Buddhist Monks and Nuns from the Buddha's time till now
by Bhikkhu Khantipalo


 Home Oben Voraus

First Edition 1979
Digitalised Chiangmai/Thailand 9/1994


This book covers in outline but with many interesting stories and examples, the history and development of the Sangha, the Buddhist Order of Monks and Nuns from their beginnings in the Buddha’s time to the present day. Much of the information contained in this book is scattered widely in many different works or is the result of the author’s own experience as a Buddhist Monk for the last twenty years in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The chapter on the Sangha as found now in the principal Buddhist countries of SE and South Asia contains information probably not available elsewhere, while that on Bhikkhunīs, the Buddhist nuns now is unique in its coverage. New translations of some of the inspiring verses of the enlightened disciples of the Buddha are found in these pages and the author shows how this living tradition of enlightened Teachers comes down to the present day.



This is a book about Buddhist monks and nuns, their history, organisation and lives. When people travel to SE Asia and see the numerous monasteries in cities and countryside with so many monks living in them, sometimes they wonder, what do they do, what is their role in society, what is their aim? Besides the monks in orange, brown or yellow robes there are the nuns, also very numerous in Burma and Thailand. What is their place in the Buddha’s teachings? This book will attempt to answer these questions though in brief, for to do so in detail would require many more than these pages.


To answer such questions satisfactorily we must go back to the beginnings of the Buddhist Order, the Buddha himself. He was the first Bhikkhu or Buddhist monk. But why was he called the Buddha, Awakened or Enlightened? As a short answer to this question an outline of the Buddha’s experience of Enlightenment is given in the first chapter. In the second, the history of the Buddhist Order begins with the Buddha’s first five disciples. Chapter three, upon the rules, which Buddhist monks must keep, is a little technical and could be omitted upon a first reading of the book. However, they are an integral and important part of the life of both monks and nuns since without some discipline no spiritual path can be followed successfully. Chapters four and five provide the history of the spread of Buddhism and the position of Buddhist monks now in the countries of SE Asia. The next chapter gives details of the life of Buddhist monks in both town and country. The seventh chapter is all about the formation of the original Order of Buddhist nuns called Bhikkhunīs, how it became extinct, with a possibility for its resurrection and then something about the nuns now found in Thailand and Burma. The last chapter, Westerners in the Sangha, is about the increasing numbers of westerners, men and women, who get ordination and live and train with their teachers in Thailand and Sri Lanka.


Having said what this book contains one should say too what it does not. It is not an introduction to the Buddha’s teachings although some of them are referred to in the course of the book. Also it does not contain much about the Buddha and his life. So the first two treasures, the objects held most sacred by Buddhists: the Buddha and the Dhamma (Teaching or Law) are only mentioned where this is necessary and then not in detail; while the third treasure, the Sangha (Order or Community), is given seven out of eight chapters. This is the reverse of most books on Buddhism, which give most space to the Buddha and the Dhamma, but little to the Sangha.


Before closing this introduction something should be said on the book’s title. The word Arahant, one who is Enlightened after hearing and practising the teachings of a Buddha, will be defined in more detail in Chapter Two. Most Arahants have been monks or nuns and the robes, which they wear, are their ‘banner’. They are an army of peace, happiness and security bringing with them these qualities out of compassion for the sufferings of the world. So when Buddhists see a Bhikkhu in patched robes of orange or brown, they are reminded of the Arahants. The Banner of the Arahants (Arahantaketu in Pali language) is a sign of a person striving towards the Purity, Wisdom and Compassion of Enlightenment.


I should like to acknowledge permission to quote freely from the issues of the Pali Text Society and the Buddhist Publication Society. Dr. I. B. Horner, President of the Pali Text Society has most kindly answered several queries. Venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera has offered valuable suggestions for which I am most grateful. Translations where there is no acknowledgement are by the author.


Messrs Bruno Cassirer of Oxford has kindly permitted me to quote from „Buddhist Texts through the Ages" about the history of bhikkhunis in China (Ch. VII).


Thanks to an excellent typist, Lynne Jackson, this book has reached completion quickly.


Bhikkhu Khantipalo
Wat Buddharangsee,
Stanmore, Sydney, Australia.



Abhidhamma: the books of psychological and philosophical analysis and synthesis based on the Suttas (q.v.). See Ch. IV.

Arahant: one who has perfected himself by the practice of moral conduct, meditation, penetrative wisdom and so experienced Nibbāna (q.v.) Ch. II. Arahantship: the state of being an Arahant.

Ariya: one who is ennobled (including Arahants), having seen Nibbāna momentarily and by cutting off some fetters, become a Stream-winner, Once-returner and Non-returner. (For definitions, see „Buddhist Dictionary", BPS).

Bhikkhu: a Buddhist monk ordained by at least five other monks in accordance with the Buddha’s instructions and undertaking to practise the Dhamma and Vinaya (q.v.). Ch. VI.

Bhikkhuni: a Buddhist nun similarly ordained. Ch. VII.

Buddha: the title of Gotama Siddhattha after he discovered the way to attain Enlightenment (Bodhi). Any discoverer of the Path to Bodhi who then possesses the Three Wisdoms, etc. Buddhahood: the state of being a Buddha. Ch. I.

Dhamma (in Sanskrit, Dharma): Truth, Law, Teaching, Path of Practice, the Buddha’s Teachings.

Dukkha: all unsatisfactory experience, suffering, ill; may be mental or physical, gross or subtle.

Kamma (karma): intentional actions of mind, speech, body, all originating in the mind with decision or choice and having inherently a fruit or result for the doer in accordance with the action done.

Kuti: A bhikkhu’s or nun’s hut. Ch. V, VI.

Nibbāna (Nirvana): the ultimate Buddhist goal - the cutting-off by wisdom - insight of greed, aversion and delusion, thus establishing the heart in a state of purity, compassion and wisdom, which goes beyond existence. Ch. I.

Pātimokkha the code of 227 fundamental precepts for Bhikkhus. Ch. III.

Sālā: hall for listening to Dhamma, practising meditation etc., in a vihāra (q.v.) Ch. V, VI.

Samana: one who makes himself peaceful, hence usually (but not always) a Bhikkhu or nun. Mahāsamana: an epithet of the Buddha - the Great one who is Peaceful.

Sāmanera: a ‘little samana’, a boy under 20, training to become a Bhikkhu or one who becomes a sāmanera (novice) before Acceptance, irrespective of age. Ch. III.

Sangha: the Order of Bhikkhus, or of bhikkhunis; or the Community of all Buddhists, ordained or lay, who are ennobled with insight to Nibbāna - the Noble (ariya, q.v.) Sangha. Ch; II, III, IV, V.

Stupa (Sanskrit, Pali - thūpa): reliquary monuments also known as cetiya (chedi, zedi) or caitya, dagoba, pagoda, etc. Ch. V.

Sutta: a discourse of the Buddha or an Arahant. Ch. IV.

Thera: a Bhikkhu of more than ten Rains (years) in the Sangha

Theravāda: the Teachings of the senior disciples of the Buddha who were Arahants. The Buddhism practised in south and south-east Asia nearest to the form taught by the Buddha. Ch. IV.

Vihāra: monastery where Bhikkhus live and temple with Buddha-images, stupas etc. for the devotions of both Bhikkhus and lay people, Ch. V, VI.

Vinaya: the Disciplinary code of Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunīs (and laity in some contexts). Ch. III.

Proclaiming indeed my deep Dhamma-voice,
And drumming upon my good Dhamma-drum,
While winding the conch of the Dhamma-way well,
Fare ye for the weal of gods and for men!
And raising my standard of victory high,
And hauling aloft my fair Dhamma-flag,
And flourishing then my bright Dhamma-spear,
Fare ye in the worlds together with gods!
The Path to the Deathless well proffered by me,
But thorny the track to the tortures of hell,
So foully defiled is the Evil One’s face-
Say this to the world together with gods!
Now since my arising in this very sphere-
And since the appearance of Dhamma as well-
And since have arisen my Dhamma-born sons-
Illumine the world by faring therein !
In caves, in the rocks and far in the woods,
Tree root, the place lonely - there, self-controlled
Is founded my dwelling and sure Dhamma-path-
Teach these in the world for gods and for men!
Praise of the Peak of Peaks (Samantakūta-vannan)
Verses 498-500, 502-503.

the Peak of Peaks (Samantakūta-vannan)
Verses 498-500, 502-503.