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More than 2500 years ago, the historical Gautama Buddha embarked on his spiritual journey by searching out and following the many popular gurus of India and Nepal. Once enlightened however, Buddha began to deliver his own teachings to those who would listen. While many people began to follow his message and consider themselves “Buddhists“, some decided to leave their homes and family to become monks and devote their lives fully to the practice of spirituality as advocated by Buddha.
These followers had no real place of residence but lived in the open, taking shelter among the trees at night. As they did not work they looked to the community for offerings of food and scavenged trash heaps to find material to make their own clothing. These patched “robes” were often dyed with spices such as saffron and turmeric which gave them a yellow-orange color. The novices were required to shave their heads, and it soon became easy to recognize these men. The group continued to grow and was called the Sangha.
In the beginning, anyone wishing to become a novice simply approached the Buddha and made his request. Then having met certain requirements of health, character and spiritual understanding, these novices were ordained as or monks, or bhikkhus. These monks endeavored to live most simply by the Ten Cardinal Precepts: No killing, no stealing, no sexual intercourse, no lying, no taking of intoxicants, no eating at the wrong time (after the midday meal), no dancing or music, no wearing of jewelry or cosmetics, No sleeping on raised beds, and no acceptance of money.
Living conditions changed for the monks over time as rich Buddhists felt compelled to build houses for them where they could live during the rough monsoon seasons. Eventually the monks began to live in these houses year-round. The houses, called monasteries, had individual rooms or “cells”, for each monk. Every monk was allowed to keep eight possessions: three robes, a water strainer, a begging bowl, a needle, razor, and a belt. As well, monks were expected to live a life of celibacy.
While some things have changed over the centuries, Buddha’s disciples have made great effort to memorize and preserve his teachings from one generation to the next. Because of the dedication of the bhikkhus, Buddhist tradition is now practiced all over the world.