What Do Buddhist Monks Believe?

by Benna Crawford
Buddhist monks vow to live according to the dharma taught by Buddha.

Buddhist monks vow to live according to the dharma taught by Buddha.

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Buddhist monks believe that Buddha achieved enlightenment and then shared his successful methods so that all living beings could eventually exist in perfect understanding and bliss. They take vows to dedicate their lives to Buddha's teachings, choosing between the Theravada tradition of seeking refuge to personally reach Nirvana and the Mahayana tradition of pledging to be reborn again and again to help all beings become enlightened. The two monastic schools share essential beliefs, with this one critical difference.

Three Jewels

Buddhist monks embrace three essential beliefs that guide them on their path to enlightenment. These are referred to as the Three Jewels and begin with belief in the Buddha -- not as a god but as an enlightened being and great teacher. The second jewel is belief in the dharma, those teachings of the Buddha that explain how to live -- what to strive for and what to avoid -- in order to "wake up" from the illusions that conceal the truth of existence. Ahimsa, the principle of non-violence, is a dharma of Buddhist practice. So is the monastic discipline of eating one main meal at mid-day to encourage self-control and generosity. The third jewel is the sangha, the community of Buddhists that support a lifelong practice. For monks, the sangha is their monastic order or abbey.

Three Paramitas

The three paramitas are the understandings, or universal truths, that signify enlightenment. Monks meditate, study the sutras and contemplate these three truths in order to absorb them completely and direct their actions from that understanding. The fundamental paramitas are: everything changes; this impermanence causes human suffering; the self is not a separate being and it is subject to change. Monks believe it is the accumulated karma of past lifetimes that allowed them to be reborn into a monastic life and, depending on their tradition, may take bodhisattva vows to delay their own entry into nirvana. A bodhisattva commits to continuous reincarnation in order to help all beings achieve enlightenment and the permanent bliss of awakening from illusion. That awakening includes recognition of the three universal paramitas.

Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths point to the pragmatic nature of Buddhism and were first given to a group of five monks by the Buddha. They deal with his initial realization that suffering exists, which led him to abandon his royal life and seek enlightenment through direct experience of the world, asceticism and meditation. The Four Noble Truths are dukkha -- suffering exists; samudhaya -- desire and attachment cause suffering; nirodha -- desire may be extinguished by freeing oneself from attachment; magga -- the method of following the Eightfold Path to end suffering. This is Buddha's Middle Way, not too austere, not too indulgent, and it is the basis for the monastic rules for everyday life that govern communities of monks. Conditions of monastic life provide constant reminders and practice in identifying and releasing attachment and desire.

The Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path is an interdependent set of goals to inspire the behavior that leads to understanding and an end to suffering. It is also called the Middle Way and consists of right seeing -- the Four Noble Truths; right intention -- acting from compassion; right speech -- telling the truth and avoiding gossip; right action -- integrity and non-harming; right livelihood -- work that benefits all beings; right effort -- living according to the dharma; right mindfulness -- meditation and careful decision-making; and right concentration -- letting go of all thoughts before meditating. Right speech, action and livelihood are necessary components of ethical conduct. Right effort, concentration and mindfulness are developed through daily meditation. Right thought and understanding are the products of meditation and mindfulness. The monastic life allows monks to focus on this path with minimal distractions.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in "USA Today," the "San Francisco Chronicle," "The New York Times," and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in Theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports and education .

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