Buddhist monasteries have certain social conventions and a body language meant to convey a sense of composure, grace, and respect. For people visiting the monastery and unfamiliar with the etiquette, it can often feel intimidating: "I think there is a way I am supposed to behave, but I don't know what it is!" Most important is a well-intentioned attitude. No-one will be offended by the absence of precise etiquette on your behalf. General courtesy and respect go a long way and are the basis for many of the forms of etiquette we use in the monastery. As well as promoting harmony and grace within the community, the forms of etiquette we use are also a means of training oneself in mindfulness and circumspection in everyday social interactions.
The most commonly used expression of body language in the monastery is the anjali
. The hands are held palm-to-palm in front of the heart and are sometimes raised to the lowered forehead. It is a gesture of respect that can be used as a greeting, a goodbye, a thank-you or when speaking with one of the monastics.
The traditional way of paying respect to a shrine or to a senior monk is to bow. This is best learned by following the example of others. As with many traditional practices it is more a 'movement of faith' rather than a rigid rule and is taken up accordingly. In the monastery we pay respect to the shrine when entering or leaving the meditation hall and to the senior monk at the end of the morning and evening meditations.
When sitting it is traditionally considered impolite to point one's feet at either the shrine or at the monks. Also, lying down or stretching out is considered inappropriate in public spaces. During meditation or a Dhamma talk, care should be taken to move and shift positions quietly.
Relating to the Monastic Community
Monks have many rules in their monastic code of discipline that affect the way they relate to people. In particular it is a serious offense for an ordained monastic to have sensual physical contact with a person of the opposite sex. The protection against this goes even further, stipulating that there must be another conscientious male present whenever a monk is spending time with a woman. This is to prevent unfortunate situations from occurring as well as to prevent harmful gossip and misunderstanding. Partly for this reason, monks will greet people with an anjali rather than shaking hands or embracing.
As alms-mendicants, monks are prohibited from engaging in activities that could provide for their own material livelihood. This includes handling money, cultivating crops, and working the land or storing food. As a result everything that accrues to the monastic community is the result of an offering from a generous person. Anything a monk consumes, except water, must actually be offered to them directly. They cannot help themselves to food unless it has been given to them.
In addressing a monk, it is considered impolite to refer to them directly by name without an appropriate form of address. The abbots or any monastic of more than ten years standing is usually addressed as "Ajahn" (i.e. Ajahn Kusalo). "Ajahn" comes from the Thai and means "teacher." Monks with less than ten years in the order can be addressed as "Tan" (i.e. Tan Pavaro), which is also Thai and means "venerable." To make things easier any monk can be addressed as "bhante" (pronounced BUN-tay) which is from Pali, the original language of the Buddhist scriptures and means "dear sir."
Relating to the Monastery
Sangha life is a life of community. Everything in the monastery belongs to the sangha, the ordained disciples of the Buddha, both present and future. The individual members of the sangha and its guests are the caretakers charged with the responsibility of safeguarding, protecting, and maintaining the monastery for the use of the Buddha's disciples today and tomorrow. One should remove one's shoes before entering any monastery building. For dwellings the standard is to try to leave it cleaner than when you arrived. An overall attitude of care and respect for monastery property is the rule.
Items in the kitchen and in the storeroom are also property of the sangha. Even the monastics may not help themselves to things without permission. If you need something, you should ask permission of the guestmaster. To help oneself to food, personal items (except library books or items for free distribution) without permission would go against the spirit of monastic life.
You may also be interested in reading a detailed guide written for lay people on monastic vinaya: Discipline and Convention