Eye on Southeast Asia: Novices in Love and Living

It is not every day that a young Buddhist monk DMs a female counterpart with a creepy, “Hi mama.”

Of course, the female monastic, being herself young but not short on self-respect and quick thinking, fires back with the calm but chastising question of who exactly she is a mother to. She follows up with the demand that this monk drop the nasty talk and call her by the more respectful term sayalay, a Burmese moniker for female teachers.

The chastened monk complies, with a “thank you sayalay.” Hopefully, he thanks her because he has learned his lesson and will be a better member of the sangha for it. I do not want to know why else he would express gratitude.

This dispiriting exchange, shared with me by this female monastic whose name shall remain undisclosed, is an indication of the Internet’s power of anonymity and impunity. It is highly doubtful that the monk would have said this to a woman’s face. But the shield of the computer or phone screen feels safer.

There is no need to judge or condemn the fantasies of an admittedly large number of boys and men that would love to be sternly rebuked or “given a lesson” by a woman – perhaps by a holy woman of the cloth. There can be two truths at the same time: first, that human beings have sexual fantasies and desire is not to be suppressed, but sublimated. However, the second reality is that a monk could be so blatant and shameless about his psycho-sexual thoughts, means clearly that something has gone awry with how this young man’s celibate lifestyle is being managed.

It is notable that monks behaving badly can span a spectrum of age groups. There are those of relatively greater years and senior positions that feel entitled to abuse their standing and power. The other issue, prevalent in countries across Southeast Asia – Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia (but also in Sri Lanka), is the cultural practice of sending young boys to monasteries and ordaining them in the sangha as novices well before the age they can be fully ordained as bhikkhus (age twenty).

In the Vinayavastu Pravrajyāvastu, there is a chapter discussing those who have entered the sangha on shaky grounds. Aside from stories about people in bondage, debtors, those that entered without their parents’ consent or consultation, there is one about two novices engaging in romantic activity, which forces the Buddha to stipulate a new rule:

The Blessed Buddha was staying at Jetavana, Anāthapiṇḍada’s Park near Śrāvastī, when two of Upananda’s novices, Kaṇṭaka and Mahaka, flirted with, groped, and tickled one another. They acted as a man does with a woman, or as a woman does with a man. Once, when they were behaving like this, the monks asked the Blessed One about it, and the Blessed One thought, “All those shortcomings ensue from monks placing two novices together.”

He then decreed, “In light of this, monks should not place two novices together. If you do so, a breach occurs.”

. . .

“If two brothers turn up as they are sure to, saying, ‘We two shall go forth together, at the same time,’ their going forth should be allowed. Once they have gone forth, they should be ordained if they have reached twenty years. If one should have reached twenty years, then he should be ordained while the other should be left a novice. If neither has reached twenty years, then you should take charge of one while entrusting the other to a monk friend of yours.”


It is important to contextualize the age of twenty for an ordained young man that is supposedly to spend the rest of his life in a monastery. In today’s modern Southeast Asian countries, assuming that children complete high school before either entering the workforce or entering university, twenty years is only two to three years after the completion of high school.

The age at which a young man can be formally ordained as a bhikkhu – someone who is well-versed in the Dharma, capable of providing pastoral care to others, and has attained some level of spiritual formation – is extremely young by today’s standards.

This age was determined by the historical Buddha in a time when the average life expectancy could not have exceeded forty to fifty. But in 2023, young men barely know who they are at twenty. Some would struggle to even see themselves as men, at least not in the traditional sense of having fully realized their responsibilities and become comfortable in their own skin.

This is not to take away from the wonderful and essential work that monasteries do in remote areas, where as UN notes, “monastic schools are perceived as the only option for accessing education for boys from poor families.” (UNICEF) On the other hand, the scourge of poverty only accentuates the dilemma faced by families that make such a serious life choice for young males that barely know themselves. They are also highly unlikely to have fully understood their psycho-sexual needs and critically, how to sublimate them should they voluntarily never experience them.

This is the future they must be emotionally be ready for. It is the lifestyle “choice” that confronts them upon their entering the monastery, often while in their pubescent years, when they are only starting to come to grips with their development into manhood, perhaps desiring to explore and experiment, and certainly in desperate need of guidance as to why they are prohibited from doing so.

To reiterate that the honour of the sangha is at stake can be sufficient for the already spiritually inclined, but it is unlikely to mollify many that entered at a very young age. Without sufficient channels of guidance, and the empowerment of a considered choice, the sangha faces a considerable number of male monastics that will behave badly, often because these flesh and blood, very young men do not know better – and have not been given the tools, space, and support to know themselves.  

See more

A source of inspiration in Lao PDR (UNICEF)
“The Chapter on Going Forth” from The Chapters on Monastic Discipline (84,000)

Related features from BDG

Buddhistdoor View: Monasticism for the Young—A Considered Choice?

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