Triratna is a Sanskrit word that means ‘Three Jewels.’ It is also often referred to as the Threefold Refuge and represents Buddha, the dharma (teachings or doctrine), and the sangha (the monastic community or order consisting of monks and nuns). To become a Buddhist, one says: ‘I go to the Buddha for refuge, I go to the Doctrine for refuge, I go to the Order for refuge.’
Buddhist monks enter monastic life in order to be immersed in the dharma. There they are able to entirely focus on the teachings with little distraction and often spend long hours in meditation or studying the dharma. When a monk takes a monastic vow to enter a monastery, they follow the Buddha’s path of leaving his home to pursue enlightenment. This is often referred to as ‘home leaving’ or ‘going forth.’ In some cases, individuals become Buddhist monks to accumulate value for themselves and their families. Others join a monastery to get access to a safe home, food, and schooling. These are usually children who need to make up for past transgressions or to abide by their family’s wishes.
After the Buddha died, the monastic community implemented two different ordination ceremonies. The first is the ‘going forth.’ Children who enter monastic life through this ceremony should be 8 years or older. When these novices turn 20, they may request full ordination. The lineage tradition allows senior monks to ordain novices without the Buddha being present. According to this tradition, fully ordained monks must be present at the ordination of new monks. It also holds that fully ordained monks and nuns should be present at the ordination of new nuns. This tradition created an unbroken lineage of ordained monks and nuns dating back to the Buddha’s lifetime.
Ordination does not have to be a life-long commitment. Monks and nuns can choose to leave the order and return to lay life if they choose. This is the case of the 6th Dalai Lama. Although he was still the Dalai Lama, he decided to renounce his ordination and live as a layperson. The rules for monastic life are stipulated in the Vinaya or Vinaya-Pitaka. There are different versions of these rules and guidelines, and today some are only partially observed. For example, the Vinaya stipulates that the monastic community should be celibate. However, the Emperor of Japan disallowed celibacy in the empire in the 19th century and instructed monks to marry. This is still the expectation of Japanese monks today.
Becoming a Buddhist monk can be a life-long commitment. It could also be a calling that some individuals answer for a short amount of time. Although ordination makes it easier to entirely focus on meditation and studying the dharma, entering the monastic community is not a prerequisite for pursuing the path to enlightenment.