and Amala are used for elderly men and women. When using a person’s given name, the suffix “-la” will make it polite, for example, Tashi-la or Pema-la. To attach “-la” to Rinpoche or Lama is redundant; these terms are already polite.

Social etiquette

In Western cultures, shaking hands is a polite form of greeting, but this custom can be problematic for monastics. In Asian cultures, bodily contact with a member of the opposite sex, even hugging one’s mother or father, is avoided. His Holiness the Dalai Lama suggests shaking hands when the other party extends his or her hand, but not extending one’s own hand first. A friendly attitude can often overcome embarrassing moments. It takes practice to become comfortable in social and cross-cultural situations, to avoid offending others yet maintain the integrity of one’s role as a monastic.

Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo grew up in Hawaii and received her M.A. in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii in 1971. She studied for five years at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and several years at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, both in Dharamsala, India. In 1977, she received sramanerika ordination and in 1982 bhikshuni ordination. She is a founding member of Sakyadhita, the founder of Jamyang Choling Nunnery in Dharamsala, and is currently completing her Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii.

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