Disrobing, defeat or progress?

From the time of the Buddha until the present day there have been monastics disrobing as a result of a myriad of different reasons maybe.
I remember as a junior monk one senior monk always used to say to us ‘its better to be a bad monk than a good layman.’ Meaning no matter what just make sure you don’t disrobe! But now having seen the conditionality of peoples, is that really tenable or even a wise reflection? Its sometimes the case that an individual may be really attached to ‘the idea’ of being a monk, sometimes really ungrateful, or stubborn, opinionated, etc in which case I have often thought, disrobing would actually be good thing for them, do you agree?
As a monk or nun who has gone through such a thing or as a layman/woman who has seen it directly happen also maybr, what were/are your thoughts and feelings regarding this phenomenon.


Emphasis mine in the above.

My only two cents is the post-Christian euphemism of “thank god”.

I can’t imagine how horrible it would be a situation for a person to live a lie, essentially, because of some sort of pressure to pretend to carry on as if nothing has happened, as if things are the way they used to be.

Disrobing is unfortunate, but is it that unfortunate if it is for the best? I can’t think of a situation where someone truly had an intense desire to disrobe and them just continuing to go through the motions would be better.

Can anyone else?


Pardon my ignorance on this matter, but from what I understand it is customary in quite a few countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, for men to ordain as monks for a short time around the time they complete their compulsory education (i.e., around the age of 18 or so), and then periodically at various transition stages in their adult lives. At least this is what I have been informed by knowledgeable people. So in Southeast Asian countries my understanding is that one can ordain as a monk for short periods and that this is quite common. When monks disrobe under these circumstances, the disrobing is not a sign of failure, but is simply a part of customary Buddhist practice in Southeast Asian cultures, or so I am led to believe.

I assume that the question posed by @Bhante_Darma does not pertain to the culture of temporary ordination in Southeast Asian (and other) Buddhist traditions, but to individuals who intend to ordain as a lifetime commitment but then change their minds. So is there a qualitative difference between short-term ordination that is never intended as a lifetime commitment, and intentional lifetime commitment that is not fulfilled?

I practice at a Wat in the United States mostly attended by people from Thai and Lao backgrounds. There are monks in residence whom I presume have ordained with the intent to serve as monks their entire lives, but I also converse routinely with laypeople who ordained temporarily as young men as is the custom in Thailand and Laos. There doesn’t seem to be any shame associated with temporary ordination.

I ask this out of genuine curiosity since I am new to Buddhist practice. I try not to be too “nosy” among the laypeople and monks at the Wat I attend. As one of the few Westerners who attends the Wat I find it more prudent to just be attentive and listen respectfully. Perhaps this forum can shed more light on this question.


I think it depends on our definition of what makes a monk. If my understanding is accurate, conventionally, one becomes a monk by ordination, but the emphasis of the teachings, as i understand them, is going beyond appearances:

A monk is not an elder because his head is gray. He is but ripe in age, and he is called one grown old in vain.

Not by shaven head does a man who is indisciplined and untruthful become a monk. How can he who is full of desire and greed be a monk?

He is not a monk just because he lives on others’ alms. Not by adopting outward form does one become a true monk.

Whoever here (in the Dispensation) lives a holy life, transcending both merit and demerit, and walks with understanding in this world — he is truly called a monk.


In light of the conceptual framework of dependent originated existence, I avoid as much as possible judging disrobing events as a matter of one single choice or agent’s decision.

All in all, it is just an dependent originated outcome of there not being enough conditions and causes for a deeper commitment and endeavor with the ideal environment and setting of right livelihood to take place.

Most of times it is about there not being enough momentum in elements of the path more fundamental, such as right view and right thought/intent.

And some times, going through the experience of disrobing will expose the individual to that weakness. That can be in itself the basis for a stronger application in the eightfold noble path or maybe a powerful seed for true renunciation later on in this life or the next. Who knows? :wink:



I don’t really have any strong views on either disrobing or “robing”, since my experience with monastics is very limited. Life is short, and people have to make difficult decisions about the best way of doing some good with the limited time they possess. I knew one person who had intended to make a permanent commitment, but was very unhappy and unfulfilled as a monk, and thought he could do more to help people in a different kind of lay career.


If disrobing knowing that it is for the progress on the path - it’s a progress.
If disrobing because is too hard and mind just making different excuses - that is defeat.
Only the person can know it in the heart.


I also think that normative answers are not really helpful. I rather value not to waist time with the course of action. There is a ‘right’ way of suffering through monastic life and lay life as well. I should have the honesty with myself: is the current life right for me? If not, I should take responsibility for my insight and change it, no matter in which direction. If I stay actual to my understanding I will progress. If not, there is the danger to talk myself into a life others want me to live - and how should an authentic experience come out of that?


Over the years I have seen many monks from Bodhinyana Monastery disrobing.
I kept in touch with several of them and noticed that they are very committed to the dhamma. I believe they have realised (as I have for myself) that the monastic life was not the best setting for their practice. They and I are still very committed to reach nibbana in this lifetime totally convinced that it is faisable to a lay person.


I never ordained but I do remember when I was young (19 or 20), on a lengthy meditation retreat and telling the teacher in an interview I wanted to leave.
He said “There are two reasons why young men disrobe: lust and restlessness.” The implied question being: Which is it for you?
Of course, there are surely other reasons but his comment (based on much experience) was insightful.


My two baht on this question is that I went to Thailand about 9 years ago, to practice and was allowed at a certain point during a rains to ordain as a samanera. This is a common practice in Thailand, where young men do a temporary ordination as part of practice, to show gratitude to their parents, and it is thought that young men that make this journey might have more merit as men and possible future husbands. In other words, it’s a good thing and a welcome thing to do in Thailand for young men. For me, the practice was wonderful ( the abbot never guaranteed anyone the ability to ordain), and along with daily life in a wat, I was able to live as a monastic, go on almsrounds, and teach English to Hill Tribe workers in northern Thailand. It was a great experience ( I recommend it to anyone that might be considering a temporary ordination as part of their life or practice; I was already in my late 40’s when I did this), and my heart was heavy when I disrobed in a formal ceremony with the abbot, and returned to lay life in the States.

In my own mind, defeat comes as a result of unskillful or unethical practice in robes, such as the violation of major Vinaya rules entailing defeat. If a man or woman find that their life in robes is not suitable, it’s best that after a period of long reflection, advice and counsel with others, and consideration leave monastic life. In my mind, that is not defeat, but a proper choice based on wise reflection. Better to not be in robes if your heart and mind are not in it. At the same time, some monastics disrobe, return to lay life, find it distasteful, and return to monastic life. That’s good, too.

So staying in robes or disrobing, to my mind, is not an issue of success/defeat, or a skillful or unskilful act. If a person is in robes, the hope is that their mind and heart are fully engaged with monastic life. I find more of a negative with the many monks that stay in robes despite having no real heart and mind invested in the life of a renunciant. There are more than a few men that stay in robes to avoid facing lay life, or to escape from obligations, or to just have a place to live and eat, smoke and spend their days hunched over their smartphones. I’ve seen that in Thailand, too.


At the risk of taking this topic too far afield from the original post, it seems to me that whether it is in Thailand, elsewhere in majority Buddhist countries, or in the West, it is becoming harder for monks to live a truly renunciant life, whether by choice or because of the circumstances of modern life. I have noticed at the Thai Wat I attend in the United States that running the Wat is sort of like operating a business. While the laypeople technically run the operation (there is a Board of Directors with officers assigned to roles such as Treasurer and Secretary), much of the daily work falls to the monks. I am not talking about routine chores that a forest monk would have such as making his bed or cleaning his alms bowl, but business-side tasks such as preparing mailings that go out to laypeople and updating the Wat’s web page. One day when I was practicing English with the Wat Abbot, the Abbot was interrupted by a contractor who wanted him to approve the garage doors for the new residence under construction that had been selected by a member of the Board of Directors. The monks also now have a need to carry cell phones so that they can communicate with laypeople who make demands of them.

I assume that all of the monks at my local Wat are sincere in their practice. They came all the way from Thailand to the United States to serve the Southeast Asian immigrant community where I live. From my perspective, and I have not discussed this with the monks, it seems a bit sad that the demands of modern society interfere with their ability to focus on their practice. It’s hard enough for laypeople to “disconnect” from work and daily life. I was in Hawaii on vacation last week over the U.S. Christmas holiday, but I had to check my e-mail everyday to see if I had work, which I did (two students e-mailed me about their overdue research papers the day before Christmas!). It seems unfortunate that it is becoming harder for monks to live a renunciant life in our plugged-in, 24/7, connected culture, whether it is in the West or in Southeast Asia. Maybe this is why some monks disrobe. Perhaps they figure that as long as they have to work, they might as well get paid for it.


I might be wrong, but I don’t think what you are talking about is all that different from what a typical monk’s life is like in Asia. The ideal of secluded renunciation is probably rarer in practice than we imagine.


I think this might require living in a forest. :deciduous_tree::deciduous_tree::deciduous_tree:.


Unless someone is an Arahant this suggests lack of understanding of dukkha AND the solution for it. I wouldn’t lose the opportunity to ordain the Buddha’s community of monks and not practice when I get there.

When Buddha say monks he is addressing the lay followers who practice eight precepts as well and take refuge of triple gems.

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Having seen news articles about various scandals in various Buddhist sects I would disagree with “better a bad monk than a good layman”. Buddhism and the community do not need bad monks.


It depends what do you mean by bad and good. If BAD monk means somebody not even trying to put forth effort and GOOD layman means devoted Dhamma practitioner then I understand the objections.

But if monk is striving but very often defeated? From the outside it may look bad – especially with the comparison with other (good) monks. But after reflection he gets up and fights back next day. I am defeated very often regarding precepts or practice but I don’t think about myself us bad Buddhist because trying doing better next time.

Good layman could be a description of generous supporter chanting Pali without understanding while he is not a practitioner of Dhamma.

My favourite reminder about being careful with judging, having views and opinions is this:


Personally I think that Thai Forest monastic order is the best (although not ideal) environment for Dhamma practice. Because of this view (sic!) I am worried about anybody disrobing too easily. I think it is defeat in important battle but as long as not giving up on the Path – the war is not overJ

I heard stories in EBT about Buddha teaching monks who want to disrobe. Is there any teaching where he advice disrobing as a progress on the path?

I think this could be helpful as well:
Questions of monks to their teacher Ajahn Chah:

Q: A lot of times it seems that many monks here are not practising. They look sloppy or unmindful. This disturbs me.

Answer: It is not proper to watch other people. This will not help your practice. If you are annoyed, watch the annoyance in your own mind. If others’ discipline is bad or they are not good monks, this is not for you to judge. You will not discover wisdom watching others. Monks’ discipline is a tool to use for your own meditation. It is not a weapon to use to criticise or find fault. No one can do your practice for you, nor can you do practice for anyone else. Just be mindful of your own doings. This is the way to practice.

Q: Sometimes it seems that since becoming a monk I have increased my hardships and suffering.

Answer: I know that some of you have had a background of material comfort and outward freedom. By comparison, now you live an austere existence. Then in the practice, I often make you sit and wait for long hours. Food and climate are different from your home. But everyone must go through some of this. This is the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. This is how you learn. When you get angry and feel sorry for yourself, it is a great opportunity to understand the mind. The Buddha called defilements our teachers. All my disciples are like my children. I have only loving kindness and their welfare in mind. If I appear to make you suffer, it is for your own good. I know some of you are well-educated and very knowledgeable. People with little education and worldly knowledge can practise easily. But it is as if you Westerners have a very large house to clean. When you have cleaned the house, you will have a big living space. You can use the kitchen, the library, the living room. You must be patient. Patience and endurance are essential to our practice. When I was a young monk I did not have it as hard as you. I knew the language and was eating my native food. Even so, some days I despaired. I wanted to disrobe or even commit suicide. This kind of suffering comes from wrong views. When you have seen the truth, though, you are free from views and opinions. Everything becomes peaceful.

Q: Did I hear you say that you are afraid of very diligent disciples?

Answer: Yes, that’s right. I am afraid. I am afraid that they are too serious. They try too hard, but without wisdom. They push themselves into unnecessary suffering. Some of you are determined to become enlightened. You grit your teeth and struggle all the time. This is trying too hard. People are all the same. They don’t know the nature of things (sankhara). All formations, mind and body, are impermanent. Simply watch and don’t cling. Others think they know. They criticize, they watch, they judge. That’s OK. Leave their opinions to the. This discrimination is dangerous. It is like a road with a very sharp curve. If we think others are worse or better or the same as us, we go off the curve. If we discriminate, we will only suffer.

Q: Would you review some of the main points of our discussion?

Answer: You must examine yourself. Know who you are. Know your body and mind by simply watching. In sitting, in sleeping, in eating, know your limits. Use wisdom. The practise is not to try to achieve anything. Just be mindful of what is. Our whole meditation is looking directly at the mind. You will see suffering, its cause and its end. But you must have patience; much patience and endurance. Gradually you will learn. The Buddha taught his disciples to stay with their teachers for at least five years. You must learn the values of giving, of patience and of devotion. Don’t practise too strictly. Don’t get caught up with outward form. Watching others is bad practice. Simply be natural and watch that. Our monks’ discipline and monastic rules are very important. They create a simple and harmonious environment. Use them well. But remember, the essence of the monks’ discipline is watching intention, examining the mind. You must have wisdom. Don’t discriminate. Would you get upset at a small tree in the forest for not being tall and straight like some of the others? This is silly. Don’t judge other people. There are all varieties. No need to carry the burden of wishing to change them all. So, be patient. Practice morality. Live simply and be natural. Watch the mind. This is our practice. It will lead you to unselfishness. To peace.

Much metta


Wow! Awesome clarity…gave me chills [or it’s the three feet of snow outside where it is 10 degrees?].
Anyway this statement reveals much about my character with some much criticism and judgment internalized in my youth with the help of my stoic German father. This passage reminds me that I am indeed a small tree in the midst of very wise giant trees, and that I cannot afford to have negative emotions at the other trees, the grass the leaves or any of the other conditions that provide me with the option of learning or suffering.

In my early days here on the forum I complained about an “internet monk” ostentatiously displaying and reveling in his material prosperity. And I was surprised that there was very little criticism of his conditioned persona. Now I understand. Are we not all ‘stuck’ in some seemingly real personality. How can one conditioned personality criticize another’s conditioned personality? Ye t I find it so comfortable to do so cause…wait for it…I’m a Buddhist! Which as everyone knows is the ideal ‘platform’ from which to look down upon you lesser mortals.

I’m a small tree. I’m a small tree. I’m a small tree. I’m a small tree. I’m a small tree. I’m a small tree.
Maybe if I make it a chant I will remember to observe without judging.
Thank you so much.


With apologies to the original, we have:

robed disrobed