There was a discussion on Twitter recently about the topic of monks disrobing. It is commonly thought that once monastic vows are taken they are for life. I did not think this was so as pretty well all the the temples of any Buddhist sect I have been to in Asia have a large number of younger people and very few older people.
My view was that a lot of the younger people come to get an education and many disrobe after that or as their families direct, hence the reason there are children there, and that many older people who do not become teachers retire.
So I put the question on Facebook to various monastic and priestly people and here are the responses I got.
Tibetan tradition: Konchog Norbu –monk
They’re lifetime vows. This is an absolutely clear point.
Agree with the above [after several more comments], so let me re-frame: the *intention* at the time of ordination is for lifetime vows. Yes, there are provisions within the Vinaya for returning one’s precepts and re-entering lay life.
I think it should be noted that taking vows, and giving them back, is not without karmic consequence, if only reinforcing a habitual tendency to not sustain renunciation. Giving them back honorably, as opposed to just running off and breaking them, obviously has much less weight.
Tibetan tradition: Clarke Scott –monk
The vows are for life. So while it is possible is give back your vows…
woops…I would add that at the time of receiving the vows one must be committed to keep them for life. Perhaps this is the case only in the Tibetan tradition. ok, now you can hit the enter button, Clarke! ;)
Theravada tradition Ashin Sopāka –monk
from Bhikkhu Ariyasako (who words this much better than I!) "I know of no place in the Vinaya that states a bhikkhu cannot disrobe. If he no longer has any interest in the bhikkhu-life, the tendency will be for him to become lax and a bad example for others. His Dharma friends therefore will try to re-fire his enthusiasm. However, if that is not possible, becoming a good layman may be better than being a bad monk. (Nevertheless, in some countries there is a cultural expectation of ‘ordaining for life’ and a corresponding stigma attached to disrobing.) There is a tradition (but not a rule) about a bhikkhu not re-ordaining more than seven times."
To your second question, once one disrobes (there is a procedure in the Vinaya for voluntary disrobing), one is a layperson and is no longer bound to the observance of the Vinaya
Mahayana tradition Guo Cheen –nun
In the Theravadan tradition of Southeast Asia, for example, taking on monastic vows for a short period of time can simply be a part of a teenage boy’s rite of passage. In the Mahayana tradition, it is generally discouraged to disavow or disrobe due to the karmic consequences of negatively impacting others’ faith in the Dharma.
I would not encourage any monastic to disrobe, although more harm may be done for monastics who no longer observe their vows but continue in their robes. In fact, the Buddha taught that as the Dharma degenerates, monastics in the Order will be the cause for it. Perhaps more monastics in the West disrobe so that you don’t see many elderly monastic members in the West because, here, people tend to be truer to themselves and move on rather than pretend.
Of course and conversely, there are places and people that purposefully coerce or force monastics into laylife for various reasons.
Males have seven opportunities to disrobe and return to being monastics; females have one chance. As a nun, I would consider disrobing carefully and thoughtfully.
Zen tradition James Ford-Roshi
To the best of my knowledge all Buddhists monastics within the Vinaya system may renounce their vows. I am ordered as a priest in the Japanese Soto system. People who’ve ordained in this model may also renounce their vows.
As I understand this for Vinaya the vows have no time element to them. Unlike say Christian monastic vows, should the occasion arise where one feels one must renounce the vows, or I believe the term is "give them back," there is no one who can say, no you cannot.
In my Japanese-derived non-monastic Soto Zen priestly tradition, one may renounce the vows, "take off the robe;" but I know of no one who takes those vows thinking they’re for a set period of time.
Zen tradition Trevor Maloney –Zen priest
Considering that I’ve never received the Vinaya precepts, I would not consider myself a monastic. For Westerner’s like myself, monasticism implies poverty, chastity (aka celibacy), obedience (to religious authorities), and (in some orders) …stability (staying in one place, not moving around). While these points were not explicitly stated when I received the precepts (as a layman or a priest), living in community like I did for all those years more or less resulted in poverty (plenty of it!), chastity (could have used a little more, probably), and obedience (sometimes could have used a little more)
In my tradition, it’s not uncommon for someone to take on ordination for a specific amount of time (I’ve often heard five years). During that time, they undergo Zen training, which often includes a lot of zazen, ritual stuff, living in community, working with a teacher, study, etc. After the five years are up, that’s it! No longer a priest! Or, I imagine the priest could sign on for another stretch, if the teacher is into it and if they really wanted to
Though I no longer live in community, and my practice looks totally different from what I am used to, I still consider myself a priest. Why? Well, I still feel engaged with the tradition, and I still know that liberation is the most important thing, my ultimate purpose, etc. I asked my teacher if I should give up my robes, but he said I didn’t have to unless I really wanted to. However, if I really didn’t want to be a priest, he would have been fine with that. Would that mean that I would no longer be committed to the Way as expressed in my precepts? I don’t think so. I went into the Buddha Hall on April 19, 2009, and left there different. Not even God can change that
Even if there was a monastic order where it was explicitly stated that once you’re in, you’re in for life, what could that possibly mean? "Revered Abbot, this isn’t for me any more. I need to live the order…" "Tough shit! You’re in for life! Lock ’em up boys!"
So perhaps we can say the vows are written in stone but for some that is sandstone which erodes over time.
Thanks to all who provided information.