How to Volunteer with Buddhist Monks

by Julia Kitlinski Hong

Imagine volunteering in a school where every morning, prayers and meditation follow right after the daily announcements. Your students don bright orange robes instead of the universal navy or tan school uniforms. Everywhere you look is decorated with the face of the Buddha, a garland of prayer flags, and books. Chants and oms replace the typical school soundtrack.

Thai Buddhist Monks meditating

Welcome to the life of a volunteer English teacher in a Buddhist monastery school, a position where you will be as much the student as you will be the teacher. Dharma talks will inspire you as you inspire others.

The opportunity to volunteer your teaching skills in a monastery school is a mind-expanding experience in more ways than one, but it’s not a job for everyone. Not only is it an alternative way to teach English, but you will have the opportunity to be immersed in a whole new culture, where peace, spirituality, and good-natured humor is at the heart of it all. 

Read on to get answers to common questions about what exactly this volunteer position entails and why it can be a great choice for novice and veteran ESL teachers alike.

Where in the world can I participate in this type of volunteer teaching?

Throughout Southeast Asia, there are plenty of opportunities to be a volunteer English teacher in monasteries. Young boys are often brought into monasteries to learn how to become monks, but also to gain an education that they would otherwise not be able to afford. Although you may be working with young monks, there is a chance your students can be twice your age!

Thailand is a nation that has a high population of Buddhist monks, where you can give your time to monasteries in a vibrant, yet laid-back city (in comparison to the frenzied pace of Bangkok) like Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. You’ll get to know a different side of Thailand by volunteering here. For a destination that is a little more off the beaten path, Luang Prabang, a scenic and sacred town in Laos, is situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and is known for its numerous stunning monasteries and temples.

Thai monks walking on flower petals

What qualifications do I need to teach? 

Unlike traditional teaching overseas, this type of volunteering does not require a TESOL or TEFL certificate (although it certainly does not hurt, in fact, it can only help).

Regardless if you are certified, some of the most important qualities to have as an ESL teacher for monks is creativity for coming up with different lesson plans, an unlimited supply of patience, and a positive attitude for helping students overcome educational and personal obstacles in the classroom. Most importantly, you should be open to incorporating the traditions of Buddhism into your everyday lessons. For starters, that cultural reference to the Kardashians may not fly so well with your monk students. Focus less on the external, more on the internal om. Incorporate the Buddhist philosophies of “letting go” and the impermanence of things; meeting your students where they’re at will allow for more investment from their end and a richer learning experience on your end, too.

Depending on how comfortable you feel teaching, you can have the option of assisting a teacher with a class or be in charge of one by yourself. Although English is the main subject that you will be teaching, there are opportunities to teach other subjects as well, like art.  

Monastery schools generally have fewer resources and may not provide you with classroom materials, so it is important to come prepared and even bring a few items from home that will be useful in the classroom (print-outs, games, props). Bring with you souvenirs that represent your home. Monks and nuns may spend most of their time in an isolated environment, but that does not mean they are not curious about the world beyond their monastery's door.

Also, take note that although students will all be boys, this is not a boys-only club and women are encouraged to volunteer as well. 

How hard will it be to adjust to this new environment?

In our everyday lives, our heads are buzzing with a million different distractions, and now thanks to technology (I’m looking at you social media) it can be harder now than ever to know when to turn your mind off. Going from the rat race of the outside world to a Buddhist monastery is definitely a transition. In Buddhism, simplicity is encouraged in the community and so it’s crucial to learn to slow things wa-a-ay down. Unlike most students, monks tend to not care about how many people liked their latest Instagram post or tweet, although they are not against sharing the occasional snap!

Buddhist Monk looking at a mountain landscape

It can be hard to adjust to at first, but the feeling of not having to constantly be doing several things at once quickly becomes a relief. Soon you will ask yourself why can’t we all live this way? Instead of virtual messaging you will have actual conversations! Mind blown. Best of all, taking away those pesky distractions allows you to focus better on why you are here in the first place: to teach, to help others.

Do I need to participate in the religious aspects of the school?

Daily praying and meditation with your students will become the new norm. Are you curious about Buddhism, but want to take it bit by bit? Maybe you have unwelcomed flashbacks to Catholic school mass where it was a requirement to attend. Fortunately, monks are more go-with-the-flow kind of guys and it’s perfectly fine to quietly observe from the sidelines.

Remember being a teacher does not make you obligated to participate in the religious aspects of the school. It’s your personal preference and any choice is fine as long as you are respectful of their traditions. The students and other teachers understand that you are there as a visitor with a different set of beliefs, and will not be offended if you choose to just watch during daily prayers.

Of course if you want to participate, do not feel too shy to jump right in! Just make sure that you understand the proper etiquette so you do not accidentally make a prayer faux pas in front of the whole school.

What will daily life look like?

After morning announcements and prayers, classes usually start around 8:00 a.m. and continue until lunchtime. One of the best perks of teaching at a monastery is having a delicious home-cooked meal to look forward to in-between classes. Buddhist monks are all vegetarian, so any cravings for a steak will have to wait. In honor of Buddhist tradition, some monasteries do not allow certain vegetables like those with roots (since it’s considered killing a plant) and certain spices (those that tend to excited the senses) on their daily menus.

After lunch, there are usually prayers, and then the afternoon classes commence. Volunteer teachers usually work 15-20 hours a week and after class are free (and encouraged) to go out and explore their new city or town. From sampling delicious street food to exploring the beautiful temples, there will be plenty of activities to help immerse yourself into your new culture.

Monk in the desert

How much will it all cost?

Ah, the dreaded financial question. Paying a program to volunteer may seem counterintuitive, but you are essentially paying for midday meals, in-country orientation and support, some included local excursions, and support for the monastery. It is helpful to have this safety net when you are volunteering in a new country and know that you can always contact someone locally if you are in trouble. Program providers, such as Love Volunteers, GVI, and ELI, will take good care of you while volunteering with Monks abroad.

Some of the things that are often not included in program fees are: plane tickets, transportation, travel insurance, evening meals, and the criminal background check that is required for this project. For the programs that cost more, accommodations are included in a shared guesthouse on the property, but for the less expensive ones this is not always the case and you are on your own for housing.

Volunteering in a Buddhist monastery is a unique teaching experience, where you will be able to gain firsthand insight about a culture that often remains a mystery for those on the outside. It may seem intimidating at first, but once you take the leap you’ll never look back. As the old Chinese proverb says, “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.”