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Can Monks Marry?

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Recently, there have been some instances in the news of monks who have been accused of rape or consensual sex. One monk appears to have supported a child with his money. While we won’t know the true outcome until an admission of guilt is made, we should investigate what is a rule and what is not a rule. Although it is appalling that the Catholic church allows its priests to continue in the order even after such admissions of guilt for sexual acts, the Buddhist rules across all Buddhist schools have a different approach.

In the West, there are many different traditions which seem to ignore the rules that they have ordained and vowed upon. After a while it becomes “cool and normal” to see monks break rules, or even help them break the rules. For instance, the use of accepting money is so widely accepted as mainstream, that monks often post their monetary gains on the Facebook. However, if you were to ask them if they are breaking a rule, and if it is a hindrance to the progress for which they ordained, they will admit it. In Myanmar and other Asian countries or countries that import such monks, it is accepted as normal to break the rule out of convenience or so called “modern times” even though modern times make life much easier not to use money, such as receiving food delivered to your monastery ordered by donors via the various internet food apps, or various ride share apps and easy money transfers between service and goods providers between the donors for the monks. I have received many Subway subs via a donor’s phone app when I was going for alms in Hawai’i.

There is no limit to desires and the fulfillment of desires. For monkhood, there is no limit until the line of sex has been crossed. When that line has been crossed, the monk’s life has ended. The chief and foremost rule of that limit is sex, which is discretely called “marriage” in the East. Even an encounter with a prostitute is called a temporary wife. You might hear of monks in recent news who have raped, married or had/have mistresses and/or children, yet remain as “monks.” Is this allowed or not allowed? If the tradition allows this, is this a real Buddhist tradition?

There are three major schools of Buddhism.

  • Theravada or Pali Buddhism (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos)
  • Mahayana (Chinese rooted Buddhism: China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea)
  • Vajrayāna (Tibetan rooted Buddhism, China / Tibet, Bhutan)

These three schools have similar rules that are to be followed. How these rules are interpreted is defined by the original statement of the rule and the tradition’s commentary system if there are ambiguities. However, the rule on sex is non-negotiable and not left up for interpretation among all three schools.

The most important class of rules is called Pārājika or the “Rules Involving Defeat.” If a monk breaks this class of a rule, he is automatically disrobed and no longer a monk. Even if he continues to wear the robes of a monk and keeps his offense secret, or does not know this is an offense, he is still not a monk. There is no trial. However, if a monk insists that he did not commit that offense, and there seems to be no proof and only hearsay, then that monk is allowed to remain as a monk. Nevertheless, if he did indeed secretly commit that offense, he is just a lay person who wears robes and he is not a real monk. Once someone commits this offense, they can never become a monk again in this life.

Below is a screen shot of a book that compares the rules of monks. From A Comparative Studio of Prātimokṣa by W Pachow, PhD.

So in certain Tibetan sects, they do have lamas that marry. They have two classes of lamas and they look identical in the robes they wear to an average outsider. However, one is a bhikṣu (Skt. monk) and the other is a lay person. If a Tibetan bhikṣu breaks the rule, he too is guilty of the offense of defeat. He should be defrocked and never to ordain again.

In Japan and Korea some monks openly marry. I’m not sure how this works. However, again, if the monk was ordained as a bhikṣu, then he is guilty of this offense of defeat.

There is one exception to this. If the monk ordained in a tradition that was already broken (ordained by monks who have taken wives or broken any of the four rules of defeat), and the quorum for ordination was not complete (among other requirements), then the ordination was never valid in the first place. He was always just a lay person who wore the robes rather than a bhikṣu who wears his given robes. There is no offense for this lay person because he has never been ordained properly and has no obligation to the rules. However, it is not good either way.

There are also heavy rules that do not defeat the monk, but they are quite serious and are not easy to resolve and purify. There are rules for emitting semen, touching women which also go across all Buddhist traditions. If you see a monk touching women with an altered mind of desire in Mahayana or Tibetan traditions let alone Theravada, know that this is also a heavy offense that requires special rehabilitation by his monastic peers. The purpose is to prevent the monk from breaking the rule of sex, but also breaking the way monks should act in general. The logic is, if you do not touch, you cannot break the rule. With or without desire, monks should not touch women. Why? Because the mind is quick and desire is quick to arise for one who is fully celibate and sensing the touch of a woman. That is why it is a rule to never touch a woman even without desire. Touching without desire is a small rule, but a rule to prevent the related heavy rules from arising. Furthermore, there are rules for direct and indirect lewd words which often precedes basic touching. Lastly, it is also a heavy offense to help others get married including performing marriage ceremonies (rule #5) Such actions also need rehabilitation by their monastic peers. Often we casually refer to it as a prison monastery. Several Pa-Auk branch monasteries have such “monastic rehabilitation monasteries”. Below is a chart showing the rules:

First 5 rules involving rehabilitation by monastic peers (monk-prison) 6 nights or more.

Conclusion:

Monks cannot marry if they are indeed ordained monks. They cannot speak lewd words or touch women with or without desire. There should also be no marriage ceremonies performed by monks. It is important for lay people to know some of the major rules and question when these rules are broken.

2 thoughts on “Can Monks Marry?

  1. Dear Bhante Subhuti,

    What causes shame and compuction athrophy to such an extent that certain monks commit such actions? Are they not afraid for their lives? It feel nauseous and scared just imagining the consequences of their actions. Not that my sense of shame and compuction is great either. If I’m careful and train diligently, I won’t do the equivalent of such heavy actions in the world of lay people.

    What can we do to develop a healthy sense of shame and compuction? I would love to hear your words about this. Thank you.

    “Monks, these two bright qualities guard the world. Which two? Shame & compunction. If these two bright qualities did not guard the world…The world would be immersed in promiscuity” Lokapāla Sutta (AN 2:9) (translation on dhammatalks.org)

    Notes from the translator for Itivuttaka 40: “Shame (hiri) means a healthy sense of shame–derived from self-esteem–at the idea of doing evil. Compunction (ottappa) means fear of the consequences of doing evil.”

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