Buddhism: Theravāda

Social Structure and Institutions

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Social Structure

Generally, there is no specific social structure that underpins a Theravādin Buddhist. This means that many may use services and may reside anywhere they wish. In countries with large Buddhist populations, there may be Buddhist-specific institutions that someone may use (such as a hospital or school). However, this is usually determined by personal preference. Traditionally, the lay Buddhist community will offer support to the monastic community by provision of the four requisites (food, robes, dwelling places and medicine). This allows monks and nuns to live as monastics and cultivate a meditative way of life. In turn, the monastics offer spiritual support and teachings to the lay community, to help guide them in their spiritual path.

Organisational Structure

Theravāda Buddhism’s organisational structure varies from region to region and to . While some are strictly hierarchical or central governing bodies, others may run similar to a family business. The main distinction is between the Saṅgha (community of monastics) and the .

Saṅgha (Community of Monastics)

The term ‘Saṅgha’ may refer to the entire Buddhist community of monks, nuns and , or may be used to refer specifically to the Buddhist monastic community of monks and nuns. Monastics can be distinguished from the by outward appearance, such as their shaved heads and donned robes. These choices in appearance minimise distraction from material goods (such as various hairstyles and clothing), and also act as symbols of renunciation. There is usually a of seniority within the Saṅgha based on one’s years as an ordained monastic.

  • Monks: Monks (bhikkhu in Pāli) refers to the male members of the monastic order. In order to become a monk, the male is required to complete his time as a novice in a community or with a teacher, and then complete a higher ordination which officiates him as a fully ordained monk.
  • Nuns: Although the Buddha did establish a female monastic order (nuns or bhikkhunī), the order more or less died out in Theravādin countries nearly a millennium ago. This means that women who seek to practise as monastics in this tradition in many cases follow a training of eight or ten precepts as part of their ordination (equivalent to novice ordination), and as such, are not as recognised or supported as their male counterparts. Contemporary efforts to reestablish the bhikkhunī order have been somewhat successful but are not yet fully accepted in most Theravādin countries. However, there are now a growing number of bhikkhunīs and bhikkhunī communities developing around the world.
  • Novice: Novices are those who have completed a lower or temporary ordination by renouncing life in favour of accepting monastic life. This often involves leaving one’s home, shaving one’s head, wearing a robe and taking refuge in the Triple Gem (the Buddha, Dhamma and Saṅgha). The youngest age someone can become a novice is usually around seven. By the age of 20, a novice is able to become a fully ordained monk or nun.

Monastics generally follow rules of behaviour found in the Vinaya Piṭaka, including the ethical code of conduct and practices of austerity. As an ideal, the Saṅgha are expected to follow the strict code of conduct and serve as role models for the . However, the Saṅgha is diverse and there may be varying levels of austerities practised. For example, some traditional members of the Saṅgha may have very limited possessions (such as a few robes, sandals, a sewing kit, an alms bowl and basic medicine). Although monks and nuns take vows of renunciation, the monastic institution enables the Saṅgha to avoid extreme ascetic practices (such as prolonged fasting).


The term ‘’ refers to lay or non-ordained Buddhist practitioners who are not part of the monastic order. In the Buddhist tradition, the are sometimes referred to as upāsaka (for men) and upāsika (for women). This refers to people who are not monks, nuns or novice monastics, yet undertake certain vows (usually in the form of taking refuge in the Triple Gem and attempting to live according to particular moral precepts and the Eightfold Path).

Lay members of Buddhist communities typically live a household life instead of a monastic life, often with less time for meditation and contemplation. Lay Buddhists are encouraged to cultivate wholesomeness in all their activities (good kamma), and observe the five moral precepts as a path of practice. Meditation and study is encouraged too, if or when they can find time for this. may give donations (money, services or goods) to the Saṅgha and the monasteries. Some may have a teacher (often a member of the Saṅgha) who offers spiritual advice on their journey.

Within the , there may also be renunciates or ascetics. These are Buddhist practitioners who remain outside the formal monastic community but follow a renunciatory mode of life. This includes wandering alone, usually in remote places, while practising austerities and meditation.

Saṅgha and Laity Interactions

Monastics and the have engaged in various complementary religious practices throughout Buddhist history. These exchanges are a major component of Theravāda Buddhism. For example, the provide the basic necessities for monastics through the practice of almsgiving. Meanwhile, the duties of Buddhist monastics include:

  • Conducting certain ceremonies or chanting blessings on request, especially for funerals or other important times of transition in people’s lives.
  • Teaching in schools or universities that may be attached to the monastery, or by invitation to other places of learning.
  • Teaching on the Buddhist path and practice, including offering meditation guidance.
  • Providing spiritual guidance to the .

In many countries with a strong Theravāda Buddhist influence, there is a cultural practice between monastics and relating to merit. Generally, the Saṅgha is seen as providing a ‘field of merit’, which enables the to improve their spiritual condition. For example, providing food or offering cloth for robes to a monastic is believed to produce greater merit than gifts to other recipients. This helps generate good kamma with the possibility of a more favourable future life. In exchange, monastics receive veneration and support from the .

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