Ask A Buddhist: Understanding Buddhist titles

Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She's ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online.

Q. Some Buddhist traditions have monks, others have ordained clergy, right (reverends, etc.)? Can you help me understand which ones have which, and why?

If you are confused, you’re not alone. In the U.S, the list of Buddhist teachers include, but is not exclusive to: Theravada and Mahayana monastics, Zen senseis and roshis, Korean masters, Tibetan geshes and lamas, Buddhist chaplains, Buddhist ministers and lay Buddhist teachers.

In terms of official clergy that the Buddha recognized in his time, true monastics are the badass Buddhists who have given up just about every worldly comfort to study, practice and teach the Dharma. Depending on the tradition, men follow about 227 precepts; women follow about 311 precepts. Precepts guide every aspect of a monastic’s life from handling money to interaction with the opposite sex to the number of meals they can eat (and at what time). As they’ve dedicated their lives to practicing the Dharma, you can generally assume that monastics who have practiced a number of years are knowledgeable teachers.

In the Theravada tradition today, monks are addressed as Bhante; female monastics as Ayya. A senior monastic male or female (who has been a monk for 10 or more years), is called Ajahn. Because female monasticism has only recently been revived in the Theravada tradition, senior nuns are still commonly called Ayya

That being said, all monastics of Theravada and Mahayana traditions — no matter if they are junior or senior, can be addressed as Venerable. I should be calling my own son, a junior monk, Venerable, but at this stage, he’s still Nate to me. One of my favorite ajahns, Ajahn Brahm, a rather hilarious, rotund and wise monk from Australia, says you can call him, “Your Roundness,” or “Your Emptiness” (emptiness referring to Buddhism’s premise that no phenomenon is wholly independent, and hence it lacks what we perceive of as solidity and authentic autonomy. But that’s another discussion). Western monastics, like Christian nuns and monks, are also comfortable being called Sister and Brother.

The largest Mahayana schools that have taken root in the U.S. are the Tibetan traditions and the Zen schools. In the Tibetan traditions, the title, lama, simply means teacher, and can refer to someone who is an ordained monastic, or someone who is a serious, committed lay teacher (often indicated by that person having completed a three-year retreat under the guidance of a master). Rinpoche means “precious one” and refers to a great teacher, or to the head abbot of a monastery. One other title you’ll hear referring to Tibetan teachers is that of geshe. Although it means “virtuous friend,” it is really an academic degree, awarded after many years of study — like 12 to 40!

Zen might also seem more complicated than need be. True monastics like Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the most renowned contemporary Zen monks, observe the same rules as other Buddhist monastics, and hence can be called Venerable. But then it does get a little fuzzy. For well over a century, Zen priests in Japan are a kind of family business: a son trains as a monastic, then comes back to his father’s temple as a priest who ministers to the surrounding lay community. As you can tell by the words father and son, Zen priests are not necessarily celibate. This is true of many Zen monks in the U.S. too.

Sensei means teacher in Japanese, and is a title bestowed on someone, lay or monastic, deemed by another Buddhist sensei to be qualified to teach. You’ll find this same title used in Japanese martial arts or in Japanese schools: it really does simply mean teacher.

Like the term Ajahn in Theravada Buddhism, the title of Roshi is given to senior senseis in Japanese Zen traditions.

Buddhist chaplains in the U.S., who have privileges in hospitals, the armed services and hospice, must complete a three-year (or equivalent) interfaith theological degree and be certified by the Association of Professional Chaplains. Buddhist chaplains may come from a Theravada or Mahayana background, but are expected to be able to minister to all faiths.

I’ve only met Buddhist ministers in conjunction with the Buddhist Church of America, a Japanese Buddhist tradition utilizing some terms (i.e. church) and forms (pews and a commanding altar) familiar to the West. Their training institute in Berkeley, founded in 1949, trains ministers and chaplains. Their senior clergy include bishops.

Online, you can find the International Organization of Buddhist Ministers: it’s a fledgling group but does perform ordinations. The IOBM maintains that it is nondenominational, but as you can see above, titles and lineages are important to specific ways of teaching the Dharma.

Finally, lay teachers are most often called simply by their first names unless they want to be strongly associated with one tradition as mentioned above — as a sensei, roshi or lama. You might be familiar with some of the well-known lay Buddhist teachers like Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, whose books are bestsellers on the contemporary spirituality bookshelf. Sharon would expect to be called Sharon, and Jack, Jack.

Hopefully, the landscape of Buddhist teachers and clergy encountered in the U.S. is a little clearer. Venerable Chodron of nearby Sravasti Abbey in Newport has a very good piece of advice for us all: ask a teacher what she or he would like to be called.

Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She's ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online.



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Tracy Simmons

Sarah, thank you for this. It’s so helpful! I’m sharing it to all my friends who report on Buddhism.

I do have one question though. Why do female monastics follow more precepts than male monastics?

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