The short answer is: If you are looking for vinaya (places that don’t touch money), and you believe in the commentaries and Abhidhamma and want to meditate, you have two choices, Pa-Auk and Na-Uyana. If you don’t believe in the commentaries and Abhidhamma, you are best off at a Thai Forest Monastery like Ajahn Chah (Mahanikaya) or Ajahn Maha Boowa (Dhammayut) monasteries. There are other places that I might recommend too. This is SBS (SasanaRakkha Buddhist Sanctuary) in Malaysia and The International Institute of Theravāda in Sri Lanka. I will mention them later.
I often get asked advice about where to ordain. I am not an expert but I have lived in Pa-Auk and Na-Uyana for many years. I have also stayed at several of the the Thai Forest Tradition monasteries as well. Usually people who approach me are interested in Pa-Auk or Na-Uyana and cannot make up their mind. This article is not short, and probably not for one who has no intention of ordaining or cares about where monks ordain.
The first thing I always ask is, “Do you like the Abhidhamma and Commentaries?” I also often find out that they have never done a mediation retreat after quite a long exchange. Please do a few retreats, preferably Goenka before you think about monkhood.
Back to my first question: “Do you like the Abhidhamma and Commentaries?” I ask this first because Westerners and also Asians who are “Westernized” usually do not like the Abhidhamma and Commentaries. This quickly filters things down and my advice is not really for them and we can tidy up the conversation quickly with a few Thai mentions which they can explore from there.
The Thai Forest Tradition, especially among the branches for Westerners, are for people who do not like the Abhidhamma or Commentaries. If the Thai tradition monks are politically correct, they will say they prefer to only study the suttas which is the same thing as saying they don’t believe in the Commentaries and Abhidhamma, but more polite. You probably don’t read romance novels because you don’t like them.. in fact…you might have never read one…. but you know you won’t like them. The Thai tradition is a little bit like that.
“Philosophy Matching” is important. You should find a monastery that matches your philosophy. If you want to learn texts, don’t ordain at a meditation center. If you want to meditate, don’t ordain at a pariyatti (study) monastery. If you want to use money, don’t ordain at a vinaya-following monastery.
So, if you don’t like the Commentaries and Abhidhamma, you would not want to ordain at monasteries where those texts play a central role in the day to day mode of practice. Since most practice systems are based on the Commentaries and Abhidhamma, a monk who does not follow these texts will find it difficult in such monasteries even if they only want to do breath meditation. Why? If one is not going with the flow of the monastery, it just won’t work for them.
The same is true with setting your focus. I spent 4 months at a study monastery and found it easy to learn the Patimokkha (monk’s rules) by memory, relative to many failed attempts at meditation centers.
I only recommend places that follow the rules (vinaya-following monasteries). It is the same as “Philosophy Matching” but more serious. If you are told it is “okay” to break the rules, then it can lead to very bad kamma. Most monasteries (about 98% of them) break the rules on money. Most monks who break the rules on money often break the majority of bhikkhu rules The Buddha created for his monks to follow. Breaking the rules is disrespectful to the Original Teacher, The Buddha. It will bring one demerit rather than the great merit that can be earned as a monk. Using money is a serious thing because it is unallowable every second you have money or things bought with the money. Small drops of kamma like this add up quickly like the rain fills the oceans. See this video here.
Theravada exists in many countries but has roots in five major countries: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Of those five countries, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand have more of a presence in the ordination of foreigners. Even though Cambodia has over 40 vinaya monasteries which are quite reputable in following the vinaya/commentaries, I have not visited any of these monasteries to this date. I do however, know some of these monks who study in Myanmar and they are very good monks.
The Teacher: If you don’t like the philosophy of the monastery/abbot, you will dislike the teacher and the way things are run in the monastery. Even if you agree about samādhi but not the other stuff and still want to go, you are making a huge mistake. You will simply dislike the day to day routines that goes on and the required interaction with the teachers. Don’t look at the facilities, the Western or Eastern presence, or the advantages or the amount of freedom you are given. Firstly, look and see that you match the abbot or leader of the organization. It is very important. After you narrow down your choice based on philosophy, start looking at other qualities.
Books: Read the books of the abbot or legacy abbot. Can you finish the books without getting bored or annoyed? Is it too complex, technical and against what you believe in? These are some big warning signs. On the other hand.. do you really groove with the writings? This can be a clear sign that this place is for you. When I was ready to ordain in Wat Pa Nanachat, I came across “Knowing and Seeing” by Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadawgyi. I was in Myanmar within 2 weeks. When you find your teacher, you will feel a strong urge to go see him as quickly as possible. Follow that urge, especially if you have visited several places and teachers beforehand.
Age: Age is a factor too. Usually, the Thai tradition does well with those who ordain at early ages. When I say young, I mean under age 26. There is a “military” feel to the Thai Forest Tradition and because of that, being young helps a great deal in terms of survival and acceptance within that system. If you go to a Thai Forest Monastery, ask the senior monks when they ordained and figure out the demographics. Age is no guarantee of success or failure and there are many variants in their monasteries, especially in the West, but understand that there is a military feel to the tradition, especially in the country of Thailand itself.
Myanmar does well with older people. When I say older, it is common in Myanmar to ordain after your kids have grown up. It is common for a Myanmar man in his 50’s or 60’s to ordain. Myanmar also has many monks who ordain as children and continue onwards as adults. Many of the teachers with Dhammacariya degrees started when they were young. Myanmar also ordains people in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s as well. I tend to see people in their 30’s and 40’s ordain in Myanmar but there are a few in their 20’s. Myanmar monasteries are also large. When I say large, I mean industrial size. Pa-Auk Main Branch usually has upwards of 600 monks of 1200 residents during normal times. The Pa-Auk Maymyo branch has 230 monks of 550 residents.
In Sri Lanka there is the Na-Uyana of the “Galduwa” (Cave Dweller’s) tradition. They have a rule that they don’t ordain anyone over 55. Usually it is 30’s and 40’s and 50’s. Na-Uyana has about 180 monks and novices including their pariyatti center down the road.
In Myanmar (Burma), you have the choice of Pa-Auk and Pa-Auk. Fortunately, there are quite a few branch monasteries that one can visit. However, only a handful are suitable for foreigners and ordination. A few independent monasteries do exist. Even so, many of these “independent” monasteries have abbots who grew up in Pa-Auk. Varanasi Monastery is one such place. Mahavihara is a great quality independant vinaya monastery with 1600 monks. However, this is not suitable for most foreigners and if meditation is your thing, know that these are a study monasteries.
What about the other famous monasteries in Myanmar like Mahasi, Swe Oo Min and Panditarama? They did not get on my list as places to ordain because although there are some monks who do not use money at some of the places listed, it is not the norm and somewhat rare for Swe Oo Min and Panditarama. There have also been technical problems with Panditarama’s ordination halls, new and old which caused two monks to re-ordain at Pa-Auk and lose their seniority. I have never met a vinaya monk from Mahasi, Mogok or Sitagu Monasteries except for one Sitagu monk from Texas who came to Pa-Auk and disrobed. He knew he had made a mistake. Sitagu Sayadaw as well as most other non Vinaya monks are not afraid to have their pictures taken accepting plates of cash let alone discrete envelopes.
The Thai Forest Tradition
Thailand has the Ajahn Chah Tradition and the Dhammayut Tradition which are both rooted in Ajahn Mun. My most popular post is The Dark Side of Ajahn Mun’s Biography speaks about a controversial point in the book. You might want to read it first. Just a word of warning: The Dhammayut tradition allows smoking and chewing betel nut which are highly addictive yet according to their philosophy do not prevent one from removing all traces of desire. The Ajahn Chah tradition does not allow this practice even though they do not argue that smoking is a hindrance because Ajahn Chah once smoked cigarettes until he decided to quit. 1http://www.fsnewsletter.amaravati.org/html/19/jun2.htm. So if you are against smoking and chewing betel nut as well as the Commentaries and Abhidhamma, you should look no further than the Ajahn Chah monasteries in Thailand and the West.
Wat Pah Nanachat Forest monastery. The philosophy is based on the writings of Ajahn Chah books. You need to read these books to understand “The Teachings.” If you want to ordain there, you should like the Ajahn Chah books and philosophy of doing work as a form of “practice”. You should also read books from the abbots of these monasteries if they have written any books. In Thailand, you will be brought back 100 years by doing things the “old fashioned” way. Meals are usually one time per day with daily chores lasting about 1.5 hours…unless there is a full work day. Often once or twice per week a full or half work day can be expected. There are also meetings and daily tea-time. There is almost no formal guidance in meditation. You will need to go elsewhere for that. The Western branches offer a light breakfast and have a similar schedule.
Wat Ban Tad (Dhammayut) is the Ajahn Maha Boowa monastery. It is old fashioned like above, but maybe has less chores and work days. There are lots of chickens, smoking and chewing betel nut there. Some foreigners have ordained there. This is probably the most famous Dhammayut Monastery in Thailand. Ajahn Thanissaro has a branch in California and is from this monastery. The Dhammayut monasteries are quite exclusive to their own ordained monks. If you ordain there, you are likely to be welcomed at Wat Metta, California. There is also another branch monastery in Virginia but I have not heard of residents lasting long at this latter branch.
Forest Sangha (Ajahn Chah) are a network of monasteries in the West. There are several in England and the USA alone, not to mention several other European countries. See forestsangha.org . If you want more of your own culture, slightly more modern, and don’t want to be forced to learn Thai, then these monasteries may be more your thing. Be sure to be inline with the Ajahn Chah books as well as the writings of the current abbot or residents before choosing these as well.
Wat Metta (Dhammayut) Ajahn Thanissaro, is a great scholar monk and he also teaches meditation. His method is similar to Goenka. Make sure you meet the abbot and talk one on one with him often so you can get to understand his personality, and philosophy. This Ajahn is very accessible and you will get a lot of attention from him if you ordain with him. He has written the Buddhist Monastic Code 1 and 2 which are great books minus its bias in the Thai Tradition. I did not see anyone smoking at his monastery and I asked about it 20+ years ago. He did not think there was a problem with smoking and betel as far as enlightenment was concerned and I think he allows it if a monk “needs” it. It is considered a medicine in the Thai Tradition and justified with some “controversial” Pali quotes. You will have plenty of time to meditate at this center. Some learned monks find his views on Dhamma controversial.
Wat Bodhinyana: Ajahn Brahm, is a monastery in Perth, Australia. He seems to still have a waiting list to get into his monastery yet many monks I know became disenchanted after they actually visited and lived there. They expected personal time with Ajahn Brahm and rarely got it. However, there is plenty of time to meditate and chores are only 3 days per week which is very little for a Thai Ajahn Chah rooted monastery. However, Ajahn Brahm and his monks and monasteries are no longer part of the Forest Sangha franchise. They were kicked out and asked to vacate Bodhinyana in 2009 for the round of Bhikkhuni ordinations he did. Ajahn Brahm and his monks are still at Bodhinyana today against those initial requests by the current Ajahn Chah Sangha leaders. There are also some problems if you ordain there and want to visit other Thai Monasteries. Last I heard, you are welcome to visit, but cannot participate as a communal monk in the vinaya ceremonies. https://bswa.org/location/bodhinyana-monastery/
Other options in Thailand:
There is a Pa-Auk branch in Thailand called Angthong Meditation Center. There might be another one as well. These may have a full time teacher and you can see the website at https://www.paauktawyathailand.org/en/
There are 12 monasteries in Thailand which follow the vinaya very closely to the Commentaries and Abhidhamma. The main center is Wat Khao Sanamchai in Hua Hin which is a learning center. Google knows about the place but there is no website. There is virtually no English support, but maybe one of their monasteries would ordain foreigners. Their monks often come to Pa-Auk in Myanmar for meditation and there is a 4 postures meditation center down the hill from them. Phone: +66 32 536 604
Pa-Auk Main Branch Mawlamyine: I no longer strongly recommend this place for ordination because it is so big. However, there is a lot of space to meditate and it is a good landing point for many while they decide or wait to get accepted to other Pa-Auk Branches. Because it is so huge (1200 yogis), it is easy to get permission to come. There is a full medical clinic several times a week, as well as a dental clinic several times a week. Both are for basic general needs usually based on symptoms rather than checkups. The food recently changed to self serve buffet to cut down on waste. The monastery is well organized. https://www.paaukforestmonastery.org/
Pa-Auk Pyin Oo Lwin: This is one of the newest of the Pa-Auk monasteries which is designed for foreigners from the ground up. Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadawgyi lives and teaches at this monastery. It is getting quite large now as well, with 250 monks and a total of 550 residents, which makes it almost equally as big as the main center in its earlier days. The climate is cool, rainy season is light and the food is very acceptable to foreigners. The food is by buffet so you can choose what is suitable for your needs. There are vinaya classes weekly and a dhamma class weekly by the Abhivamsa Meditation Teacher, Sayadaw U Kumarabhivamsa. The meditation schedule is rigorous and attendance is taken in the meditation hall and at interviews. A pathway to ordination can be much quicker than the Thai Tradition, but they still like to watch you for a few months. Medical facilities are on the premises. There is a huge waiting list, and email responses are often lacking. https://paauksociety.org/
Pa-Auk Dawei: Probably my recommended place for new monks who want to ordain in Myanmar but cannot get into Maymyo although I have never been there. One of my friends has ordained there and he is very happy. The abbot, Sayadaw U Kundadhana was Venerable Pa-auk Sayadawgyi’s right-hand man for fifteen plus years. He will teach you how to be a monk and give you proper individual monastic training. That is why I recommend this place. It is however, less foreigner friendly than the other places. However, the Sayadaw will make you feel comfortable and is very fluent in English. I have learned much from this Sayadaw when we were both at Mawlamyine. He is not a meditation teacher but very kind, happy and knowledgeable. Meditation instruction is from the resident meditation teacher and might be translated. You would need to contact the main branch about information.
Pa-Auk Mudon: Nice place to visit after ordaining elsewhere. The abbot has lots of metta (loving-kindness) and loves having foreigners visit as well as anyone. The monastery is situated on top of a steep mountain and has breathtaking views. The monastery has a nice breeze during hot season. I’m not going to recommend it for ordination due to lack of language. They use mostly Mon Language including a special version of Pali called Mon Pali.
Sayadaw U Revata Pa-Auk He-Ho. Sayadaw U Revata’s place is full and getting in is difficult. He speaks English well and has been an official teacher since his third vassa and maybe before that. He is also fluent in Thai and oversees the Thai monks and teachers. He has authored several English books and has a good following. Internet is prohibited at his monastery. His assistant Bhante U Manijota speaks English and is devoted to helping. The contact numbers are +95 9-795843239 and +95 9-764538589.
Pa-Auk Philosophy: You should read both Knowing and Seeing and The Workings of Kamma before deciding on Pa-Auk or even Na-Uyana. Unlike most other monasteries. Pa-Auk has a personal requisite system. You will need a sponsor to make an “account” for you to cover your medical needs which go beyond the abilities of the local clinic. Likewise, all other personal expenses and items not provided by the sangha store room and “donations from lay people” Basically, anything other than robes, soap, detergent, thread and needles will need to be provided by an “account”. The office worker helps obtain such needed items and the money is deducted. Your visa will also need to be purchased by this account. Most or all other monasteries listed here discourage such practices and cover visa fees. Nevertheless, requisite accounts are very legal in the Buddhist world and mentioned in the root texts and commentaries. Recently, visa fees are usually waived after one year of continuous stay.
Na-Uyana Forest Monastery, Sri Lanka: Na-Uyana is a fine monastery with over 5,000 acres. There are 4 or 5 monasteries combined into this monastery with different “feels” to each of them. There is also a learning center 20 minutes down the road. If you want something in between The Thai Forest Tradition and Pa-Auk this might be a good place to choose. The Sri Lankan language is much easier to pick up than the Myanmar language. The culture is quite different from Myanmar and it is less tolerant than Myanmar but more tolerant than Thailand. The food is quite spicy and high in black pepper content but there is special foreigner food available. The monastery has about 180 monks and novices total, but living areas are much more spread out than Pa-Auk. Kutis and the way of living is a little more austere than Pa-Auk but suitable for monks. https://nauyana.org/
International Theravada Institute: This will be a great monastery to build great monks. I think this might be the best place to train and ordain, but you will need to be patient on learning full time meditation. There will be time scheduled for retreats during the training though. There are no foreigners yet, but they are welcoming candidates as soon as it opens. The initial construction was donated by the Sri Lankan President in late 2019 to Venerable Devananda, Venerable Maggavihari, Venerable Ariyananda and another Galduwa official. The monastery is part of the same tradition as Na-Uyana and the government supports the construction right now. It will open in late 2020 or after this pandemic cools down. You can see some of the lectures here. This is a place I recommend if you are into or open to the Commentaries and Abhidhamma but not totally faithful to them. Venerable Devananda wishes anyone to come regardless of their ideas about the Abhidhamma or Commentaries. Venerable Devananda is kind and will give proper instruction and has a gentle way to successfully persuade people to learn and do the right thing. This will be primarily a study and training monastery, but will have 2 hours of meditation required per day. There are traditional requirements that all monks should know within their first five years which are rarely required anymore. They want to bring this training back to life. The abbots are very kind and highly intelligent. They might be some of the most well learned monks in Sri Lanka actually. I might go there some time later on to complete some studies and training. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFhy_YsPcufmBl4AqkvaUXA/featured
Renagiri Lena Forest Monastery (Diddeniya): This ancient cave monastery which is 30 minutes away from Na-Uyana is primarily a learning monastery with very few foreigners, if any at all. However, they should be equipped to ordain foreigners. A good solid foundation will be found at this monastery with really really really good vinaya. The monks at this monastery are very good monks. This monastery is always full and usually two or more sleep together in a cave kuti. This is an ancient cave monastery and the caves are quite as classy as caves can get. The chief abbot is Venerable GnanaSila and speaks very clear English. +94 71 080 8623 (in Sri Lanka) 071 080 8623
Just in case I did not say this, all of the above places in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are based on the Abhidhamma and Commentary. Na-Uyana places an emphasis on the Pa-Auk system, but you are allowed to practice other methods as well under guidance. However, Na-Uyana does not allow monks to go out for Goenka retreats during the first 5 years. You will also be with monks who are gung-ho for the Commentaries and Abhidhamma so don’t think it won’t matter because it will. The Dhamma lectures will be in that direction and you should attend such lectures.
Nisaranavanna, Sri Lanka: This is a monastery is also known as Mithrigala that practices and teaches the Mahasi method with proper vinaya. It might be the only monastery that practices both Mahasi and proper vinaya that has English capabilities. I have not heard of any foreigner ordaining there who stays there long since 15 or 20 years ago but they are capable to do so. There was once a temporary “separation” from the Galduwa franchise, but now they are technically back together… well… sort of … I’m not sure if it is suitable for foreigners since I know very little of the place, yet have heard a lot about monks not fitting in well. http://www.nissarana.lk/
Mahamevnawa: Not on the list because of known vinaya problems even though they are supposed to be a vinaya tradition. They don’t like the Commentaries and Abhidhamma and they are vocal about it.
Sāsanārakkha Buddhist Sanctuary (SBS), Malaysia: SBS was started by Ven Aggacitta. The current acting resident teacher is Venerable Ariyadhammika from Austria. The teacher is interested in texts written in languages outside the Theravda Pāḷi Language which is controversial. Those who already follow this type of scholarship might feel comfortable at SBS. The vinaya will be acceptable.
Malaysian visas can be tricky. The abbot says he can arrange renewable residential visas, but I personally know two seasoned Western monks who were rejected at the gate. One monk disrobed because of the trouble. Do not believe that a residential visa is easy to get until only after you actually have one stamped in your passport. Once you get your first renewable residential visa, the others should be easier, but it is not always guaranteed. Trust me, you do not want any problems at immigration gate when you are a penniless vinaya monk. Be sure you have a renewable residential visa before you ordain. Otherwise, you can only stay for 3 months at a time on a tourist visa, and you can be refused entry at the immigration gate if they believe you did a “border crossing” to renew your “tourist” visa for residential purposes rather than tourist purposes. You can also be put on an “no-entry-list” after they catch you depending on the mood of the officer. Malaysia is a Muslim country and visa hardships can arise. https://sasanarakkha.org/
I hope this information helps you. Although I mention about philosophy matching for selecting a monastery to ordain at, it does not mean you can’t visit and intermingle with other monks after the initial five year training is completed. I have visited other Thai Forest Sangha Monasteries after such periods and I have made good contacts and insights because of those visits. In fact, I asked a monk from the Thai Forest tradition to take a look at this initial draft to make sure it was accurate. I met this Ajahn in 2013 during a visit.
Wishing to ordain with long term intentions is a noble endeavor. I wish you all the best and hope you find a good match which will lead to happiness and Nibbana.