Why do Buddhist monks sleep upright?

The BBC News magazine reports on Buddhist monks who slept sitting upright. Danny Fisher linked to the article, but making sure to note that it’s about Tibetan Buddhist monks. Sleeping in an upright sitting position is an ancient tradition recorded along with twelve other ascetic practices, which in the Pali Canon are referred to as the dhutanga practices. I was just talking with a monk about this yesterday, and he was very much against the dhutanga.

These practices are followed to some extent by the forest traditions, especially the Thai forest tradition. The ascetic practices are also followed by some Zen monks, namely those at the Sagely City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, who also spend their nights sitting upright. The thirteen dhutanga practices are listed below, written by Bhikkhu Khantipalo.

I. Refuse-rag-wearer’s Practice (pamsukulik’anga) — wearing robes made up from discarded or soiled cloth and not accepting and wearing ready-made robes offered by householders.

II. Triple-robe-wearer’s Practice (tecivarik’anga) — Having and wearing only three robes and not having additional allowable robes.

III. Alms-food-eater’s Practice (pindapatik’anga) — eating only food collected on pindapata or the almsround while not accepting food in the vihara or offered by invitation in a layman’s house.

IV. House-to-house-seeker’s Practice (sapadanik’anga) — not omitting any house while going for alms; not choosing only to go to rich households or those selected for some other reason as relations, etc.

V. One-sessioner’s practice (ekasanik’anga) — eating one meal a day and refusing other food offered before midday. (Those Gone Forth may not, unless ill, partake of food from midday until dawn the next day.)

VI. Bowl-food-eater’s Practice (pattapindik’anga) — eating food from his bowl in which it is mixed together rather than from plates and dishes.

VII. Later-food-refuser’s Practice (khalu-paccha-bhattik’anga) — not taking any more food after one has shown that one is satisfied, even though lay-people wish to offer more.

VIII. Forest-dweller’s Practice (Araññik’anga) — not dwelling in a town or village but living secluded, away from all kinds of distractions.

IX. Tree-root-dweller’s Practice (rukkhamulik’anga) — living under a tree without the shelter of a roof.

X. Open-air-dweller’s Practice (abbhokasik’anga) — refusing a roof and a tree-root, the practice may be undertaken sheltered by a tent of robes.

XI. Charnel-ground-dweller’s Practice (susanik’anga) — living in or nearby a charnel-field, graveyard or cremation ground.

XII. Any-bed-user’s Practice (yatha-santhatik’anga) — being satisfied with any dwelling allotted as a sleeping place.

XIII. Sitter’s Practice (nesajjik’anga) — living in the three postures of walking, standing and sitting and never lying down.

These practices are controversial. I often support Theravada monks who follow some of the ascetic practices, but just yesterday a Sri Lankan monk was telling me that the dhutanga “isn’t Buddhism, it’s Jainism. Buddhism is about the middle way, about moderation.” Similarly, the practices of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas are criticized by other Chinese Mahayana Buddhists for being too strict.

But I find it interesting that, whatever you may think of them, the dhutanga practices survive to this day and upheld by monks in many different colored robes.

4 Replies to “Why do Buddhist monks sleep upright?”

  1. In your post of 1,4,2009 ‘Sex Work Through The Buddhist Lens’ you mention that I look at prostitution only from the point of choice, however minor that element of choice may be – and for some prostitutes it is very small indeed. You also say that you would be interested in my view on the kammic results of being a trafficked sex worker. So here it is. Human trafficking for sexual purposes was not dealt with in my brief article on prostitution simply because I would see it as slavery more than prostitution. Clearly, anyone forced into any type of slavery is devoid of any choice and bears no kammic responsibility for their situation. Those who would take advantage of a trafficked sex slave (I feel the term ‘worker’ is not applicable here) would be making very heavy kamma for themselves.

  2. I know very little of the history but my sifu told me that the reason they sleep upright is because qi does not flow properly when laying down

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