The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Last year when I was in Tibet, we spent several hours wandering around in the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. It was a bright sunny day. The sun is very intense on the Tibetan Plateau, which averages about 15,000′. I ducked out of the sun into a hallway that connected a couple buildings and encountered this young monk. The floors were made of crushed stone and were polished smooth and glossy. This monk was polishing the floor. His “mop” consisted of a large bag of rocks with a rope tied around the top. Under the bag was a sheepskin. He walked slowly up and down the hallway dragging the very heavy load. Click on the photo to better see the expression on his face. His skin glistens with sweat and the exhaustion is apparent in his face. To the right, outside the frame, another older monk was supervising his work.

It is not uncommon for junior monks to do a lot of the grunt work in the monasteries. Years ago I was visiting with a Buddhist monk in a monastery in Hangzhou, in Eastern China, and he told me that when he first arrived at the monastery he spent a great deal of time sweeping courtyards and doing dishes. He slowing worked his way up to less menial jobs. In a sense they must pay their dues, or prove their worth. In another Tibetan Buddhist monastery I visited with a monk who was in charge of selling trinkets to tourists. He said it was not his first choice of jobs, but that he was willing to do anything to help out the monastery. I have never heard a monk complain about anything.

Even though the harsh sunlight coming in from the left blew out the detail on the bag and floor, I do like this photo. I’m glad I stumbled on this interesting scene. I wish I would have shot more and had taken some closer, more intimate shots of him. But, at monasteries you have to be careful not to be too invasive and respect the privacy of the monks.

It was shot with a Nikon D90 with a Sigma 17-70mm lens, at 24mm, 1/80 sec. f/4.5.

9 thoughts on “The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk

  1. It is strange to think about, but they work there way up in position and jobs the same as we would see in a company. Most of the harder work is for junior employees, while higher up the ladder work can be less menial. But it must all get done, and no matter how hard, they seem to enjoy working to benefit the monastery.

  2. Very interesting photo! My previous understanding of Tibetan Monks was that they lead a life of prayer and thought. From this post, I know understand that life in a monastery is much different when starting than just prayer and consists heavily of manual labor and jobs that are often overlooked by the normal eye. However, such jobs are necessary and prove ones worth and devotion, proving they are ready for life as an older monk that can supervise and teach younger monks.

  3. I think this is something that needs to be at lest compared to hazing. At university it is a controversial subject at the moment for obvious reasons, but I have also heard of organizations having newer members doing chores “to pay their dues” or “prove their worth”. But even if it would be something as simple as only new members open the door when it rings, that is something that they could be kicked off campus for. Whereas here, in a cultural sense with long tradition it is neither frowned upon or even slightly debated.

  4. I like to see crossover similarities between cultures such as the one illustrated here. The idea of working your way up from the bottom and proving yourself to your “elders” or superiors. The same things happen across the world whether it be through sports, work or varying organizations.

  5. I think that it is very interesting that the newer monks are forced to do this type of labor in order to move up the ranks. It is a large cultural difference that never really appears in western culture. I would like to learn more about the culture and lifestyle of the monks. You say that the junior monks never complain about the jobs that they have to do, this may be because they know with the work they put in, eventually, they will be the ones telling the junior monks what they need to do. I also thought that it was odd that the picture of the junior monk you posted had a mop made of stones and a cloth. It may have to do with the type of floor, but why are they not allowed to use a standard mop to clean the floors?

  6. This post is about the life of a tibetan monk through a foreigner and also the monk. I found it really cool that there is so much to learn and also the intricacies of the daily life of a monk. There wasn’t a lot of knowledge when it came to the life of a monk. I found all the information very cool and to learn more about how the monks live makes me very happy!

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