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5 things you may not know about Buddhist monks

Michelle Welsch

Americans have developed a picturesque image of a solitary monk resting upon a snowy mountaintop, silently meditating towards enlightenment, and pondering the meaning of life without a care in the world. 

In reality, monk life is far from easy. 

1. Many monks are brought to monasteries as children. 

This means they haven't made their own decisions to pursue monastic order. Monks as young as two years old have been associated with Buddhist reincarnations. Families with limited economic means often consider monasteries the best option for their child; other families view monasticism as a great honor, willingly giving up their sons for recognition within the community and on a karmic level. Sometimes, boys are taken to monasteries in response to misbehavior and misdeeds. 

2. Meditation isn't a leisure activity. 

Monks follow a strict routine. Mealtimes, ceremonies, and study are highly scheduled, and free time is limited. Once a week, monks are granted time to relax and can be found playing soccer or watching television.

3. Education is not universal. 

What is taught (and how) varies from monastery to monastery. Tibetan Buddhism is particularly laden with rituals and superstitious practice. From boyhood, monks learn chants and a variety of spiritual ceremonies. While some monasteries offer Social Studies, Math, and language in addition to Buddhist Dharma and practice, the inclusion of secular subjects has been a topic of debate

4. Many forms of Buddhism exist. 

While most Americans are familiar with the Dalai Lama, there are several sects and branches of Buddhist philosophy. You can think of monasteries as you might American universities: some receive government and outside financial support while others rely on the community in order to provide opportunity and education for students. At present, there is not an overarching or governing body that regulates the monastic community at large. 

5. Monks leave monasteries.

Imagine being brought to a monastery as a small child. There may come a time when you decide to pursue other opportunities -- perhaps you'd like to attend university, open a business or start a family. As a young boy, your parents left you in the care of a community of men who became your family. It is a difficult decision to leave, and many monks are ostracized from their biological families as a result. Through education and skill acquisition, monks can make their own decisions regarding their future.