A Bhikkhu (Pāli) or Bhiksu (Sanskrit) is a fully ordained male Buddhist monastic. Female monastics are called Bhikkhunis. Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis keep many precepts: they live by the vinaya's framework of monastic discipline, the basic rules of which are called the patimokkha. Their lifestyle is shaped so as to support their spiritual practice, to live a simple and meditative life, and attain Nirvana.


Bhiksu may be literally translated as "beggar" or more broadly as "one who lives by alms". It is philologically analysed in the Pāli commentary of Buddhaghosa as "the person who sees danger (in samsara or cycle of rebirth)" (Pāli = IAST|Bhayaṃ ikkhatīti: bhikkhu). He therefore seeks ordination in order to release from it. The Dhammapada states:

Not therefore is he a bhikkhu
Merely because he begs from others.
Not by adopting the outward form
Does one truly become a bhikkhu.
He who wholly subdues evil,
Both small and great,
Is called a monk (bhikkhu)
Because he has overcome all evil. Dhp 266, 267
A bhikkhu has taken a vow to enter the Sangha (Buddhist monastic community) and is expected to obey rules of conduct (typically around 227 for a male) as set out in the Vinaya, although there are considerable local variations in the interpretations of these rules. A novice monk or nun in the Tibetan tradition takes 36 vows of conduct. The minimum age to take bhikkhu vows is 21 years (although this varies from country to country).

In English literature prior to the mid-20th Century, Buddhist monks were often referred to by the term "bonze", particularly when describing monks from East Asia and French Indochina. This term is derived via Portuguese and French from the Japanese word "bonsō" for a priest or monk, and has become less common in modern literature. [ [ bonze] ]

Vows in Vajrayana Buddhism

Although the European terms "monk" and "nun" are applied also on Buddhism, the situation of 'ordination' is more complicated.

Monks and nuns

In Buddhism, monkhood is part of the system of "vows of individual liberation". These vows are taken by monks and nuns from the ordinary sangha, in order to develop personal ethical discipline. In Mahayana Buddhism, the term "sangha" is, in principle, restricted to those who have achieved certain levels of understanding. They are, therefore, called "community of the excellent ones" (Tib. <mchog kyi tshogs>). These, however, need not be monks and nuns (i.e.: hold such vows).

The vows of individual liberation are taken in four steps. A lay person may take the five vows called "approaching virtue" (in Tibetan genyen ). The next step is to enter the monastic way of life (Tib. rabjung ) which includes wearing monk's or nun's robes. After that, one can become a novice or samanera (Skt. shramanera, Tib. getshül ). The last and final step is to take all the vows of a "fully ordained monk" or gelong Tib. (). Gelongma () is the female term. The translation from Sanskrit is bikshuni (female) or bikshu (male). The Pali term is bhikkhuni (female) or bhikkhu (male), used in Theravada Buddhism (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand).

Monks and nuns take their vows for a lifetime, but they can "give them back" (up to three times in one life), a possibility which is actually used by many people. In this way, Buddhism keeps the vows "clean". It is possible to keep them or to leave this lifestyle, but it is considered extremely negative to break these vows.

In Tibet, usually small children from 6 onwards can take the rabjung ordination which is a child-specific approach to monastic life. At age 14, they usually take getshül ordination which includes more rules, and after age 21, many take the gelong ordination—or prefer to quit the monastic life.


The special dress of ordained people, the robes, comes from the idea of wearing cheap clothes just to protect the body from weather and climate. They shall not be made from one piece of cloth, but mended together from several pieces. Since dark red was the cheapest colour in Kashmir, the Tibetan tradition has red robes. In the south, yellow played the same role, though the color of saffron also had cultural associations in India; in East Asia, robes are yellow, grey or black.

The robes of getshül novices and gelong monks differ in various aspects, especially in the application of "holes" in the gelong dress. Some monks tear their robes into pieces and then mend these pieces together again. The rabjung novices shall not wear the "chö-göö", the yellow tissue worn during Buddhist teachings by both getshüls and gelongs.

In observance of the Kathina Puja, a special Kathina robe is made in 24 hours from donations by lay supporters of a temple. The robe is donated to the temple or monastery, and the resident monks then select from their own number a single monk to receive this special robe. [ [ Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka] , A.G.S. Kariyawasam]

Tantric vows

A lay person (or a monk/nun) engaging in high tantric practices and achieving a certain level of realization will be called a yogi (female "yogini", in Tibetan naljorpa/naljorma ). The yogis (monks or lay) observe another set of vows, the tantric vows (together with the bodhisattva vows); therefore, a yogi/yogini may also dress in a special way, so that they are sometimes called the "white sangha" (due to their often white or red/white clothes).

Both ways, tantric and monastic are not mutually exclusive because they psychologically act in different ways; both are ascetic. The ordination of monks and nuns is a safe way and give a good example to the people. The tantric path is often misunderstood in the west as something unascetic, but this is clearly an error in perception; although "unorthodox" in appearance, tantric yogi(ni)s keep very strict ethical rules.

Other vows

There are still other methods of taking vows in Buddhism. Most importantly, "Bodhisattva vows" are to be taken by all followers of Mahayana Buddhism; these vows develop an altruistic attitude. Another "centering of self" method is taking strict one-day vows which are somewhat similar to monk's/nun's vows ("Mahayana precepts"), but last only from one sunrise to another sunrise.


"Ordination" in Buddhism is a cluster of methods of self-discipline according to the needs, possibilities and capabilities of individuals. According to the spiritual development of his followers, the Buddha gave different levels of vows. The most advanced method is the state of a bikshu(ni), a fully ordained follower of the Buddha's teachings. The goal of the bhikku(ni) in all traditions is to achieve liberation from suffering.

Beside that, the Mahayanist approach requires bodhisattva vows, and the tantric method requires tantric vows. Since some people are not attracted to monk/nun ordination, all other vows can be taken separately. On the other hand, it is said that one cannot achieve the goal without taking the vows of individual liberation—i.e., comply with the ethical disciple inscribed in these vows.


Inwood, Kristiaan. "Bhikkhu: Disciple of the Buddha". Bangkok: Thai Watana Panich, 1981. (No ISBN listed in the Library of Congress catalog.)


See also

*World Buddhist Sangha Council

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