A monks livelihood

I was watching a recent youtube Zoom call with Ajahn Martin where he went off on his frustration about sending time training monks only to see them leave after a few months because they can’t handle the training. His frustration seemed particularly aimed at Westerners and older initiates who just can’t handle the training. It is painful, you have to literally learn everything, from sitting to washing your robes, from scratch. Younger monks will criticize you if you do something wrong. And it is physically painful. He said he didn’t mine lay people coming to practice, but highly discouraged westerners and older folks from from wanting to come to become a monk.

Then he said something interesting: while ticking off all the things you need to learn he mentioned: You have to learn the chants or otherwise you have no livelihood. And if lay people don’t think you practice correctly, they will not support you.

It really struck me that even a monk has to make a living, and that much of the monks training and time is not spent on release as much as officiating and taking care of the spiritual needs of the community who supports them. We in the west have a romantic notion of monks just sitting around in meditation without pondering that much of your focus needs to be focus on simply making a livelihood.

I began to think that as a retired person, with nothing to do and enough resources not have to work, that I’m in a better position to focus just on “release” than a monk in a monastery in Thailand. No matter who you are, you still have to bring the bacon home and market yourself. Even a monk. Especially a monk.

For some reason that one phrase: You need to learn the chants or you won’t have a livelihood really made me realize the reality of the spiritual life. No different than when I was an entrepreneur looking for customers. It isn’t all meditation and getting fed by others.


Hi. My impression when I lived in Thailand (as a layperson) is the above doesn’t take up very much time. On a daily basis, I recall the chants are done before and after the main meal, when laypeople make offerings and join in the main meal. On a weekend or holy day, generally, more time is devoted to ceremony. In other words, my impression was there was plenty of time for meditation. In the West, I found monasteries much more quiet. However, monasteries generally also have work duties. For example, I recall I would do at least two hours of continuous sweeping of forest paths after breakfast (which is meditation or ‘release’ practice; i.e., training to work without any hindrances or attachment).

I imagine an entrepreneur could spend 8 to 12 hours per day looking for customers. For monks, their livelihood may require at most 3 to 4 hours per day. And generally performing that livelihood is meant to be meditative, such as chanting, teaching or physical labor. For example, there was a time I gave an introductory talk to lay visitors. I just closed my eyes, sat in meditation posture, tried to watch my breathing & talked the script. Both this talking & the sweeping leaves were never regarded as “work”. They were simply meditation time. In a hardcore monastery, everything is basically meditation.

What exactly do you mean by “release”?

Also, how will you or others such as you perform the historic monk’s role of perpetuating the Teachings and being a role model to the Buddhist laypeople who support Buddhism? Would you consider demonstrating your “release” from worldly attachments by spending your self-made wealth building a Dhamma Centre?

I recall some wealthy Western men became monks and used their money for the Dhamma, such as Ajahn Sumano (About Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu | Next Life is a website of Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu, American Buddhist Monk).

I ask the above because, when I first found meditation, I was wandering around Asia as a relatively young lost soul tourist. I stumbled into a Thai monastery and stayed for one year, which for 6 months cost a neglible fee of around US$2 per day for meals and for the other 6 months nothing because I performed some work duties, such as check in lay visitors. What I am saying is the monastic system is funded by laypeople and offers a place for people to practice meditation. Therefore, how will you as a self-funded high-wealth “released/liberated” Noble One contribute to this perpetuation of the Dhamma and places for people (of limited or no wealth) to practice?

Thanks :slightly_smiling_face:


It really depends on the monastery.

Some monasteries are basically in the funeral business. There are a lot of chants to learn to be a good funerary monk.

At my temple, we’re lucky to have a dedicated support base that believes in us and our teacher and we have a teacher that preaches and practices contentment with little and non-involvement in such worldly things.

We have only about a dozen, short “anumodana” chants we do after receiving, and of those only two that we use every day. It takes only a few months for even someone as slow as me to pick them up after hearing them every day!

But, they are not just for pleasing the lay donors. Memorizing and reciting chants is also a good way to replace unskillful thoughts with more wholesome recollections. It can help begin the process of calming and focusing an undisciplined mind, or priming the concentrated mind with bits of dharma to consider and so they aren’t separate from the practice of samatha/vipassana at all (when done in the right proportion to your character, etc)


Thanks for the thoughtful answer Khemarato. I assumed Ajahn Martin was talking about the various chants for funerals, since it was in the context of livelihood. It wasn’t something I had given much thought to.

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“Also, how will you or others such as you perform the historic monk’s role of perpetuating the Teachings and being a role model to the Buddhist laypeople who support Buddhism?”

I have no interest in being a monk, perpetuating the teachings or being a role model for anyone except my children. And they usually end up being a role model for me.

“Would you consider demonstrating your “release” from worldly attachments by spending your self-made wealth building a Dhamma Centre?”

No. Although I do support the Temple Forest Monastery in New Hampshire when they put out a list of needed items.

“Therefore, how will you as a self-funded high-wealth “released/liberated” Noble One contribute to this perpetuation of the Dhamma and places for people (of limited or no wealth) to practice?”

I have no plans to do that. My “wealth”, such as it is, goes to support my family as a lay person.

But this post isn’t about me. It is about a monks livelihood.


So there are a few things going on here.

Many people have a fantasy about monastic life that neither matches modern monastic life nor monastic life in the time of the Buddha. There were, of course, and still are some monastics who live successfully exclusively dedicated to seclusion and meditation. However this is not the norm.

One of the blessings of the brahmacariya life that the Buddha designed and gave to us is that it allows for a diversity of lifestyles while still supporting the path of liberation. Even in the suttas themselves we see this, not to mention the rich commentarial stories.

It’s going to be difficult to address what the venerable was trying to say without being able to watch the video. And it’s not really fair to him to be discussing his views second hand. Perhaps you could link to the video.

That said, naturally it’s frustrating when one spends time training people only to see them disrobe/leave. This is where equanimity is very important. As well, a clear grounding in the truth of merit is also essential. The merit collected by offering someone the chance to live the holy life is immeasurable. And the chance to spend time living it, even if it doesn’t end up being a life long thing, is very valuable. So if one is considering the big picture of saṁsara, it doesn’t need to be something frustrating.

And also extra patience is essential for training anyone who doesn’t come from a Buddhist background.

It’s true, though, that if you are going to be a Buddhist monastic in a Buddhist country, you have to know how to “play the part.” Unfortunately many westerners fail to even act like respectable lay people let alone respectable monastics. And since knowing the chanting is something that “even temple monks can do” when a forest monk doesn’t know them it appears that they couldn’t possibly be able to do other “higher” practices. See MN 69: Goliyānisutta

Of course that might be true. But it seems that you may be contrasting the life of an ideal lay person in an ideal lay life with a monastic living in a less than ideal monastic life. So if you are sure that you are in the ideal situation and your only alternative is a bad situation, then great. Give it a shot.

But I have to agree with what it appears that the venerable is saying that statistically most older individuals would be better off practicing as a lay people. This really isn’t an uncommon position. There are some people who are able to create a successful monastic life in retirement, but it is very difficult. Even the Buddha said so. I know personally some who have ordained late in life and are good monastics. But in those cases they had prior life experiences that specifically helped them (e.g. living in Asia, living in community) not to mention a good store of past merit.

Welcome to the forum @Eharp. By the way, you can turn a paragraph into quoted text by starting it with a >. You can also highlight text and click on the Quote button that pops up. That will then attribute the quotation.


Thanks Snowbird. Here is the video ZoomSession "The Training of a monk"with Ajahn Martin (9/07/22) - YouTube

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Great. Here is the exact timestamp where he addresses this.

Edited to add:

The simile of training the elephant can be found in MN 125: Dantabhūmisutta.

I found that the “livelihood” comment with the chanting was just kind of a passing mention, not really the point of what he was trying to make. And it sounded to me that the main motivation was just to make people aware of what the training would be like in his monastery and that it was different from life there as a lay person.

Unfortunately, in the part that I listened to there wasn’t really any discussion of why one would bother becoming a monk. It really can leave one wondering why someone would even consider becoming a monk in the first place. So it makes sense that someone like the OP could come away from listening thinking that being a lay person is a better way to attain liberation. Too bad.

One part of the elephant simile I find especially interesting is this:

‘Yes, Your Majesty,’ replied the elephant trainer. He dug a large post into the earth and tethered the elephant to it by the neck, so as to subdue its wild behaviors, its wild memories and thoughts, and its wild stress, weariness, and fever, and to make it happy to be within a village, and instill behaviors congenial to humans. He spoke in a way that’s mellow, pleasing to the ear, lovely, going to the heart, polite, likable and agreeable to the people. Spoken to in such a way by the elephant trainer, the wild elephant wanted to listen. It leant an ear and applied its mind to understand. So the elephant trainer rewards it with grass, fodder, and water.

I don’t know anything about this venerable or the training at his monastery. And I’m hesitant to stereotype about the typical “German” way of doing things. But it’s notable that when this venerable talks about the elephant simile he focuses on the part at the end where the elephant is bound up and tormented and not the part where the trainer speaks sweetly to him.


I did enough volunteer work for non-profits to see that I had the better deal as a volunteer.

If things ever worked out that way and I wanted to go more monastic I would retire then find a meditation center or monastery out in the woods. I would get a tiny house, do #VanLife, volunteer there, and hang around as much as they would let me.

At that point in my life I might get one of those sporty Kojack haircuts too ( especially considering ticks ).

If you watch his videos aimed at monks, especially his earliest videos, he is pretty brutal with the monks (he is very jovial with lay people), although he does tell stories about being harsh with lay people as well.

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